Cabrera has MVP edge on Hamilton

If a conversation is dragging, but you’re not quite bold enough to ask an acquaintance for his or her political affiliation, I would recommend the following:

So, who’s the MVP?

Lincoln-Douglas had nothing on DiMaggio-Williams. Such debates began long before sabermetrics and the Internet. Now fans can analyze deeper and argue longer. That’s good. Usually.

But at this crucial moment — ballots due in two weeks — I would like to issue the following reminders:

• The Baseball Writers’ Association of America, which presents the award, has had the same MVP voting criteria since the first ballot in 1931.

• BABIP, VORP and WAR were not, are not, and probably never will be part of said criteria.

That’s not to trivialize the work of sabermetricians, who have educated fans and made/saved millions for clued-in organizations. I consult these advanced metrics myself.

BBWAA voters should indeed consider sabermetric data in making award selections.

But only to a point.

Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton leads all major leaguers in WAR (Wins Above Replacement), according to FanGraphs.com. But that doesn’t make him the American League MVP — particularly when another candidate, Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, is a better match for the actual criteria.

Yes, contrary to what you may have heard, the BBWAA has real, tangible rules for MVP elections.

There will be 28 ballots cast for the AL MVP award — two each from the 14 league cities. Voters are asked to consider five criteria:

1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.

2. Number of games played.

3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.

4. Former winners are eligible.

5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

The final three points aren’t crucial to this year’s AL vote. Cabrera and Hamilton previously admitted to substance abuse that affected their lives/careers in the past. But those revelations came prior to 2010. So, at this point, both of them meet the “intangibles” in item No. 3.

That leaves two key issues: actual value to the team and number of games played.

The BBWAA, of which I am a member, acknowledges that the definition of “value” is subjective. Each individual voter must decide. And while I am not part of the MVP electorate this year, I believe a player’s “value” is best defined as how difficult he would be for the team to replace.

How good would the Rangers be without Hamilton? In a sense, we already have the answer. Texas is 70-60 when he plays and 13-7 when he is absent.

Yes, the Rangers actually have a higher winning percentage when Hamilton doesn’t play.

It would be absurd to suggest they are better off without the probable AL batting champion. And sure, it’s a small sample size. But it also blunts the argument that the Rangers would become also-rans if it weren’t for him. When Hamilton is hurt, manager Ron Washington can summon David Murphy, who would be a full-time player on many other teams.

By comparison, how good would the Tigers be if they didn’t have their MVP candidate?

In the words of one scout I spoke with on Tuesday: “Without Cabrera, Detroit might be picking first in next year’s draft.”

I’m not sure I’d go that far. But I understand the point.

Texas has four players with at least 70 RBIs: Vladimir Guerrero (107), Hamilton (97), Michael Young (85) and Nelson Cruz (75).

Detroit has one: Cabrera. He leads the league with 120.

Texas has four players with at least 15 home runs: Hamilton (31), Guerrero (27), Cruz (21) and Young (20).

Detroit has one: Cabrera. He is third in the league with 35.

Take away Hamilton, and the Rangers still have a very good lineup.

Take away Cabrera, and Ryan Raburn is the potential cleanup man.

Is Hamilton a better defender than Cabrera? Of course. He also plays a more demanding position. But we have to ask ourselves: How often is Hamilton’s value evident on the defensive side of the ball?

That’s where the “number of games played” clause — as stipulated in the voting instructions — enters into play.

Hamilton has started 114 games in the outfield this season. It’s possible that he won’t play in the field again this year, because of broken ribs that have kept him out of action since Sept. 4.

If that proves to be the case, Hamilton will have contributed on defense in only about three-quarters of the Rangers’ games.

In a sport where remaining on the field is both a skill and virtue, Cabrera has had the healthier season. He missed six games this year and served as the designated hitter in two more. Aside from that, he has been at first base every day. He started there for the 143rd time on Tuesday night.

Soon, there will be a discrepancy of more than 30 defensive starts.

It’s impossible to control variables between two players and two teams, but two more considerations point to Cabrera having greater overall value:

Respective home stadiums: Rangers Ballpark is hitter-friendly. Comerica Park is not. So, check the road OPS for each player: .894 for Hamilton, 1.016 for Cabrera. That’s not an accident.

Lineup protection: Because of injuries to Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen, the Tigers have started eight different players in the No. 5 spot. The result: Cabrera has been walked intentionally 30 times, four behind Ted Williams’ AL record. How many quality pitches would Cabrera have seen if the Tigers had an intimidating bat behind him? Hamilton, meanwhile, has had protection from Guerrero or Cruz for most of the year.

Cabrera should win. He’s been the most valuable player — lowercase and uppercase — in the AL this year. But it won’t be easy for him. While there have been recent exceptions (Albert Pujols in 2008, Ryan Howard in 2006), voters usually prefer postseason-bound candidates.

Cabrera himself understands that. He said he won’t be disappointed if someone else wins the award.

“This is about winning games,” he said Tuesday. “When you’re winning games, when you’re in first place, everything good happens — like the MVP.”

That’s why Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano may yet interrupt what has been viewed as a two-man race.

Cano has been the best all-around player on the team with the most wins in the majors. He’s hitting better than .320, already has more than 100 RBIs, and plays Gold Glove-caliber defense. It’s easy to argue that he belongs in the final discussion with Cabrera and Hamilton.

But if you really consider the criteria — as set by the BBWAA, not sabermetricians — Cabrera is the choice.

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