One year later, here we are again: Miguel Cabrera defeated Mike Trout for the American League Most Valuable Player award, and you want to know why the Baseball Writers’ Association of America voted as it did.
In 2013, as in 2012, the question was not whether Cabrera or Trout deserved the honor. They both did. The issue, instead, was how each voter defined “value.” The official voting criteria empower us to choose the meaning of “value” for ourselves. Based on my interpretation, as one of the 28 BBWAA voters for this award, I ranked Cabrera first and Trout second.
Statistically, did Trout have the superior all-around season? Yes, he did. Trout is a better defender than Cabrera, and he adds value through his baserunning. But MVP voters aren’t asked to fill out our ballots based on raw numbers. We must consider the context of each candidate’s performance. We are supposed to weigh the “value of a player to his team,” as the instructions suggest. And I believe a player is most valuable to his team when he helps it win.
In the baseball industry and among fans, team wins dominate – as they should. Boston hosted a duck boat parade for the Red Sox when they won the World Series. I’m still waiting for the first civic rally to honor an individual OPS title.
I’m familiar with the oft-repeated counterargument from the Trout camp: How can you penalize Trout for playing on the third-place Angels because Cabrera won a division title with the Tigers? I’m actually sympathetic to that perspective, and I agree that it’s not entirely fair to Trout that his candidacy was harmed by the Angels’ poor rotation.
But let’s look at the inverse. Say Trout had won, and you needed to tell Cabrera why. What would you say?
Well, Miguel, I know Trout didn’t play a truly meaningful game for his team’s playoff chances after June – and as a result faced considerably less pressure than you. I realize you performed 475 OPS points better than him in high-leverage situations (1.188 to .713, according to Baseball-Reference.com). I understand that you played through an abdominal/groin injury during the final two months because you felt you owed it to your teammates and fans. Your presence in the lineup helped No. 2 hitter Torii Hunter have a Silver Slugger season after turning 38, afforded Victor Martinez time to settle in after missing 2012 with a knee injury and masked a disappointing year for Prince Fielder. You fulfilled your regular-season obligation to the Tigers by carrying them to the playoffs.
Despite all of that, we have to give the MVP to Trout. His team could have finished where it did – below .500, ahead of the Mariners and Astros – without him. But he had the better WAR. Sorry.
How fair is that?
Trout’s performance was exceptional. But what was the true value of it? In August, while a gimpy Cabrera won AL Player of the Month honors and moved the Tigers to within range of a division title, Trout amassed an OPS of 1.090 and hit six home runs. He swiped six bases and finished with more walks than strikeouts. It was another crowd-pleasing display of Trout’s breathtaking ability.
But what impact did that month’s .590 slugging percentage have on the Angels’ 2013 season? It carried some significance, surely. It had value. But was it the most valuable? In my estimation, no. That distinction belonged to the man whose ability to play at an elite level, through pain, made certain his team sprayed champagne as AL Central champions for a third consecutive year.