When it is time for baseball writers to turn in their ballots next week for the American League Most Valuable Player Award, their choice might say as much about the voters themselves as it will the candidates.
This is one of those "What is the role of government," "Do you believe in a woman’s right to choose?," "Where do you stand on gun control?" elections.
It is Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera. But in the world of baseball, it is really red state versus blue state.
Trout and Cabrera, each putting the finishing touches on exceptional seasons, do not feel like candidates as much as they feel like answers to a litmus test.
And in baseball, there are few topics that get under the skin of traditionalists or set sabermetricians off on a sanctimonious screed than questions about the value of advanced statistical analysis.
If the success of the book chronicling the “Moneyball” Oakland Athletics a decade ago pushed new statistics into the mainstream, there is still a line of demarcation between the true believers and those who still insist their eyes do not deceive them.
Cabrera is poised to win the Triple Crown. The Detroit Tigers third baseman began the week leading the league in batting average (.331), runs batted in (133) and home runs (his 42 are tied with the sidelined Josh Hamilton). If Cabrera does sweep those titles, it would be an extraordinary accomplishment — something that has not been done since Carl Yastrzemski did in 1967.
And yet, if you believe that there are better measures of a player’s value beyond the traditional statistical categories, there is a compelling case to be made for Trout.
The most common one is WAR, an acronym for wins above replacement, a formula that aims to calculate how many wins a player might contribute to a team if he replaces an average player off their bench.
Trout, the Los Angeles Angels center fielder who is baseball’s current poster boy for the five-tool player, is blowing the rest of baseball away with 10.4 wins above replacement. Cabrera is tied for second with a distant 6.8, tied with his own teammate, pitcher Justin Verlander, and Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutcheon. Baseball-reference.com describes anyone with an 8-plus rating as being MVP-caliber.
But what goes into WAR is a little fuzzy. In fact, there is more than one metric. Not only does baseball-reference.com have one, but so does another site, FanGraphs.com. They take a host of numbers like FIP, fielding independent pitching, that is calculated as 13HR + 3BB + 2K/IP and use them to determine a players contribution hitting, fielding, running and throwing.
Asked if he knew how to calculate WAR, Trout said: “Uh, no.”
Good thing for Trout that hitting a major league fastball is easier than graduate level math.
Yet the point is that there are more subtle — and extremely valuable — ways in which a player can influence a game.
That was clear Sunday in the Angels’ 4-1 victory over the Chicago White Sox.
Much of the attention afterward centered around Jered Weaver, who improved his record to 19-4 and continued to deliver when the Angels need him most, and Albert Pujols, the obscenely well-compensated slugger who broke the 100-RBI mark for the 11th time in his 12 big-league seasons.
Trout did not have a hit, struck out twice and meekly grounded out on a 3-0 pitch. But when he arrived at the plate with one out in the sixth inning of a scoreless duel between Gavin Floyd of the White Sox and Weaver, he emphatically altered the course of the game.
Trout fell behind 1-2, fouling off a cut fastball over the outside part of the plate, where Floyd had successful pitched him all day. Trout next laid off a high fastball, then two more cutters that were off the outside edge, drawing a walk.
Trout, who has stolen 46 bases in 50 attempts, bolted for second on next pitch, which not coincidentally was a belt-high cutter. Torii Hunter, an eager fastball hitter, ripped the pitch into left field, and Trout dove into third base. Pujols followed with a two-run double and Kendrys Morales a two-run homer, and the Angels were on their way to a 4-1 victory.
“With Trout over there, I knew I was going to get something hard, and I did,” Hunter said.
Talking with Chicago’s Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski, and the Angels’ C.J. Wilson and Hunter, it becomes clear how hard it is to separate the two. They regard Cabrera, not much of a third baseman, as baseball’s most dangerous hitter. But Trout can win games when he is not in the batters box, taking home runs away.
Hunter, if he had a vote, is not sure he would vote for either one. He would be inclined to vote for Adrian Beltre.
“Why did Michael Jordan win all those MVPs?” Hunter said. “Because his team won.”
Cabrera and Trout each have a little more than a week to change that. The Tigers entered the week trailing the White Sox by a game in the Central, and the Angels are 2.5 games behind Oakland for the final wild-card berth. If one gets in and the other does not, it will probably be the difference.
If not, the voters will have to look to another set of numbers to decide. Which ones they do will tell us who the winner is — and not just Cabrera or Trout.