It’s doubtful there has ever been an MVP race quite like this one.
At times, the debate seemed less about Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout and more about the different statistical ways their 2012 seasons were evaluated — the Triple Crown vs. WAR; old-school thinking vs. new-age analysis.
In the end, the voters from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America opted for the time-tested bar that placed a premium on winning a batting, home run and RBI title, naming the Detroit Tigers’ Cabrera the American League MVP. And you can’t blame them for that.
Trout’s season for the L.A. Angels was brilliant, but it might have been obscured by sabermatricians who scolded fans and baseball writers for not appreciating or fully understanding their well-reasoned calculations.
Regardless of WAR, Trout should have been recognized for becoming the first major league player ever to hit 30 home runs, steal 45 bases and score 125 runs in a season. Or the first to bat .320 or higher with 30 homers and 45 stolen bases.
But it was WAR (Wins Against Replacement) that became the definitive statistic of measurement for baseball geeks — a formula that places a value on a player’s contribution to his team based on hitting, base running and fielding. It is said to compare a player against a replacement player, presumably a 25th man or Triple-A player. Trout’s was 10.7, Cabrera’s 6.9.
Figuring out WAR is a little like comprehending a quarterback’s passer rating — the average fan can’t do it. You have to trust that the numbers you’re seeing are the right ones, and that they have meaning.
The Triple Crown, on the other hand, can be understood by a Little Leaguer. You lead the league in hitting, home runs and RBI and the title is yours. A lot more goes into playing the game — defense and base running, for instance — but most hitters of Cabrera’s stature will tell you their primary job is driving in runs.
The Triple Crown is a hallowed achievement, like hitting 60 homers used to be in the pre-steroid era. Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown. So did Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig. You don’t need a WAR calculation to know how good those players were.
Trout probably was a better all-around player. His speed was so imposing he forced infielders to rush their throws to first base, even on routine grounders. He scored from second base on singles to left field — left field! — at least twice. He chased down fly balls to the gap and made leaping catches at the wall to steal home runs. Incredible stuff.
But voters were likely swayed by Cabrera’s hot final month in which his Tigers chased down the slumping Chicago White Sox to win the AL Central. The Angels stayed close in the West but weren’t able to catch the surging Oakland A’s. Their season may have been undone by their horrible April — when Trout was still in the minors.
Cabrera also led the American League in total bases, extra-base hits, slugging and another newly recognized stat, OPS — on-base plus slugging.
The race between Cabrera and Trout, it turns out, wasn’t even close. Cabrera received 22 of 28 first-place votes by baseball writers, with Trout receiving the other six. Inexplicably, one voter placed Trout third on his ballot behind Cabrera and Adrian Beltre of the Texas Rangers.
Even Cabrera said he thought the balloting would be tighter.
“I thought it was going to be a little close because Trout do a very good job and had an unbelievable season,” Cabrera said on a conference call. “I was not expecting to win.”
But old-school thinking won out, at least this time. It doesn’t diminish what Trout did — in fact, it’s probably an indication the best is still to come. But this season, the Triple Crown held more weight.