Triple Crown or Trout? AL MVP debate a hot topic

Miguel Cabrera has his Triple Crown. MVP award, maybe not.

Hold on, now. How could that be?

Mike Trout, that’s how.

It’s the hottest debate in baseball, seemingly pitting

old-school traditionalists against new-age number crunchers in a

bench-clearing shouting match over what constitutes

”valuable.”

At stake is the American League’s Most Valuable Player award,

perhaps the game’s top individual prize.

Cabrera capped an extraordinary season Wednesday night by

becoming the first Triple Crown winner in the majors since Boston’s

Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. The Detroit Tigers’ slugger led the

league with a .330 batting average, 44 homers and 139 RBIs – the

standard statistical categories by which excellence was commonly

judged for the better part of the past century.

”If he’s not the MVP then there’s no such thing,” Tigers

manager Jim Leyland said.

Trout, however, made some history of his own. Called up from the

minors three weeks into the season, the Los Angeles Angels’ rookie

quickly became a never-before-seen force prior to his 21st

birthday.

Possessing a unique combination of skills in the concrete body

of a running back, the dynamic kid from New Jersey did it all –

hitting home runs and taking them away with highlight-reel catches

high above the center-field fence.

Trout batted .326, second to Cabrera, with 30 homers and 83

RBIs. He also led the majors with 49 stolen bases (in 54 attempts)

and 129 runs – 20 more than Cabrera in 22 fewer games. The slumping

Angels were 6-14 when they brought up Trout and went 83-59 the rest

of the way.

The first big league rookie to reach 30 homers and 40 steals in

one season and the youngest player with a 30-30 campaign, Trout

struck out 41 more times than Cabrera but committed only four

errors in the outfield. Cabrera had 13 errors after unselfishly

switching back to third base when the Tigers signed first baseman

Prince Fielder last winter.

”Divide it in half,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. ”They

both had sensational years.”

That would be too easy. The hard part is making a pick.

For anyone who thought winning the Triple Crown would

automatically anoint Cabrera the MVP, take note of this: There have

been nine Triple Crown seasons since the MVP award was introduced

for each league in 1931. Four times, the Triple Crown winner was

beaten out for MVP by a player on a pennant winner.

Chuck Klein of the Philadelphia Phillies lost to New York Giants

pitcher Carl Hubbell in 1933. Yankees slugger Lou Gehrig was topped

by Detroit catcher Mickey Cochrane the following year. And then

Boston’s Ted Williams, unpopular with certain writers, fell short

to Yankees second baseman Joe Gordon (1942) and center fielder Joe

DiMaggio (1947).

At the center of the argument this year is a modern calculation

called WAR (Wins Above Replacement), a figure derived from an

assortment of other stats. WAR is designed to go deeper than the

conventional numbers in measuring a player’s all-around

contribution to team success.

A worthwhile endeavor for sure, though some think the formula is

flawed.

Leyland, for example, bemoaned that WAR doesn’t emphasize RBIs

enough. Others believe it’s the most complete and accurate

appraisal of a player’s true value.

Trout finished with a WAR number of 10.7, best in the majors,

according to baseball-reference.com. Cabrera was at 6.9, fourth in

the American League.

The discrepancy is almost ironic, considering how the debate

sometimes falls along generational lines. Trout’s sizable

advantage, of course, is a result of his vastly superior defense

and baserunning – both traditional fundamentals long held in high

regard by baseball’s old guard.

With reporters everywhere asking for opinions as Cabrera chased

the Triple Crown, it seemed most managers and players favored

Cabrera for MVP. Front-office types often pointed to Trout. Tigers

teammates wore T-shirts touting their guy.

In the end, the only people with the power to decide it are the

28 members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America who have

a vote. And if recent history holds a clue, they might lean toward

Cabrera more because he powered the Tigers to an AL Central title

than the fact that he ended the longest Triple Crown drought in

baseball history.

”The Triple Crown is obviously a historic achievement, but

whether Cabrera gets it or not shouldn’t impact his standing in the

MVP race,” Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News, who has an AL

MVP vote, said early this week.

”The fact that he’s led the Tigers to the postseason with a

monster September should make him a slight favorite over Trout,

though Trout will certainly still have plenty of support for his

incredible year. I think Detroit’s late-season surge will be a

bigger factor if Cabrera wins the MVP than his run at the Triple

Crown.”

Trout’s team made a second-half charge but missed the playoffs

and finished third in the AL West. Still, the Angels’ final record

was one game better than Detroit’s.

And while Cabrera merits credit for leading his club to the

playoffs, it seems unfair to punish Trout for simply playing in a

tougher division.

That may not matter to voters, though.

Setting aside the strike-shortened season of 1994 when the

postseason was canceled, the only time in the last 20 years that

the AL MVP didn’t come from a playoff team was 2003, when Alex

Rodriguez won with the last-place Texas Rangers.

The trend hasn’t been as consistent in the National League, but

the point remains valid.

What’s most amazing is this: After fans waited 45 years to see a

Triple Crown winner, there’s a legitimate argument about whether

that player deserves the MVP award – even though Cabrera all but

carried his team into the playoffs.

Never imagined that could happen.

That’s how good Trout has been. And that’s how far sabermetrics

have come.

”I don’t know, man. It’s a good race,” Cabrera said.

Expect him to win when balloting is announced in November. But

the pick here is Trout, by a tiny sliver. He does everything well,

no flaws in his game.

What’s more valuable than that?

A look at the other big awards:

NL MVP: Worthy contenders include Cardinals catcher Yadier

Molina, Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen and Milwaukee

slugger Ryan Braun, last year’s winner. The nod goes to Giants

catcher and NL batting champion Buster Posey, who turned it on in

the second half with All-Star teammate Melky Cabrera suspended for

a positive drug test.

AL Cy Young: Another close call. This one goes to Tampa Bay

lefty David Price, who barely beats out reigning MVP and Cy Young

winner Justin Verlander in part because of the stiffer competition

Price faces in the AL East. Rays closer Fernando Rodney is

third.

NL Cy Young: One more milestone in the feel-good story that is

R.A. Dickey’s winding road to stardom with the New York Mets.

Dickey becomes the first knuckleballer to win a Cy Young Award, a

thrill he would share with all his ol’ mentors: Phil Niekro, Tim

Wakefield, Charlie Hough and the rest. Nationals ace Gio Gonzalez

comes in second and Braves closer Craig Kimbrel third.

AL Rookie of the Year: If not for Trout, this would be an

interesting race featuring Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes of the

Oakland Athletics and Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish from the Texas

Rangers. Trout is a runaway, though.

NL Rookie of the Year: It’s not just hype. A big September

carries teenage phenom Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals

past Arizona pitcher Wade Miley and Cincinnati slugger Todd

Frazier.

AL Manager of the Year: Bob Melvin in Oakland edges Baltimore’s

Buck Showalter. Both did an incredible job.

NL Manager of the Year: Davey Johnson, Washington Nationals.

AP Sports Writers Ronald Blum and Dave Skretta contributed to

this report.