How to Make an AL MVP Case for Miguel Cabrera

Like so:

Mike Trout has had an incredible season, particularly considering his age, but in terms of overall value, Cabrera edges him out. Entering today, Cabrera has recorded 67 more plate appearances than Trout, a not-insignificant gap. Their on-base percentages are effectively equal, and Cabrera has a 58 point edge in slugging percentage.

Trout advocates give him a positional and defensive edge to make up for this, or do so indirectly in the form of Wins Above Replacement, but consider this: in the 2011 and 2012 seasons, third base has become a more difficult position at which to find offense than center field. In both seasons, OPS from the center field position has outstripped that of third base by at least 28 points. And Trout, it should be noted, has logged almost a third of his defensive innings at corner outfield positions of decidedly less value than third.

While defensive metrics indicate a wide gap between their respective abilities, the unreliability of single-season defensive measures is well documented. For human-charted metrics, the natural tendency to chart the ball closer to the only visible landmark (the fielder) than it actually is significantly penalizes infielders like Cabrera, making it appear that they should’ve made more plays than were actually possible. And the distorting effect that something like an infield shift can have on other metrics has been amply demonstrated by Brett Lawrie.

This is not to even mention the question of how heavily defense should be weighed in things like WAR; to suggest that Trout’s defense alone makes him 2.5 wins better than the average fielder, as his rField value would imply, stretches credibility severely. Given all of this information, it’s hardly a given that Trout’s defensive abilities can overcome the advantage that Cabrera has by virtue of providing slightly better offense over substantially more plate appearances.

Notice I did not:

  • Cite the Triple Crown as if it were anything more than a category-based novelty
  • Allude to monthly splits or September performance when discussing an award predicated on overall value
  • Point to Cabrera’s achievements in other seasons as support for his case in winning an award that is handed out every season, for that season’s performance. 
  • Try to distract the audience from the most reliable and simple measures of hitter performance by stringing together peripheral numbers to construct meaningless narratives like “most-feared” or “matters most”
  • Bring up the performance of either player’s team

I don’t find the case above convincing at all. I think it falls far short of robustness actually. To me, Mike Trout is the obvious AL MVP in 2012. But I’d much rather hear the above case for Cabrera than the others being made, because it’s reasonably intellectually honest, straightforward, and doesn’t recast this whole thing as another interminable old stats vs. new stats, traditional vs. advanced showdown. Which is what is going to happen. Somebody fucking kill me.