Cabrera or Trout for AL MVP is a tough call - NBC Sports

Cabrera or Trout for AL MVP is a tough call
Tigers star not a lock for award - even if he's first to win Triple Crown since '67
September 28, 2012, 12:09 am

1) Despite what we're hearing from both extremes, this is not an easy call.

There are possible scenarios for the final week of the regular season that would leave logical arguments for either player as the winner.

What we have here are two players in the midst of seasons of great historical significance. Both also happen to play for similarly underachieving teams whose post-season fates won't be determined until the final days of the regular season, so there's no edge there - yet.

Still, Tigers manager Jim Leyland was quoted in the Detroit Free Press last week as saying, 'it would blow my mind' if Cabrera isn't the winner.

"In this case, I'm not being partial,'' Leyland added. "I don't have to lobby. It's right there in front of everybody.''

And at the other end of the spectrum, the sabermetrics crowd paints a statistical argument that convincingly tilts the scale to Trout. To them, this is a no-brainer - Triple Crown and playoff implications be damned.

But much like political debates these days, where the extreme edges see only one right way, the truth lies somewhere in the middle here. And the fact is, it's going to be very tough for either player to finish second.

You don't need sabermetrics to know Trout is the best true five-tool player in the game this season, the best we've seen since a young Ken Griffey Jr. The advantages he holds over Cabrera in defense and base-running are immense. But is that enough to overcome Cabrera's advantage in the power numbers?

2) Which brings us to this: Winning the Triple Crown does NOT guarantee an MVP award.

Not even close. In fact, history puts it as only a 60-40 proposition.

That's right, only six of the last 10 Triple Crown winners also were their league's MVP. (There was no MVP award to win for the first five Triple Crown winners).

The last three Triple Crown winners - Carl Yastrzemski (1967), Frank Robinson (1966), Mickey Mantle (1956) - also were AL MVPs. All three played for pennant winners, making the MVP vote an easy call. Robinson and Mantle got all the first-place votes; Yaz missed by one.

In 1947, the Sox finished 14 games behind the Yankees, who just so happened to get a 56-game hitting streak from Joe DiMaggio - the MVP winner by one point. The 1942 AL MVP voting went further to support the notion that voters either didn't like Williams much, or really took seriously the idea of an MVP playing for a pennant winner.

Williams absolutely dominated all three Triple Crown categories, and was the clear Wins Above Replacement (WAR) leader. Yet the pennant-winning Yankees' Joe Gordon got 12 first-place votes to Williams' nine, and won the MVP election.

The other Triple Crown winners who weren't MVPs were Lou Gehrig in 1934 and Chuck Klein in 1933. The latter's MVP snub is easier to understand, as Klein's Phillies finished 60-92 while the pennant-winning Giants were led by MVP Carl Hubbell, who won 23 games and posted a 1.66 ERA.

But the 1934 AL MVP voting is among the most-curious ever, as Gehrig finished fifth despite the Triple Crown and league-leading 1.172 OPS and 10.1 WAR total. The winner: Mickey Cochrane, catcher for the pennant-winning Tigers, who hit .320 with two homers, 76 RBI, .840 OPS and 3.7 WAR total - not even the best on his team behind Charlie Gehringer.

3. Speaking of WAR, this could be the MVP debate that puts the metric on the mainstream map to stay.

Mainly because the argument for Trout lies primarily in his huge lead in the category.

Simply put, WAR is the best measure we have of a player's total value - with the bat, in the field and on the bases - boiled down to an estimation of how many wins that player adds to his team's total above what a replacement player (or one with absolute minimum every-day production at that position) would provide.

If Trout wins the MVP, it could have the same long-term effect as did Felix Hernandez's win in the 2010 Cy Young Award voting despite a 13-12 record. And if Trout wins the MVP despite a Cabrera Triple Crown, then we really will have a seismic shift in voters' minds on how to best evaluate a player's ability and value.

Be sure that front offices are making huge financial decisions with the help of WAR and other advanced metrics - even as they balance that with what is seen by scouts who have spent their whole adult lives watching the game, and opinions of the people who play and coach it.

But one problem the WAR statistic has in gaining further credibility is that it's calculated two different ways by the two primary sites tracking it - Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com Uniformity would go a long way to increasing its perceived accuracy, it says here.

What does history say about Triple Crown winners and WAR totals? Curiously, every Triple Crown winner has lead the league in WAR, most by wide margins. However, Cabrera does not, and even trails teammate Justin Verlander and Robinson Cano in the Baseball-Reference.com rankings, far behind Trout.

Ultimately, 28 BBWAA voters - two from each AL city - will cast ballots before the start of the playoffs. And the Triple Crown race and postseason fates of both teams will be factors.

Remove those, and Trout's chances increase dramatically. But if the Tigers win the AL Central, the Angels can't sneak into a wild-card spot and Cabrera puts a Triple Crown atop his season (or maybe even misses by a homer), you can expect many voters to go Cabrera 1, Trout 2 - no matter the Trout-was-robbed arguments you'll read.

Otherwise, the MVP should go to Trout.



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