Like quarter after 3am ET
Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, and Measuring Value.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
It’s that time of year again – with just a few weeks left in the season, baseball writers are turning their focus to the postseason awards, and as usual, the MVP races are the ones that are going to get the most attention. In the NL, the conversation is mostly about finding ways to make sure that Ryan Braun doesn’t win his second straight trophy, with Buster Posey stepping up to provide BBWAA members the out that they so desperately want. Over in the AL, there hasn’t been as much discussion for most of the summer, as Mike Trout has been running laps around the rest of the contenders, making it hard to put together any kind of realistic argument for a non-Trout candidate.
However, Miguel Cabrera is having a monstrous September, hitting .373/.426/.797 over the last couple of weeks, and now that he’s taken the lead in both batting average and runs batted, the talk of a potential “triple crown” has breathed life into his candidacy. Jon Morosi went so far as to call the decision to give Cabrera the award “a formality” and say that it’s “obvious” that Cabrera is the right choice. Instead of engaging in a hyperbole-off, however, let’s actually investigate the actual differences between them this season and see whether the case for Cabrera actually stands up to logic and reason.
Thanks to the custom leaderboards, it’s easy to put Trout and Cabrera’s season lines right next to each other for easy comparison. So, let’s just go through and look at the actual differences between what they’ve done this year, starting with their overall performances at the plate in the basic counting statistics.
Plate Appearances: Cabrera, +60
Singles: Cabrera, +2
Doubles: Cabrera, +14
Triples: Trout, +6
Home Runs: Cabrera, +13
Walks + Hit By Pitch: Cabrera, +1
Ground Into Double Plays: Cabrera, +21
Total Bases: Cabrera, +64
Outs Made: Cabrera, +54
Because Trout got called up to the Majors at the end of April, Cabrera has played in 21 additional games, so most of the counting stats go in his favor. And, Morosi has a legitimate point when he talks about number of games played, as we can’t simply ignore the fact that Cabrera has played an additional three weeks worth of games, creating value for his team in the process.
However, that last category is the one that never gets mentioned, but is perhaps the one that speaks the loudest out of all of them. Cabrera’s additional playing time has earned him an additional 60 trips to the plate, but in those 60 extra plate appearances, he’s made 54 extra outs. If we’re going to depend on counting stats to measure the difference in value from a quantity standpoint, we cannot ignore the fact that Cabrera’s propensity for hitting into double plays — he leads the American League with 28 GIDPs — has had a significant negative impact on the Tigers offense. We cannot simply count up the number of additional positive benefits that the Tigers have gotten from Cabrera’s playing time advantage without also accounting for the negatives.
Of course, comparing double plays grounded into between a leadoff hitter and a clean-up guy isn’t apples for apples, since Cabrera comes up with men on base far more frequently. Cabrera is first in GIDPs in large part because he’s second in GIDP opportunities — only Robinson Cano, with 144 chances to hit into a double play this year, has had more GIDP opps — and Cabrera’s 138 GIDP opportunities is nearly double Trout’s 75, which is a natural byproduct of their positions in the batting order. We shouldn’t just hold Cabrera’s extra GIDP outs against him without adjusting for the context of his quantity of chances.
But, of course, that’s exactly what the argument for Cabrera wants you to do with RBIs. Ignore context, ignore opportunity, and just focus on the fact that Cabrera has driven in 52 more runs than Trout has. If you’re going to quote Cabrera’s RBI advantage, you must also quote his massive disadvantage in GIDPs – they are the fruit of the same tree. The more intellectually honest way to measure this value is through looking at both GIDPs and RBIs as a function of plate appearances where those results were made possible by the actions of the people batting in front of both players, but if you’re not going to do that with RBIs, then you have to count the full weight of Cabrera’s extra outs against him.
If you’d rather actually adjust for those opportunity differences, however, we should probably note that Cabrera has had 415 baserunners when he’s batted this year, compared to just 274 for Trout. Cabrera has driven in 52 additional runs while having an extra 141 guys on base because of where he hits in the line-up. If we look at runs driven in as a percentage of total men on base when both men hit, we see that Cabrera has driven in 31% of his total baserunners, while Trout is at 28% – both way above the league average of 15%, and a difference much smaller than raw RBI totals would lead you to believe.
There’s really two choices here – ignore opportunities and give Cabrera credit for driving in many more runs while also penalizing him for creating many more outs, or adjust for opportunity and realize that Cabrera hasn’t actually been that much better than Trout at bringing his teammates home once they get on base. And, of course, none of this accounts for anything that happens after the two of them leave the batters box, or the value of the extra runs that Trout creates with his legs.
Left out of the net difference table above were things like stolen bases and other runner advancements, but of course those have value, and even the staunchest Cabrera supporter should admit that Trout should get some credit for the value of his speed. So, let’s look at the net differences in things that have to do with baserunning.
Stolen Bases: Trout, +42
Caught Stealing: Trout, +3
Other Outs Made On Base: Cabrera, +2
First to Third on a Single: Trout, +13
Second to Home on a Single: Trout, +5
This is Trout in a landslide, as you’d expect. Not only has Trout put himself in scoring position far more often by stealing second base, he’s also scored more often when opponents have gotten hits and he’s been on base. The fact that Trout has 18 additional runs scored despite playing in those 21 fewer games shows the magnitude of the difference that baserunning can make, and it’s of course silly to only consider runs created with the bat and ignore those with the legs. Trout has scored 45% of the times he’s been on base — easily the highest of any regular in the AL — compared to a league average of just 31% and Cabrera’s 28% total. Yes, some of that is having Albert Pujols hit behind him, but of course Prince Fielder hits behind Cabrera, mitigating the argument that run scored percentage is solely a function of the guy hitting behind you.
So, again, we see Cabrera’s offensive advantage dwindling here. We know that his RBI difference is mostly a function of the additional baserunners he’s been given through his line-up spot, while Trout’s runs scored difference is mostly about his speed on the bases. It’s disingenuous to measure one without the other, just like it’s disingenuous to ignore all the extra outs Cabrera has made because of his proclivity for hitting into double plays.
That’s why, despite Cabrera’s chance at the triple crown, any decent measure of total offensive production will say that Cabrera hasn’t produced any more runs for the Tigers than Trout has for the Angels with a three week head start. If you just look at Trout and Cabrera’s Batting plus Baserunning in the value section, you’ll note that Trout’s offensive performance has been +57.6 runs better than an average offensive performer this year, while Cabrera checks in at +50.3 runs.
And, look, this isn’t voodoo magic that deals with theoretical replacement levels – this is simply the result of adding up all the positive and negative offensive events that both Trout and Cabrera have produced this year. Even with the 21 fewer games played, Trout has produced more runs this season. The only way to come to a different conclusion is to selectively choose the kinds of runs you want to measure. By objective metrics that include all aspects of offensive value, Mike Trout has been a better offensive performer than Cabrera this year.
If you think that the MVP should be only based on offensive performance with no consideration to defense or position played, then the evidence would lead you to believe that Trout has a narrow edge over Cabrera. Of course, position scarcity and defensive contributions absolutely should be a factor, and both of those point to Trout by laughably large margins, so the only way to make a case for Cabrera is to pretend that we shouldn’t measure those things. And, in actuality, to further that case, we actually have to obscure the truth.
Morosi makes the argument that Cabrera deserves credit for his defense because he was willing to make the move to third base to accommodate the acquisition of Prince Fielder. His hard work and selflessness in changing positions should be seen as a net positive in terms of defensive contribution, even if he is objectively bad at playing the position. However, there’s a pretty serious problem with this scenario – Cabrera didn’t have to move to third base for the Tigers to sign Prince Fielder. Instead, he could have simply agreed to become a designated hitter. Instead, Cabrera decided he didn’t want to retire his glove and become a hitter-only, so the Tigers were instead forced to move him to third base, since neither Cabrera nor Fielder was willing to take the DH role at this point in their career.
In reality, Cabrera’s switch to third base made room not for Fielder, but for Delmon Young to spend a majority of his time at DH, which freed up an outfield spot for the likes of Ryan Raburn, Don Kelly, Quinton Berry, and Andy Dirks. Had Cabrera been willing to actually take one for the team and DH, those are the guys who would have lost playing time, not Prince Fielder. Does anyone seriously want to argue that the Tigers are better off because Cabrera decided to become a bad defensive third baseman so that that group could get more playing time?
Look, even here at FanGraphs, we don’t think the MVP award should just be the WAR of the Year award. We’ve said repeatedly that WAR is a useful tool for identifying groups of players who have had similar years, and it takes a precision that WAR is not capable of providing to determine the differences between guys who are within the same overall range of value. The problem with the argument surrounding Trout and Cabrera is that they’re not in the overall same range of value. Mike Trout is a group unto himself this year – a fantastic defensive center fielder who also happens to be the best baserunner in baseball and who has hit nearly as well as anyone else alive.
You don’t have to buy into WAR as the be-all, end-all statistic to know that Trout has been the AL’s best player by a country mile this year. Simply look at all the facts, and not just the three that were treated as important 100 years ago. Morosi is right about one thing – whether Miguel Cabrera wins the triple crown or not should be irrelevant. The AL MVP is obvious. It’s just not Miguel Cabrera.