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BILL SHAIKIN / ON BASEBALL

Two camps stake out turf in Mike Trout-Miguel Cabrera MVP debate

Detroit's Miguel Cabrera is bidding for Triple Crown, while Angels' Mike Trout is the more complete player by modern statistical-analysis standards. Each has passionate adherents.

September 29, 2012|By Bill Shaikin
  • Angels speedster Mike Trout and Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera are in a virtual dead heat for the American League MVP award.
Angels speedster Mike Trout and Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera are in a virtual… (McClatch-Tribune and Getty…)

ARLINGTON, Texas — The most valuable player ballot is a rather plain document, delivered not by fancy envelope but by email. Fill in the blank spaces, return to sender.

The ballot is accompanied by a letter. This is how that letter starts: "Dear Voter: There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide."

Keep that in mind, as perhaps the most polarizing MVP debate ever reaches its crescendo. The polls close Wednesday, the final day of the regular season. The arguments over whether the American League MVP properly belongs to Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera have transcended beyond the statistical, to the ideological.

The 28 voters — two from each AL city — are charged with the guidelines that have stood since the Baseball Writers Assn. of America started conducting the elections in 1931:

1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.

2. Number of games played.

3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.

There is no one statistic, or set of statistics, that determine the winner. Even if a voter decided to ignore intangibles and use statistics alone, there is no consensus on which statistics to use.

"It used to be, only a couple of numbers stood out," Texas Rangers infielder Michael Young said. "Now you can chop numbers up to make your candidate look good."

No one has won the Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, but Cabrera could. No one has posted an 11 WAR since Barry Bonds in 2002, as calculated by baseball-reference.com, but Trout could.

Cabrera should not win the MVP because he might win the Triple Crown. Ted Williams twice won the Triple Crown without winning the MVP.

Trout should not win the MVP because he might post the best WAR (wins above replacement value) in a decade.

You don't need to understand the components of WAR to get the basic point of the Trout faction: Even if you say Cabrera is slightly better on offense — and the Trout loyalists do not necessarily concede that point — Trout is so much better on defense and on the bases that he should win MVP in a landslide. His value, after all, does not require him to hold a bat.

Keith Law at espn.com calls the MVP race "a rout," below a headline calling Trout the "rational choice." Dave Cameron at fangraphs.com calls Trout "the AL's best player by a country mile."

The Rangers have two players, infielder Adrian Beltre and outfielder Josh Hamilton, who should at least be in the MVP conversation. In the interests of the Trout vs. Cabrera debate, however, we asked three Texas players to tell us for whom they would vote, assuming they could not vote for anyone on the Rangers.

All three — Beltre, Young and pitcher Matt Harrison — chose Cabrera.

"He is the engine that makes that club go," Young said.

"I'd much rather face Trout than Cabrera in a tough situation," Harrison said.

Three players do not make for a fair sampling, to be sure. But Buster Olney at espn.com wrote Saturday of the divide among the baseball people with whom he has spoken — players and managers favoring Cabrera, front office types picking Trout.

This is more than just asking, "Let's settle the MVP this way: Would you trade Trout for Cabrera?" No one would. Trout is younger, cheaper, better for the long haul. The MVP is about this season.

As Olney wrote, this is about the development of new ways to value players. Those methods — WAR and its relatives — trickle down from the front office, not up from the clubhouse.

But this is also about the orthodoxy of the sabermetric partisans, about a reluctance to consider opinion as a factor in a vote left to individual judgment.

Here is one opinion, one judgment that could help determine the winner between Trout and Cabrera: How a player performs in the pennant stretch is more important than how he does coming out of spring training.

It's not the only factor, far from it. As an MVP tiebreaker, it works.

"When you look at a guy who has good numbers, and in August and September his numbers are great and he helps his team get into the postseason, you've got to consider him," the Angels' Torii Hunter said. "What you do the last month or two months really solidifies that spot as an MVP."

Hunter was quick to say he would cast his vote for Trout, but the numbers support Cabrera. Since Aug. 1, with the Angels and Detroit Tigers scrambling for playoff position, Trout has hit .271 with 11 home runs.

Cabrera has hit .337 with 18 home runs.

Yes, a victory in April counts the same as a victory in September. But players fight through injury and exhaustion in September, when the regulars play every day, when every at-bat is magnified, when pressure is at its height. It is why CC Sabathia was practically worshiped by his peers when he made three starts on short rest in 2008, putting the Milwaukee Brewers onto his shoulders and into the playoffs.

In our opinion, a player that delivers now should get extra credit. If not, there would have been no derision in the "Mr. May" nickname George Steinbrenner bestowed upon Dave Winfield.

The Los Angeles Times does not let its writers vote in the BBWAA awards, so the opinion that follows carries no weight in the actual voting.

Value is an inherently subjective proposition. If Trout is your pick, that's a wonderful choice, and we respect your opinion. We'll pick Cabrera.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com twitter.com/BillShaikin

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