Cabrera wins on narrative, not numbers
November, 15, 2012
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
The American League MVP debate was billed along the lines of new-school stathead nerds versus old-school traditionalists. Did you like Mike Trout's WAR or Miguel Cabrera's Triple Crown? Shake hands and let the brawling ensue.
I believed that was a little bit of a simplistic mindset. The MVP voting isn't so much about statistics and numbers as it is about storyline. After all, who votes on the award? Baseball writers. What do writers like? A good story. That's what made this debate one of the most heated in years: You had two compelling narratives, both historic in nature.
Trout's rookie season wasn't dominant just by rookie standards, but by any standard. His all-around brilliance at the plate, in the field and on the bases led to 10.7 Wins Above Replacement, the 13th-highest by any AL position player since 1900 and the third-highest in either league in the past 20 years (behind only two Barry Bonds seasons).
Cabrera, of course, became the first Triple Crown winner since 1967, hitting .330 with 44 home runs and 139 RBIs. Even if you haven't looked at RBIs since Bill James wrote his first "Baseball Abstract," it was an impressive achievement and easy story to pin a headline -- and MVP vote -- on.
In the end, it had to be that narrative that pushed Cabrera to a convincing win, as he received 22 of the 28 first-place votes.
After all, it couldn't be about numbers -- and by numbers, I mean those that help you win more baseball games than your opponents -- because if you dig into those numbers, it's not close. Trout wins in a landslide. Well, assuming the only numbers you pay attention to are those produced at the plate and not in the field or on the bases. (And even then, it's pretty close just on offense, especially when you adjust for things like park effects and Cabrera's 28 double plays.)
Maybe it was about winning. After all, since the wild-card era began in 1995, only six of 38 MVP winners have come from non-playoff teams. Cabrera's Tigers made the playoffs and Trout's Angels didn't. On the MLB Network's broadcast, writer Tom Verducci said that Trout was the better player but Cabrera should win the MVP award, because it shows "how much winning still means." I mean, sure, the Angels actually won more games in a tougher division, but since they didn't make the playoffs, I guess that makes the Tigers the better team and Cabrera's season more valuable. Or something like that.
There's an obvious split in logic here. As Dave Cameron pointed out on FanGraphs, if making the playoffs is the trump card, the MVP debate shouldn't start with a list of the best players from all the teams, but a list of the best players on the playoff teams. The way the MVP vote is currently conducted, it does seem as if bonus points are awarded for making the playoffs, even in a somewhat dubious situation like this year's Tigers finishing with the seventh-best record in the AL and winning a weak division.
It certainly wasn't about all-around play, considering that in past votes, a player's all-around ability and positional value pushed him over the top in the voting: Dustin Pedroia over Justin Morneau in 2008, Ichiro Suzuki over Jason Giambi in 2001, Larry Walker over Mike Piazza in 1997, Barry Larkin over Dante Bichette in 1995, Cal Ripken over Cecil Fielder in 1991 and so on down to MVP winners like Zoilo Versalles or Brooks Robinson or Ernie Banks. To be fair, there have been a fair share of one-dimensional sluggers to win MVP awards: Ryan Howard, Juan Gonzalez, Mo Vaughn, Kevin Mitchell, Jeff Burroughs and so forth. The writers aren't really consistent on this judgment.
No, in the end, it's about the narrative. The writers viewed Cabrera's accomplishment in better light than Trout's all-around brilliance. Bob Costas said Cabrera had the "year of his life," which isn't really true. By WAR, Cabrera was just as valuable in 2011 -- 7.3 wins above replacement versus 6.9 this season. He had a higher OPS in both 2010 and 2011. If anything, Cabrera's 2012 is a symbol of his remarkable consistency, durability and greatness: He's basically been doing this since 2005.
But the story says Cabrera hit one more home run than Curtis Granderson and Josh Hamilton and won the batting title over Trout by .004 points. (If Trout gets three more hits, he wins the batting title). Two home runs. Three singles. The difference between and MVP winner and an MVP runner-up.