Commentary

AL MVP: Way too close to call!

Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout? Our voter was stymied. Here's how he decided.

Originally Published: November 15, 2012
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

I agonized over my vote for days, if not weeks. I compared the two candidates and consulted all the information. I read the reasons why I should vote for each. I asked friends for their opinion and advice. I heard the chants, saw the signs held up in the crowds. And every time I saw something that favored one candidate, I found something else that favored the other.

In the end, I reluctantly made my decision and filled out my vote. And immediately after I sent it in, I started second-guessing myself.

Am I talking about my vote for U.S. president? Don't be nuts. That was an easy one. Heck, I pretty much knew who I'd be favoring in that election when I cast my previous ballot in 2008.

No, I'm talking about my vote for American League Most Valuable Player, the toughest decision in America outside the Hall of Fame.

The Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) votes on the MVP in both leagues. Two writers in each BBWAA chapter (one chapter for every major league city) vote on the MVP. In a year when the top candidates are particularly close, this honor can be a little like being chosen for jury duty in a capital punishment case. And as you might have heard, this year's race between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout is so close I don't think even Nate Silver could call it.

[+] EnlargeMiguel Cabrera
AP Photo/Orlin WagnerOn the one hand, Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown …

I was selected for one of those votes in the Seattle chapter. The other went to Larry LaRue, the outstanding veteran writer for the Tacoma News Tribune.

On the final Monday of the regular season, Larry and I talked at length about our votes and how difficult the choice was and how we couldn't make up our minds. The longer we talked, the more uncertain we grew. When we ate that night in the media dining room at Seattle's Safeco Field, we polled six other baseball writers. Three said they would vote for Cabrera. The other three said Trout. So that was a big help.

You vote for 10 players, ranking them in order. I went back and forth over that ranking. Adrian Beltre was a strong candidate for my No. 1 vote for a long time, but finally the choice came down to two players. Cabrera or Trout? Trout or Cabrera? As I debated my ballot, every compelling argument for one player had an equally compelling counterargument.

First … The vote is for the Most VALUABLE Player award, not the player of the year. Cabrera's performance led the Tigers to the AL Central title, while Trout's Angels didn't even make the playoffs as one of the two wild-card teams. That makes Cabrera more valuable to his team. So it was simple. I should vote Cabrera No. 1.

But the Angels had a better record than the Tigers, and the reason they didn't make the playoffs is because they played in a significantly stronger division. And with unbalanced scheduling, that also means much of Trout's production came against substantially better pitching (Oakland, Texas and Seattle) than did Cabrera's (Kansas City, Minnesota, Cleveland). So THAT made it simple. I should vote for Trout.

[+] EnlargeTrout
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonOn the other hand, Mike Trout scored 129 runs to lead the majors …

Then again … Cabrera was the first player in 45 years to win the Triple Crown by leading the league in batting average, home runs and RBIs. No one had done that since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Not Albert Pujols. Not Barry Bonds. Not Alex Rodriguez. Not Don Mattingly. Not Jim Rice. Not Hank Aaron. Not Willie Mays. That Cabrera did so is an historic achievement. So I should vote for Cabrera.

Well, yes, winning the Triple Crown is pretty damn impressive. But who determined that average, home runs and RBIs are the three most important offensive stats? Runs are just as important as RBIs -- in fact, runs are MORE important. For one thing, runs are more precious. Batters often have the chance to accumulate several RBIs in a single plate appearance -- they need only one base runner to have a chance at two RBIs -- but they can score only one run per plate appearance. Also, singling, stealing a base and scoring from second on a single takes more ability than driving in a runner from third with a groundout to second. Besides, teams win games based on scoring more runs than their opponent, not having more RBIs.

And Trout led the entire majors in runs, scoring 20 more than Cabrera. So I should vote for Trout.

OK, if I was going to be like that, OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) is the best indication of true offensive value. Cabrera led the league in OPS at .999, compared to Trout's second-place .963. So I should vote for Cabrera.

That's true. But when you add Trout's 49 stolen bases to the mix, he had the equivalent of 40 extra doubles (factoring for the five times he was caught stealing, which effectively removes five of his singles/walks). So if you consider those stolen bases as the equivalent of doubles, he has a higher OPS than Cabrera. So I should vote for Trout.

[+] EnlargeMiguel Cabrera
AP Photo/Matt SlocumOn the third hand, Miguel Cabrera led the Tigers into the World Series …

On the other hand … Trout didn't join the Angels until the end of April. That means Trout provided absolutely no value to his team for almost one-sixth of the season. Cabrera, meanwhile, was in the middle of Detroit's lineup for all but one game. That means he was more valuable for the season. So that really makes it simple. I should vote for Cabrera.

Yes, but the Angels were terrible in April, going 6-14 and falling into last place, nine games behind the Rangers by April 28 when they called up Trout. They went 83-59 once Trout joined the team. That's a better winning percentage (.584) than first-place Oakland finished the season with. That shows how valuable he was to his team. So I should vote for Trout.

Not so fast. While Cabrera definitely wasn't Brooks Robinson, he wasn't horrible defensively at third base, either. More importantly, his willingness to move to third base so that the Tigers could sign Prince Fielder made Detroit a better team. So I should vote for Cabrera.

Cabrera may not have been a bad third baseman with the glove, but he wasn't good, either. Trout, meanwhile, was outstanding in center field, covering enormous amounts of territory due to his speed and instincts. Fielding might be the most overlooked aspect of baseball, but it is still very important. And being one of the league's best fielders gives Trout a clear edge over someone who is simply "not bad." So I should vote for Trout.

[+] EnlargeMike Trout
AP Photo/Christine CotterOn the fourth hand, Mike Trout made a huge defensive difference … (And, yes, we've run out of hands.)

And that, ultimately, is what I decided. That Trout's clear edge in fielding was the tiebreaker. So I voted Trout No. 1, and Cabrera second.

I'm still not sure that's the right vote. But I'm not sure it's the wrong vote, either.

And that's why I don't understand all the outrage and bitter comments. I very much understand why some people think Cabrera should win. And I very much understand why some people think Trout should win. But what I don't understand at all is why some people think if you disagree with their choice, your opinion is absolutely worthless. That you're either embarrassingly out-of-touch and ignorant of modern statistical analysis or a geeky slave to new-age numbers.

It's bad enough to have to listen to such partisan rhetoric during the presidential campaign. Must we also hear it over a simple baseball award?

I'm neither ignorant of modern stats nor a slave to them. I'm just a baseball fan who appreciates there are many facets to the game, some that are easily measurable and some that are not.

Thus, I voted for Trout. But what I really hope is that he and Cabrera finish tied and share the award, just like Willie Stargell and Keith Hernandez did in 1979.

That's not a copout. That's just how good and deserving both Trout and Cabrera are.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com