Miguel Cabrera has history on his side. But Mike Trout represents a new standard for excellence.
Today at 5 p.m. EST, MLB Network will announce the winners of the 2012 American and National League Most Valuable Players. While the National League is up for grabs, the American League has come down to a two-man race—and it's most interesting MVP race of the new century for the way it reveals the dual, competing ways that fans see baseball nowadays.
That's not to say the vote will likely be close, though. Detroit's Miguel Cabrera is definitely favored, in large part because he has the overwhelming force of history with him: He won the Triple Crown—leading the league in batting average, homers, and runs batted in—and the last man to do that was Boston's Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Yaz was the AL's MVP that year. The Orioles' Frank Robinson took the Triple Crown the season before, and he was AL MVP. Mickey Mantle did it in 1956, and was the landslide choice for the award.
"I don't know how anyone can get around the fact that Miguel Cabrera is the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years," said MLB Network's Peter Gammons two weeks ago, summing up the opinion of much of the pundit class. Retired New York Times columnist Murray Chass has blogged that Cabrera is "the real thing" and "has demonstrated that throughout his 10-year career."
But the argument for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim's Mike Trout has become a cause célèbre for baseball analysts, especially younger, more statically minded ones. The lens of history be damned, they say: When you dig deep into the numbers, Trout is, as SB Nation's Rob Neyers put it to me, "a much better all-around player." And the thing is, if you follow their math, team Trout is actually right.
Here's the standard line for Cabrera and Trout:
Looking at the raw numbers, there is no question that Cabrera had the better season. He had far more home runs and RBIs than Trout, a slightly higher batting average, a better slugging percentage, and in OPS, a favorite analysts' tool that combines on-base percentage and slugging average, he is ahead of Trout by a wide margin.
The case for Trout must be made by reading between these lines. First off, there's the ballpark factor. Detroit's Comerica Park has been ranked over the last couple years as a hitter's park—not by much, but batters do have a slight advantage there. Angel Stadium has been ranked, since 2010, one of the worst parks to bat in in the AL. So Trout should get at least some consideration for playing his home games in a tougher hitter's park. This would bring him closer to Cabrera.
You don't have to accept WAR or even understand it to see that Trout was the most valuable player in the American League this season.
Let's confirm this by glancing at their home and away stats. Playing at Comerica, Cabrera hit .332 with 28 home runs. While in other AL ballparks, he hit just five points slower but with a big decrease in power—just 16 home runs. Trout, on the other hand, hit just .318 at Angels Stadium but .332 in the league's other parks. His power was pretty similar at home and on the road: 16 homers in Anaheim and 14 everywhere else. But you might look at it this way: If the real test of a hitter, as most analysts believe, is what they hit in visiting ballparks, then Trout for the year was .332 with 14 HR while Cabrera hit .327 with 16 homers. Cabrera's hitting advantage over Trout practically disappears.