The race to win the MVP award in the American League is starting to look like one of the best contests in recent baseball history. In one corner you have Miguel Cabrera – the all-around best hitter in the American League over the last 5 seasons, who is also having his finest season in 10 years in the Major Leagues in 2012. This year the Tigers 3rd baseman is on his way to a potential Triple Crown, needing just one more homerun to hold the lead in all three categories (batting average, homers, and RBI). In the other corner we have Mike Trout. The precocious 20-year-old already locked up the AL Rookie of the Year award months ago and is wowing fans on a nightly basis with his ability to make an impact in every facet of the game, becoming the first rookie to hit 25+ homers while stealing 40+ bases. Cabrera holds the American League lead in many of the classic power stats (batting avg, homers, RBI, slugging, while Trout reigns supreme in many of the sabermetric and base running statistics like defensive runs saved, steals, runs scored, and WAR (wins above replacement).
It’s a classic duel of the great, middle-of-the-order slugger vs. the young speed demon with a glove of gold and great pop in the bat at the top of the order. Basically it’s baseball’s version of chicken or the egg. Do you prefer the player who sets the table, scores the runs and plays great defense or the one who clears the bases by driving in everybody while knocking the ball all over the diamond? I’ll get into who I think will win the award in a bit, but first I want to examine this great debate.
Cabrera is the heart and soul of the Detroit Tigers this year, and it truly shows as he is having the finest season of his career at age 29. The Detroit sluggers season line through the first 148 games of the season is as follows: .333/.396/.614, a 169 OPS+, with 41 homers, 130 RBI, and 6.3 WAR all of which is good for 347 total bases. Cabrera’s already set career-highs in plenty of counting stats with homers, RBI, total bases and he still has 14 games left to play. He’s closing in on his 2nd straight batting title and he’s looking to lead the league in extra-base hits for the first time in his illustrious career. Basically, if you had one hitter to pick for a clutch situation in any important game and you could pick any guy in the league, Miguel Cabrera would be your man.
As mentioned before, Cabrera is currently on pace to win the Triple Crown award as well. He’s got a lead in batting average by 6 percentage points over Trout, and the lead in RBI by 7 total over Josh Hamilton. Hamilton leads the league in homers, but is currently nursing a minor injury, one that could keep him out of the lineup for several games which gives the red-hot Cabrera a chance to take the lead. Other players like Adam Dunn (39 HR), Curtis Granderson (39 HR), and Edwin Encarnacion (40 HR) are lurking as well, meaning the Tigers slugger is going to have his work cut out for him if he wants to join the ranks of the 15 other Triple Crown winners. But offense isn’t all we look at when deciding who the best player in the league is, thus the case for Mike Trout.
For a good majority of the 2012 season, the Angels phenom has led the American League in steals, runs scored, and batting average, while threatening to take the OBP crown as well. Trout’s slumped off a bit in the last month, hitting just .263, but his season line is still astounding. He’s hitting .327/.395/.556 with 27 homers, 77 RBI, 10.3 WAR and he’s scored 118 runs all while going 46/50 in steal attempts, which is an astoundingly good success rate.
Only 5 players have been more successful at swiping bags this season (min. of 15 steals) and none of those players are within 15 bases stolen of Trout. His steal total would be even higher if the Angels would have brought him up to the show right after Spring Training, instead of giving a month of wasted playing time to Vernon Wells. Trout’s effect on the base paths isn’t just felt in the steal department either. This year Trout has scored just under 45% of the time when he gets on base, and astounding rate that blows Miguel Cabrera (28%) and the league average (31%) out of the water. Basically the young man was ideally built to score runs and set up an offense.
He’s also excellent at taking the extra base on a single or double (taking 2 bases on a single 3 on a double), doing so 64% of the time the opportunity is presented, compared to just 43% of the time for Cabrera. That may not mean that much to you, but over the course of a full season it basically means that Trout will take between 15-25 extra bases over the course of a full season than Cabrera will in the same base running situations.
Mike Trout is also the premier defensive centerfielder in baseball today, and not just for his highlight catches either. His elite speed gives him an advantage when chasing balls down that were hit into the gaps, and if he gets a good jump on a batted ball (which Trout usually does), it’s nearly always turned into an out. And there isn’t a better player in today’s game at making catches on the warning track, an important skill that’s difficult to teach but nonetheless can save a team valuable runs if done properly. The Los Angeles defense as a whole has been excellent this season, ranking 2nd in baseball in defensive efficiency, which measures how well a defense converts batted balls into outs.
Cabrera on the other hand, is merely league average at best on defense at 3rd base. His hands our soft, which means he can field anything he gets to, which isn’t much truth be told. Due to his 6’4″, 240 lb frame, the big 3rd baseman just doesn’t have the mobility to have great range, although he is sure-handed and fairly quick. Cabrera ranks in the middle to the bottom of the league in most of the advanced stats, from range factor to defensive runs saved, and the eye test confirms his status as an average defender. While that’s a hell of a lot more than most people expected out of the slugger when he moved across the diamond, it still just one of the many reasons that the Tigers defense as a whole ranks 4th to last in baseball in converting balls in play into outs.
If I was given a vote in this crazy awards race, I’d be inclined to use it to support Mike Trout for most of the reasons listed above. I think the players have made very similar impacts on offense. Trout is the lesser of the two by a hair but he’s still the exact ideal hitter for the top of an order, while Cabrera, who’s been just a bit better, perfectly fits his role as a cleanup hitter extraordinaire. But take the bat out of Cabrera’s hands, and there’s no question who the better of the two is, and that’s Mike Trout.