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September 13, 2013

Baseball Therapy

My MVP Case for Miguel Cabrera

by Russell A. Carleton

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It’s getting to be time for the AL MVP argument. Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but Mike Trout is on his way to putting up a 10-win season, while Miguel Cabrera is without a doubt the best hitter in the league and leading in batting average and RBIs. If only Chris Davis hadn’t ruined everything by hitting all those home runs. And like last time, this is shaping up to be an argument (dare I say, a WAR) between new-school and old-school understandings of baseball value.

Generally, the line from the traditionalist view is that WARP is a questionable stat. Sure, it’s nice, but it doesn’t have any tradition behind it and it takes a few minutes to explain and a couple hours to do the gory math. I think we need to resign ourselves to the fact that the writers who vote on these awards aren’t looking at WARP. I know that there will be guffaws, but many of the writers will be looking at (and voting by) the “traditional” numbers, along with some additional “intangibles.”

Maybe instead of fighting over this again, we should instead take some time to appreciate how good Miguel Cabrera has been in 2013, starting with the phrase “even better than last year.” Yes, some of these criteria are silly, but below I’ve taken some of the commonly used arguments for why Miguel Cabrera should be MVP and assembled some mind-blowing numbers. After looking them over, I can’t honestly fault any writer who looks at these and says, “Yeah, that’s an MVP. He gets my vote.”

The WARP smell test
I said I wasn’t going to use WARP, but I think even the traditionalists would allow that WARP (and its cousins at other sites) can serve as a good filter for who should be in the conversation. And yes, while WARP loves Trout, it consistently has Cabrera near the top of the list as well. Cabrera doesn’t make a silly choice for MVP.

Performance in key situations
There’s no doubt that Cabrera has turned it up a notch in key situations this year. In situations ranked as very high leverage by our friends at FanGraphs, Miguel Cabrera leads the league in batting average (.468), OBP (.559), slugging percentage (.894). He’s second in hits in these situations (22 to Eric Hosmer’s 23), but then again, he’s been walked intentionally seven times (the most) in these situations to Hosmer’s once. Those seven IBBs in key situations would put Cabrera behind a few National Leaguers (Paul Goldschmidt, Andrew McCutchen, Joey Votto, Andre Ethier), but none of them is eligible for AL MVP. It’s clear that people fear Miguel Cabrera in key situations. Speaking of which…

Fear
Miguel Cabrera trails David Ortiz (23) overall in intentional passes, but not by much. In fact, Cabrera is only one of six guys in double digits in IBBs. It is true that pitchers, whether they should or not, circle certain names to avoid on the lineup card. Cabrera’s 16 intentional passes leads his team. The next closest number on that list is four. Whose name do you think gets circled when teams come to Comerica Park?

Even when they’re not walking him, teams don’t want to throw Cabrera anything to hit. Among qualified AL hitters, Miguel Cabrera sees the 10th-fewest pitches in the strike zone. Teams are obviously a little worried about what he might do if the ball comes near him. Some of the guys above him (Josh Hamilton, for example) are there because they’ll swing at anything, so why give them anything to hit. But Cabrera has better bat to ball skills than you might think, with a swinging strike rate of 6.5 percent. That’s impressive. So, even though pitchers know he won’t chase much, they’ve decided that it’s best to nibble or just let him walk. He’ll do less damage that way.

Performance down the Stretch
The season isn’t over, of course, and no one has yet clinched a playoff berth. Maybe in the next few weeks, this narrative will change. But, over the last 30 days (as of Thursday night), Miguel Cabrera has actually put up some outstanding numbers as his team tries to book its place in October. His line has been .389/.425/.611/1.036, and in terms of OPS, he trails only Brandon Moss and, er, Mike Trout during that time. Mid-August to Mid-September is a critical time of the year. It’s the time when the contenders separate from the pretenders, and Miguel Cabrera has been there for the Tigers. You have to admire that.

Playing Through Adversity
Let’s remember some of the things that Miguel Cabrera had to go through this year. For one, he had to deal with the distraction of a teammate who was involved in the Biogenesis scandal. I can’t imagine that was fun to be around. He’s also had to pick up some slack for some injured players, including some injuries of his own. And despite that, he’s been pretty much an everyday player. That matters for something.

Start Engraving the Trophy
I don’t agree with most of these MVP tests, but it seems that the writers do. And even if you don’t believe in them, you have to respect a guy who’s been as good a hitter as Cabrera has this year. So it won’t surprise me in November when the AL MVP trophy is presented to Robinson Cano.

Wait… Robinson Cano?

Oh dear, it looks like I’ve been writing the wrong name this whole time. All of the above numbers belong not to Miguel Cabrera, but to Robinson Cano. And in fact, in all of these cases (except one—Miguel Cabrera does beat Cano in intentional walks, 17-16) Cano’s statistics are superior to Cabrera’s. It’s Cano who has been amazing in high-leverage situations, sees fewer pitches in the zone, has a lower swinging strike rate, and has been on fire over the last 30 days. Cano has also had two teammates implicated in the Biogenesis scandal (Francisco Cervelli and… I can’t think of the other guy’s name) and has missed only one game all year.

Take Cabrera (and his roughly seven wins) off the Tigers, and they’re running neck-and-neck with the Indians for the AL Central. Take Cano off the Yankees, and they fall behind the Royals, completely out of any contention for a playoff spot. Sure, Cabrera has been the better hitter (and player) overall than Cano, but if all of those little extras are so valuable, why not give Cano a chance to take the proper credit that seems all too eagerly ascribed to Miguel Cabrera? Or are we perhaps starting with the conclusion that Miguel Cabrera is the AL MVP and then seeking information that justifies that position?

Russell A. Carleton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Russell's other articles. You can contact Russell by clicking here

Related Content:  MVP,  Robinson Cano,  Mike Trout,  Miguel Cabrera,  Al Mvp

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