In high school, I had a very wise history teacher whose motto was that the best way to win a debate was to be able to make the argument for the other side better than your debate opponent. So, I decided to challenge myself. Can I make a case that Miguel Cabrera deserves the American League MVP over Mike Trout using sabermetrics?

(Note: Keith Law threw down this challenge on Baseball Today on Wednesday, although—I promise—I had already sketched some things out in my head before then. The careful reader will note that I’m using some rather slap-dash math in my estimations below. I know. I wrote this in a Kerouac-ian Benzedrine addled state, except without the Benzedrine, to make a point rather than to hit the third decimal place.)

For those who have recently emerged from a month-long stay in an isolation chamber (and even then, most isolation chambers have wi-fi now), Mike Trout has a commanding 2.5-win lead over Miguel Cabrera in Wins Above Replacement Player. However, Miguel Cabrera has emerged lately as a legitimate contender for baseball's vaunted Triple Crown (ooooooooh….), and many are saying that if he wins, he should receive an extra crown in the form of his first MVP Award.

It's not that Cabrera is having a bad year. Please note: under any legitimate definition of value, he's having a fantastic year, maybe even an MVP year in some other seasons. It's just that according to WARP, Mike Trout is having a year that is just that awesome. If only we were still allowed to make Chuck Norris references.

WARP, for the uninitiated, is a single number that tries to sum up a player's contributions to a team offensively, defensively, and on the basepaths. It compares him to the value that we might expect from an average Triple-A call-up or bench player who played the same position. (Come to think of it, Mike Trout was technically a Triple-A call-up this year.) Mike Trout has been worth about 2.5-3 more wins (roughly 25-30 runs) to his team than has Miguel Cabrera, depending on what win-value statistic you use. In fact, according to Baseball Reference's WAR values, Cabrera doesn't even win Most Valuable Tiger (Justin Verlander has him beat).

But let's focus on Trout vs. Cabrera for a moment and see if there is some hidden value in Cabrera or overstated value in Trout. And no, it can't be in the form of intangibles, clutchitude, or "what he meant to the team." I'll use only things that I can back up with numerical gymnastics.

Running Scoreboard: Trout +30 runs.

Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!

Let's start with the basics. Miguel Cabrera has provided as much as or more value with his bat than Trout has this year. If all that mattered in baseball was hitting, Miguel Cabrera would probably be the AL MVP. In addition to the Triple Crown stats, he’s leading or near the league lead in slugging percentage and on-base percentage. He’s probably the guy I would least like to see come to bat in a key situation against my favorite team. According to our offensive statistics, Trout’s roughly 20-point lead in True Average is almost exactly balanced out by Cabrera’s additional playing time. According to other systems, Cabrera leads Trout in things that involve batting by approximately 10 runs. But if you drill down a little bit, you’ll see that Cabrera maybe deserves a little bit more.

One thing that we try to do in sabermetrics is separate the effects of performance that a player controls from the effects of luck. Believe it or not, Miguel Cabrera has had a bit of bad luck this year. When Cabrera hits a line drive (and he has hit 99 as of the end of last night’s games), he is hitting “only” .636. League-wide, about 72 percent of line drives go for hits. I used a model similar to what I used here to determine what percentage of credit/blame the batter, pitcher, and dumb luck have in determining whether a line drive will be turned into an out. The answer is that it is mostly (81 percent) a matter of luck. However, the fact that the ball is a line drive (rather than a grounder) is much more in the batter’s control. So, Cabrera gets credit for the line drives, but we should strip out the bad luck that sometimes there’s a guy standing right where he’s hit them.

Cabrera is hitting about nine percentage points below league average and has hit just shy of 100 liners, so let’s turn nine of his lineouts into hits. He has 43 singles and 20 doubles on liners, so let’s give him six extra singles and three extra doubles that he “should” have had. Converting an out into a single is a swing of about three quarters of a run, and an out to a double is roughly one run. Cabrera should have an extra 7.5 runs in his account. Of course, one could argue that what did happen is the only admissible evidence when it comes to determining the value of past performance. But we’re trying to make Miggy look good here, so we’re arguing the opposite.

Running Scoreboard: Trout +22.5 runs

Trout, on the other hand, is hitting .757 on his 75 line drives. We should probably take four percent of his line-drive hits (two of them) and convert them into outs. Trout has 39 singles on liners and 16 extra-base hits. We’ll just steal two singles from him and debit his account 1.5 runs.

Running Scoreboard: Trout, +21 runs

One area where Trout has run circles—or, since we're talking about baseball, run squares—around Cabrera is his baserunning ability. Trout has stolen 47 bases (against four CS), while Cabrera has a modest handful of steals. And then there are those “extra” stolen bases, like going from first to third on a single. According to BP’s baserunning stats, Trout ranks behind only Michael Bourn in his ability to generate value with his legs. Leaving aside his stolen base numbers, Trout is rated as providing about six and a quarter runs with his legs by taking extra bases when the ball is in play above what might be expected of an average MLB player. (That’s really good.) Cabrera, on the other hand, has cost the Tigers about four and a half runs by being so slow (again, leaving out SBs).

But should the base runner get all that credit? I’ve found that advancement on air balls (read: sac flies) has much more to do with how deep the ball is hit than how fast the runner is. If we sabermetricians are going to carp about how RBI are a lousy stat because they tell more about who hit in front of the player, we can’t credit Trout for the fact that Albert Pujols hit some deep fly balls to score him. Also, I’ve found that the batter deserves some of the credit (about a quarter of the offensive credit) when a runner goes from first to third on a single.

If you look at the numbers, Cabrera is relieved of only a fraction of a run of blame (most of his negative value on the basepaths has been in not advancing on grounders). Trout, if we take away his air advancements and dock him a quarter of his hit advancement credits, loses two runs.

Running Scoreboard: Trout, +19 runs

Defense is hard to measure. Not impossible, mind you. Just hard. The truth of the matter is that we have much better indicators of infield defensive ability than we do of outfield defensive ability. One thing that we know is that infielder single-season ratings are more stable across time than are outfielder single-season numbers.

What that means is that when I look and see that Miguel Cabrera has been somewhat below average as a third baseman this year (when we all expected that he would be Ryan Braun, circa 2007-esque), I have more confidence in that number than I do when I see that Mike Trout has played some Gold Glove defense. (Then I actually watched a game and realized that this is just silly.)

Numbers that aren’t reliable have to be heavily regressed down to the league average, and because outfield numbers are so unstable and we have only one year’s worth of data for Mike Trout, we have to take a very statistically agnostic view of his fielding prowess. And it’s going to cost him.

FRAA credits Trout with only seven runs above average on defense this season, but subtracting seven runs from his lead won’t make a big enough dent. So let’s sample some other defensive systems that rate Trout more highly. Baseball Info Solutions says that Trout has saved the Angels 25 runs. Although other systems, including UZR (13 runs) and TotalZone (15 runs), are more bearish, if we sap Trout of his defensive contributions and bring him down to the level of the average outfielder, the balance starts to tip. If we believe BIS’s 25 runs saved, and believe that we have to regress things 80 percent of the way, Trout loses 20 runs, and suddenly…

Running Scoreboard: Cabrera, +1 run


Victory! I was able to construct a case for Miguel Cabrera over Mike Trout. Or, owing to the shoddy nature of my calculations, I was at least able to bring the numbers close enough that you could start to say “close enough”. Over in the Senior Circuit, Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, and Ryan Braun are all 6-7-win players. I wouldn’t begrudge any one of these players a first-place vote in the NL.

The problem is that in order to make the case that Mike Trout wasn’t quite as good as Cabrera, I had to completely bury my head in the sand on Mike Trout’s defense. (I also had to cherry pick where I made my adjustments to their respective values.)

And that seems to be the crux of the debate. The only universe in which Miguel Cabrera wins the AL MVP is one in which baserunning and defense have no value. In order to swallow my own argument, I have to believe that Mike Trout either is a merely pedestrian center fielder, or I have to assume that there is precious little difference between outfielders in their ability to play defense. Oddly enough, this sabermetrician now encourages people to watch an Angels game or two.

There’s a deficit of language in how to express that a player is good at playing defense. I can rattle off stats both flawed (*cough* batting average *cough*) and advanced that describe offense. Personally, I think most of it goes back to playground days where defense was the boring part, but that’s another article. As a sabermetrician, what I worry about is that when I come to a deficit of language, I will act like, well, an American, and just yell louder. But what I have to realize is that my own language is not very coherent, and even if it were, I’d still need to teach people how to speak it.

Miguel Cabrera might win the AL MVP when the ballots are counted, even though Mike Trout was the better player. And the sun will rise the next day.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my isolation chamber.

You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
Those are some pretty ninja moves you pulled with the defensive numbers. You are officially allowed to talk about Chuck Norris again.
Good. I am Chuck Norris. This is what I do when I'm not spin-kicking people.
Thanks for going against the grain in the piece. While I do read most of Mr. Law's articles/chats because he does have real nuggets of information in his work, I feel that he's almost become the Murray Chass of the sabermetric folks (and yes, I know his sarcastic manner is part of his schtick). As you show above, you can make a solid argument that Trout and Cabrera are close in value. Given the rules for MVP voting and the fact that one of the rules is game played and another has nothing to do with stats, Cabrera can be above Trout on a ballot and it not be a grave injustice. I understand that there's a pre-backlash from certain members of the sabermetric press/media/blogsphere who have seen plenty of examples in the past where large differences in value have been ignored. But two wrongs don't make a right. I think Trout has provided more raw value this year than Cabrera. But that's not the end of the question for MVP voting according to the rules.
It seems to me that if we regress Trout's defensive valuations because it takes > 1 year's worth of data for us to have much confident in modern defense metrics, then perhaps we ought to first subtract out the value of catching flyballs that otherwise would be homers since they can be readily verified by old-fashioned observation. Those HR-saving catchers seem pretty measurable. I would think a better (presumably still unsuccessful, but better) MVP defense of Cabrera would focus on Win Probability Added. Since Cabrera was in the middle of his line-up the entire season, he was playing in a context that made his batting production more valuable than was true for Trout.
Trout actually leads in WPA. And Cabrera has been the 4th most un-clutch player in the AL.
You're right: that still doesn't work. I had seen Cabrera's poor clutch rating in but thought if one looked at just total WPA, Cabrera would come out ahead offensively. He doesn't. Trout is first in the AL in WPA and Cabrera is 5th (slightly behind teammate Prince Fielder even).
Russell, this was entertaining, but I have to ask: did you consult Dean Chambers for this piece? :-)
There's no doubt that Trout has been the most valuble player. There's also no doubt that Cabrera would be a deserving winner of the MVP award. These two statements are not contradictory.
"The only universe in which Miguel Cabrera wins the AL MVP is one in which baserunning and defense have no value." I think the better way to say it would be "The only universe in which Miguel Cabrera wins the AL MVP is one in which we specifically look for a reason for Miguel Cabrera to win."
Sentimentally, I wouldn't mind Cabrera winning the MVP award. The man has been sooo close, but missing it year after year. This is Trout's first season. Give him something to work towards next year. Normally, I regard the MVP award ought to be based on the season in question alone, whereas I think fans are nuts who think that all-star berths should be based solely on the first couple months of the season. If you apply the "who is the best player" test to Cabrera and Trout as one should for all-star berths, you might justly conclude Cabrera deserves the award. Trout needs another season to prove he is such a productive superstar. This isn't as outlandish a contest as George Bell vs. Alan Trammell or Juan Gonzalez vs. Alex Rodriguez MVP votes that have gone so wrong in the past.
And one more thing: Cabrera busted his ass to make himself a useful third-baseman in order to accommodate Fielder. He has been playing it better than he did in his distant youthful past. That's significant value. No, I wouldn't be upset at all, if Miggy gets the award.
This actually might be the best narrative -- Cabrera had the best year because it was in this year that he worked hard enough to take a new/retake an old position, thus allowing an upgrade of Prince Fielder over whomever their third baseman would have been. It's a bit of semantics, but if I were running his PR campaign, I'd go that route -- selfless teammate, hardworker -- create a narrative that basically says we should give it to Miggy this year.
I agree that this is the best narrative, and it's also the perfectly valid one. For starters, "whoever their third basemen would have been" is former team mascot Brandon Inge. The emotional "where would the team be without him" argument is just as important to traditional MVP voters than the straight up numbers analysis, and that cuts just as solid for Cabrera, because this lineup would be decimated without Miguel, while a the A's would still have a lot of great hitters, Albert Pujols among them.
But all him not DHing did was allow Delmon Young's bat into the lineup.
Yes, well that SHOULD HAVE BEEN a far far greater thing than keeping Inge in the line-up. Cabrera held up his end - and allows Detroit to use Victor Martinez as the DH next year. Young would have otherwise been the leftfielder, so, it really allowed Andy Dirks in the line-up instead of Inge, which is clearly a positive.
Hey, it is at least a million times better than having Delmon Young's bat AND glove on the field.
"It's the young star's first big role, Veteran Actor X has paid his dues..." "I'm voting for the senior, because the freshman will have other chances to win..." "This is (blank)'s first season. Give him something to work towards next year..." ALL of which are 100% invalid, totally political votes of the WORST kind and have no place in awards voting--whether it's the Oscars, the Heisman, or the MVP. If a younger person had the better performance, they deserve the award PERIOD! Anyone who argues otherwise should NEVER NEVER NEVER get to vote for awards.
Russell, great job! Did you work for the Florida Board of Elections in 2000?
I challenge your premise about separating skill from luck in the discussion of line drive rates. I can see the point of doing that in terms of trying to identity some true skill by which to base predictions. But I feel really uncomfortable when evaluating past contributions to start adding/subtracting hits and home runs either using line drive rates or HR/FB ratios, etc. Then you start justifying those statements that "the game is played on the field, not in a computer".
The vote comes down to the mindset of the mainstream writers (who, we must remember, make up the lion's share of the voters), who have for years complained that saber is too narrow, and now must confront the fact that a vote for Miggy is akin to saying defense and baserunning don't matter.
Russell did you just come on board? Goddam that was some excellent reading!