The last thing I want to do is rehash the American League MVP debate. There is a long list of sharp objects I’d fit into my cornea before doing that. So I’m not doing that, I promise. However, the Miguel Cabrera vs. Mike Trout matchup highlights an interesting aspect of player value that's easy to measure but hard to see.
In contrast to hitting and fielding, baserunning can go unnoticed if you’re not specifically looking for it. It’s easy to focus on the pitcher and the hitter while ignoring what goes on just beyond the camera’s lens. Fortunately, there are stats that track who was good at running the bases and who wasn’t, and looking at the differences between the two AL MVP candidates is a convenient if untimely way to illustrate them.
Here at BP we have a stat we call Baserunning Runs, which measures, as you might have guessed, how many runs a player contributed on the basepaths. According to BRR, Trout was the third-best baserunner in baseball last season (8.7), behind Michael Bourn (11.7) and Ben Revere (10.0). Cabrera finished sixth from last (-5.5), or as Miguel Cabrera’s grandma would put it, 829th best (and look at those ADORABLE cheeks don’t you just want to pinch them!) By BRR, Trout’s baserunning bettered Cabrera’s by 14.2 runs, making Trout worth about a win and a half more than Cabrera on the bases alone. Cabrera’s cheeks, though pinch-able, were worth nothing.
But what does that mean, really? There are two basic components to baserunning. The first is what the runner does independent of the batter. This is also called “stealing bases.” Steals are easy to measure. The base was either stolen or it wasn’t. There are also caught-stealings, and those work the same way.
Miguel Cabrera stole four bases and was caught once. That’s a good percentage but he didn’t take a lot of chances. Still, he deserves credit for his high stolen base percentage for, if nothing else, not actively hurting his team by getting thrown out trying to steal. Mike Trout stole 49 bases and was caught five times. Trout stole 10 times as many bases and was thrown out less frequently on a percentage basis than Cabrera (91 percent to 80 percent). Even the most ardent Cabrera supporter would have trouble admitting that isn’t a huge advantage for Trout. I checked with Grandma Cabrera and even she agrees.
The second part of baserunning is how the runner responded to what the batter did. This one gets more complicated. First let’s look at how the runner responded to a base hit. There are only a limited number of situations so we can examine each to see how Trout and Cabrera fared.
On First Base When The Batter Hit A Single
The difference between a runner on third versus second is worth between a quarter of a run and 1/20th of a run, depending on the number of outs and the number of other runners on base.
Miguel Cabrera was on first base when the batter singled 46 times. Mike Trout was in the same situation 45 times. Following those singles Miguel Cabrera ended up on third base 14 times (30 percent). Mike Trout ended up on third base 28 times (62 percent). So, carrying the one, Trout ended up on third base a little more than twice as frequently as Cabrera. So to you all you fellow English majors, if you could pick between having Cabrera or Trout at first base, you’d take Trout because he was twice as good.
On First Base When The Batter Hit A Double
The difference between the runner scoring or only reaching third is a bit tougher to quantify as it depends on the number of outs. Runners on second and third with no outs resulted in about 1.8 runs scored last season on average. With one out, that same situation resulted in 1.3 runs scored, and with two outs, 0.6. The difference between scoring or ending up at third can be as little as a 0.2 runs to about 0.8 runs, depending on the number of outs. While the value was variable, the candidates were similar. Trout was on first when the batter doubled 11 times. He scored seven of those times (64 percent). Cabrera was on first for a double eight times. He scored six times (75 percent). MVP! MVP!
On Second Base When The Batter Hit A Single
Mike Trout was on second when the batter singled 29 times. He scored 20 of those times (69 percent). Miguel Cabrera was on second when the batter singled 23 times. He scored 14 of those times (61 percent). Eight percentage points aren’t nothing, but with this sample it’s pretty close. This is probably a good time to point out that the context surrounding the hit can make a big difference. Cabrera hit third in the lineup all year, in front of Prince Fielder who, considering his girth, probably had a few singles that maybe other batters would have turned in to doubles. Trout was different as the hitters behind him could move. In an odd way having faster players behind you in the lineup could subtly suppress your baserunning stats.
Mike Trout successfully took the extra base 65 percent of the time while Miguel Cabrera did so 44 percent of the time. That’s a big difference, but those are just hits. What about advancing on grounders, fly balls, and sacrifices? BP happens to keep track of those and it turns out that, and this’ll certainly shock you, Trout bests Cabrera in every category except advancing on balls hit in the air, where Cabrera holds a slight edge. Considering their respective speeds, that should not be surprising.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that Trout was very good at avoiding grounding into double plays. Faced with 87 opportunities, he did so seven times (8 percent). Cabrera had 146 opportunities (likely the product of hitting in the middle of the lineup, not leadoff) and grounded into 28 double plays (19 percent). Judgment plays less of a role here than straight-line speed. This is more like saying Trout is fast and Cabrera is slow but since that isn’t wrong…
We can see that Mike Trout stole more bases, was less likely to get caught, took more bases after hits, was more likely to advance on a sacrifice attempt, and grounded into fewer double plays. On the whole, when Mike Trout got on base, he scored 44 percent of the time. When Cabrera got on base, he scored 28 percent of the time. Judging by that, having Mike Trout on base rather than Miguel Cabrera last season meant your team was 16 percent more likely to score a run, which puts Trout’s .399 on-base percentage in a very favorable light.
I suspect that I, like many fans, undervalue baserunning because it’s not something I can easily pick out while watching a game. The pitcher throws the ball, the batter hits the ball and the fielder fields the ball. The camera follows each of those events in sequence. After the play we probably see the pitcher with his head down kicking dirt on the mound, or the hitter fist-bumping the base coach or calling time out to take off his shin guard. Maybe we see that the runner on second got a good jump on replay if the color commentator is good, but probably not. The runner is in the dugout anyway, high-fiving teammates, putting his helmet away, heading down the tunnel for whatever it is players do after they head down the tunnel. In any case, he’s out of view of the camera. Unless he’s Miguel Cabrera in which case, he’s probably standing on base.