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Originally published November 15, 2012 at 9:16 PM | Page modified November 15, 2012 at 9:18 PM

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MVP debate pitted Trout and Cabrera, but stat geeks and traditionalists, too

Miguel Cabrera, who won the Triple Crown, got 22 out of 28 first-place votes for American League MVP, compared to six for runner-up Mike Trout.

Times baseball reporter

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I think we should all go have beers at the pub and discuss this. MORE
Triple Crown winner, end of discussion. No need to twist neometrics to make a case... MORE
I would've picked Trout. But, having said that... it's not like this was a travesty... MORE

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Here's the most fascinating part of the great Mike Trout-Miguel Cabrera MVP debate: The zealots on both sides can't even believe there's an argument.

I mean, Trout was so clearly the best all-around — repeat, all-around — player in the American League, with the statistical evidence to back it up (for those willing to open their minds to metrics beyond batting average, home runs and runs batted in) that it was a no-brainer. At least, to those with a brain and an open mind.

I mean, Cabrera won the Triple Freaking Crown, a feat that eluded Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth. In fact, since 1900, it had eluded anyone except 11 players (Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams won twice), and none had turned the trick since Yaz in 1967.

And as if that wasn't enough, Cabrera's Tigers made the playoffs, while Trout's Angels were aced out. Does the word "valuable" mean anything to you? Talk about no-brainers — at least, for those with a brain and without a pocket protector.

It's a little too clichéd to paint this Most Valuable Player vote as another battle in the war between the saber-nerds and the traditionalists — the staid Luddites of the Baseball Writers' Association of America vs. the WAR-loving eggheaded sons of Bill James.

But let's just say it's the latest referendum on two world views of judging player value. And give this win (not that wins matter much any more, at least not for starting pitchers) to the old school.

Cabrera — did I mention he won the Triple Crown? — was the overwhelming choice of the BBWAA, with 22 out of 28 first-place votes, compared to six for runner-up Trout.

This was hardly a surprise. Just about everyone figured that the historical imperative of a Triple Crown would, rightly or wrongly, carry the day. Even Nate Silver, The New York Times blogger/mathematician who so thoroughly nailed the results of the presidential race (and who was a baseball analyst in a previous life) called this one for Cabrera. But not before making a long, involved, statistically sophisticated case for Trout, leading to this conclusion:

"The argument on Trout's behalf isn't all that complicated: He provided the greater overall contribution to his team. Trout was a much better defensive player than Cabrera, and a much better base runner. And if Cabrera was the superior hitter, it wasn't by nearly as much as the triple crown statistics might suggest."

I didn't sense much outrage from the sabermetric community after Cabrera's win, probably because the outcome was a foregone conclusion. But social media was bristling with even more snark and moral indignation than usual. Which is saying something.

I didn't have an MVP vote this year, but if I had, I would have given it to Trout. But I would have spent hours, if not days, agonizing over it, and the instant I sent it off, I would have been second-, third- and fourth-guessing myself.

Because I don't see this as a clash of right and wrong, or open-mindedness and close-mindedness, or progress and regress. I see it as an agonizing choice between two fantastic players whose epic seasons each had virtues pointing toward their status as the most valuable.

Contrary to the opinion of the most dogmatic on each side, there is no wrong answer here. You could make a WAR-based argument for Trout (WAR referring to "Wins Above Replacement" a statistic that measures a player's value), but there is still no consensus on measuring defense, which is a big part of WAR. You could make a big deal out of Cabrera leading the Tigers to the playoffs, but the Angels actually won more games.

There is, in fact, an almost limitless amount of "yeah, buts." Yeah, but Trout missed the first month of the season. Yeah, but Cabrera grounded into 28 double plays. Yeah, but Trout hit .289 after Sept. 1, with a .900 OPS, while Cabrera hit .333 with a 1.071 OPS. Yeah, but Trout stole 49 bases and was caught just five times, while Cabrera stole just four. Yeah, but Cabrera showed great leadership by agreeing to move to third base to accommodate Prince Fielder. Yeah, but he wasn't a very good third baseman.

And so it goes, ad nauseam. I fully acknowledge that there is a powerful historical resonance to winning the first Triple Crown in 45 years. Then again, I also fully acknowledge that RBI and batting average ain't what they used to be, value-wise.

I fall into the camp that believes that Trout had a better all-around year than Cabrera. But I don't see anything so clear-cut as to denounce those who deem otherwise.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @StoneLarry


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