The Baseball Writers Association of America announced the winner of the 2012 American League Most Valuable Player tonight. Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera, AL Triple Crown winner, won the award over Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim center fielder Mike Trout. Much has been made about the AL MVP vote this year being a contest between "stats guys" and "traditionalists." The truth is that it's neither. Cabrera winning the AL MVP is a Frankenstein's monster of the worst parts of traditional stats and Moneyball philosophy overcoming the best aspects of Whiteyball and Moneyball, production that can be valued fairly well by today's advanced baseball stats.
"We're not selling jeans here," Billy Beane is famously quoted as saying in the Michael Lewis besteller. Instead, the A's were looking for guys who got on-base. This philosophy led to a form of player evaluation that prized slugging and getting on base, often at the expense of defense and baserunning. The Giambi brothers, Adam Dunn, and the Cardinals' very own Chris Duncan were Moneyballers who would never be cast in a Levi's ad. They had burly physiques and could mash baseballs, but were poor defenders and baserunners. In the early Aughts, few in the stat-centric community cared too much about their non-hitting shortcomings.
During those heady days of the early Aughts, Cabrera burst onto the MLB scene. Then slimmer, Cabrera could hit, man third base satisfactorily, and maybe even sell some jeans. Since then, his weight has gone up, his prospects of modeling jeans have gone down, and his ability to run the bases and defend third base have tanked. Cabrera has turned himself into the popular perception of the Moneyball ideal, albeit a decade too late.
Cabrera combined his early-Aughts Moneyball physique, defense, and baserunning with an offensive season that checked off every major offensive statistic in the traditional hitting canon. His .330 average, 44 homers, and 139 RBI led the AL. By leading in these arbitrary offensive categories while playing his home games in a hitter-friendly ballpark, Cabrera earned a golden crown that was last worn by Carl Yastremski in 1967, the Year of El Birdos.
Whereas Cabrera epitomizes most of what was wrong about early-Aughts Moneyballers and stat traditionalists, Trout represents the best of what Whiteyball and the best of Moneyball prized. Mike Trout is the Whitey Herzog ideal. Unlike Cabrera, Trout provided excellent value to the Angels on the basepaths and with his glove as well as at the plate. It's as if mad scientist Herzog created in his lab a played that combined the skills of Jack "The Ripper" Clark and Willie McGee.
McGee won the 1985 MVP award in a different time. In the 1980s, baseball writers used to believe in many of the things Whitey Herzog believed in. They saw the value in good baserunning, which was often reduced to the shorthand of stolen base totals. They recognized how valuable excellent defense was. Yes, when McGee won his MVP award, he led the National League with a .353 batting average and 216 hits, but he also notched a mere 82 RBI and only 10 homers. Augmenting his resume beyond the "run producer" stats of home runs and RBI, McGee had 56 stolen bases and 114 runs to his name. McGee also won a Gold Glove that 1985 season. McGee won the 1985 NL MVP award because he could hit, steal bases, set the table, and play excellent defense.
In 1987, Clark very likely would have won the NL MVP had he not suffered an injury. Clark was a Bondsian monster that season, walking at an absurd rate and mightily clubbing baseballs, even if his batting average was somewhat lacking. The Ripper placed third in the MVP vote and, had he and teammate Ozzie Smith not split the Cardinals vote, Andre Dawson would not have become one of history's most undeserving MVPs and Hall-of-Famers.
Trout did the same things as McGee in 1985 and Clark in 1987. By the fielding metrics and scouting reports, Trout was one of the best defensive center fielders in all of baseball--probably trailing the Braves' Michael Bourn. By Total Zone, McGee trailed seven other center fielders, including two National Leaguers, with his +5 defense in center. Trout was worth 12 runs on the basepaths; McGee was worth 4.6. Trout went 49 for 54 in stolen base attempts, which equals a success rate of 90.74 percent. McGee went 56 for 72 in 1985, which gave him a success rate of 77.78 percent. Trout also hit for power in a pitcher-friendly park and, like Clark, led his league in OPS+ as a result.
WILLIE MCGEE 1985 vs. JACK CLARK 1987 vs. MIKE TROUT 2012
*The stats in bold are those which the players led their respective leagues in.
When it comes to walks, Trout split the difference between Clark and McGee. In doing so, he beat Cabrera ever so slightly in on-base percentage. Clark was a player with excellent plate discipline, walking in 15.3 percent of his career plate appearances and a mind-boggling 24.4 percent of the time in 1987. In McGee's MVP season, he walked in just 5.2 percent of his plate appearances. In 2012, Trout walked in a healthy 10.5 percent of his plate appearances. Cabrera posted a 2012 walk rate of 9.5 percent. This is why his on-base percentage of .399 was six points higher than Cabrera's even though Trout's batting average was four points lower. By the stat Moneyball made famous, OBP, Trout was better than Cabrera. To put it another way, Trout made outs at a lesser rate than Cabrera.
Trout's 2012 was historically great because it combined elite baserunning, defense, and hitting while Cabrera's was elite in the three traditionally emphasized hitting categories. This is where the metric of wRC+ come in handy. Instead of focusing only on hitting--as batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS do--wRC+* takes into account both baserunning and hitting as well as the parks the players played in. In 2012, both Cabrera and Trout posted a wRC+ of 166. That is to say their overall offensive production was equal. What puts Trout over the top in terms of value is his excellent defense at a premium position.
*The Fangraphs glossary has a nice primer on wRC+ with links to other articles on the stat. It can be reached by clicking here.
Whitey Herzog looked at Major League Baseball in his era and found inefficiencies. He then went out and constructed clubs to exploit those inefficiencies. He sought out speedy players who played good defense, got on base, and ran the bases well. Years later, Billy Beane did the same thing and constructed competitive clubs on a shoestring budget by exploiting the market inefficiency relating to on-base percentage. If we could splice together the best of Whiteyball and Moneyball, its embodiment would be Mike Trout. Trout should have won the AL MVP because of the value he brought to the Angels in every facet of the game. That Trout didn't win the award is a disappointment to those fans who find value in the best parts of the Whiteyball and Moneyball philosophies.
-NATIONAL LEAGUE MOST VALUABLE PLAYER RESULTS-
1) Buster Posey, 422 points
2) Ryan Braun, 285 points
3) Andrew McCutchen, 245 points
4) Yadier Molina, 241 points
5) Chase Headley, 127 points
11) Matt Holliday, 34 points
19) Allen Craig, 10 points
26) Carlos Beltran, 6 points
Complete NL MVP results and BBWAA ballots here.
-AMERICAN LEAGUE MOST VALUABLE PLAYER RESULTS-
1) Miguel Cabrera, 362 points
2) Mike Trout, 281 points
3) Adrian Beltre, 210 points
4) Robinson Cano, 149 points
5) Josh Hamilton, 127 points
6) Adam Jones, 124 points
Complete AL MVP results and BBWAA ballots here.