The MVP debate that took place last season still seems to have some fuel for the fire left as Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout are, once again, being debated among analysts, fans, and even the sabermetrics community. And we''re not even into July yet. Cabrera is once again leading the world in just about every traditional offensive category, while Trout is still proving to be an elite all-around player. There’s also one more player who must be thrown into the mix -- Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis.
As of right now, these are the players that are top three in WAR, not just in the American League but in all of baseball. Each brings value to his club in a slightly different way. And while I could continue to write paragraph upon paragraph talking about what should or should not be considered in the debate for Most Valuable Player, for the purposes of my argument, I believe the name of the award does that for me. It’s called the "Most Valuable Player" award because we should be taking into consideration the merits and achievements of all players and then look at how valuable those contributions were to their team. Or at least that’s what it means to me. Not everyone will agree with that of course, but if it were meant to be viewed differently then I feel it would be called the Most Outstanding Player award instead. And it’s not.
A case can be made for each of these players, so let’s get started.
Photo credit: Rick Osentoski
The memory still remains of Cabrera’s magical 2012 season. He won the MVP award partly because he accomplished the rare feat of winning the Triple Crown, partly for helping lead the Detroit Tigers to the postseason, and partly because he’s generally a phenomenal hitter with a strong track record. He's just that good. He set career highs in hits, home runs, RBI, and total bases last season and he is on pace to do it all over again this season as he continues to improve as a hitter.
Aside from the nostalgia factor and fans and analysts alike glowing over his natural ability to play the game at a consistently great level not quite witnessed since Barry Bonds shattered records, Cabrera currently leads the majors in total FanGraphs's version of WAR with 4.8, on-base percentage at .460, runs scored at 57, RBI with 74 (even though it’s a statistic of opportunity) and he is first in total hits with 106.
If we look more specifically a few different base-out state numbers, then his dominance and value is illustrated even further. His WPA (Win Probability Added) is 3.11, which is third highest in baseball and second in the American League. His RE24 (runs above average based on the 24 base/out states) is second in all of baseball at 44.18, trailing only Chris Davis, and is nearly 12 points higher than Trout, who is in third place. Additionally, his REW (wins above average based on the 24 base/out states) is 4.54 and that is also good for first in baseball. When it comes to performance in circumstances that are critical to his team, Cabrera excels.
Obviously, the case for Cabrera as the AL MVP up to this point in the season is a strong one and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him win the award for the second year in a row. His performance in several important categories on offense and the fact that he’s helping his team work toward another division title should only help further his cause to win the 2013 AL MVP award.
Photo credit: Victor Decolongon
Just as the memory remains of Cabrera’s historic 2012 season, the memory also remains for the many fans and analysts alike that believe he was robbed of his first career MVP award. We call recall how Trout managed to put up a 10 WAR season, the first time that has occurred since Barry Bonds put up an 11.6 WAR performance in 2004.
Not only that, but Trout arguably had one of the greatest seasons in the history of baseball for a 20-year old player – if not the greatest ever. Turn the page to this season and he is on track to have the greatest season in the history of baseball as a 21-year old player. (More on this later.) If his performance holds he could put up a WAR at, or around, 9.5.
Even though Trout is only third in baseball with 4.2 fWAR, his overall value cannot be denied or ignored. He’s third in RE24 at 31.97 and also third in REW at 3.45 -- but even more impressive is that he’s steadily improved his contact rate, which sits at 83.5%, while his swinging strike rate is a wildly impressive 6.4%. These are two categories in which he is far and away superior in compared to Cabrera and Davis, and are sharp indicators of future success at the plate.
More than anything else, Trout’s overall performance this season just feels like it is more sustainable than his peers also in the MVP discussion. His offensive performance isn’t supported by a BABIP near .400 either because of the unique skill-set he brings to each and every game. His ability to field his position well, utilize his speed on the base paths, and ability to hit for average and power provides far more value to his team than just being able to hit home runs or drive runners in due to the fact that hitters in front of him are good at getting on base.
Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports
Davis seemingly came out of nowhere this season with his offensive performance -- especially if you haven’t been following his career all that closely. This is a player that has always had the ability and power to do what he’s doing now. (Just once I’d love to hear him say "by the power of Grey Skull" just before he hits a home run onto Eutaw Street.)
Even though Davis doesn’t currently lead the league in WAR (like Cabrera does) and even though Davis isn’t as fast or defensively sound as Trout is in the outfield -- that doesn’t mean he’s not just as valuable, if not more so. Currently he leads the majors with 27 home runs, a .468 wOBA, a 200 wRC+ mark (which tells us that he's 100% better of a hitter than league average).
He is also second in all of baseball in an important win probability category. His WPA is a staggering 4.48 and his clutch rating, which of course can change from year to year, is far higher at .93 than either Cabrera (-.10) or Trout (-1.47). What all of this means is that Davis has done more for his team in terms of helping them win -- at least to this point in the season -- than either Cabrera or Trout. He has proven a knack for coming through in high leverage situations.
One other thing that should be noted is that Davis is on pace to do something that only seven other players have accomplished throughout the entire history of baseball. Davis is on pace to his 50 or more home runs, hit .300 or better, and also have a slugging percentage at .700 or better. That right there is something that would cement his place in the history books, and having that kind of narrative to follow you around towards the end of the season as you perform consistently enough to achieve it certainly won’t hurt your MVP chances.
As I mentioned, each one of these players could make a very strong case to win the AL MVP award this year. It’s not as cut and dry as who hit the most home runs, who has the most RBI, or even who has the highest WAR total. What it’s about is who the Most Valuable player is and we still have another three months for each of these players to separate themselves from the group. There’s a great narrative surrounding each of these players as we get closer to the finish line though.
Cabrera could win the AL MVP award for a second consecutive season, which hasn’t been done since Frank Thomas did it in 1993 and 1994. He also has an outside shot at winning the Triple Crown if he can manage to out-homer Davis. Only two players in the history of the game have ever done it twice (Rogers Hornsby in 1922 and 1925 and then Ted Williams in 1942 and 1947) but no one has ever done it twice in a row.
Trout is on pace to put together the greatest 21-year old season in the history of the game if he can accumulate 9.5 fWAR. Dave Cameron of Fangraphs wrote about that very thing and showed us that Rogers Hornsby holds the record for greatest 21-year old season ever when he put up 9.4 WAR in 1917, breaking Shoeless Joe Jackson’s record of 9.3 WAR in 1911. So you see; Trout could very well own the record for greatest seasons ever by a 20-year-old and 21-year old.
Davis is on pace to have his name etched in the MLB history books as well, since he could potentially do something that only seven players before him have done. If he manages to hit 60 home runs while batting .300 and maintaining a .700+ slugging percentage then he’ll end up doing something that just three other players have done. Either way, we haven’t witnessed a player put up these kinds of power numbers while hitting for this high of an average since Sammy Sosa did it in 2001 -- and he hit 64 home runs that year.
No matter who wins the MVP award one thing is certain: baseball fans everywhere are in for a treat as these three players continue to perform at levels higher than any of us should expect. This will make for some great baseball to be watched, written about, and of course discussed as we work towards the final game of the season.
All stats come from FanGraphs.
You can follow me on Twitter @BSLLanceRinker, find out more about me by reading my BtBS bio, and even listen to my weekly podcast 'Bird Talk' that I host and produce -- we talk about the Baltimore Orioles.