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Framing the American League MVP debate

9/19/2012
If the MVP award were strictly an offensive honor, Miguel Cabrera might be the favorite. David Richard/US Presswire

The best front-office minds in baseball have been the engines of change in the sport over the past two decades, and as a result, there are fewer bunts and more lineups stacked according to on-base percentage and a greater value placed on defense.

There has been a gradual trickle-down effect from the front-office spawn of Moneyball to the baseball writers, who have generally adopted and embraced that thinking. This was apparent in 2010, when the pitcher wins statistic was placed on life support after being a primary evaluation tool for decades. Felix Hernandez went 13-12 that year, ranking 18th in pitcher wins, but he won the AL Cy Young Award anyway. For some baseball officials, the pitcher wins statistic still has a heartbeat as a small measure of how a pitcher can push across a finish line in a tough inning, but it is mostly extinct.

In a few months, when MVP votes are tallied, we will know whether another statistic, the RBI -- rendered obsolete by most front offices as an evaluation tool during the past decade -- is being treated similarly by the baseball writers.

By the measures of past generations, Miguel Cabrera would be a solid bet to win the AL Most Valuable Player award. After his monster performance on Tuesday night, he has a .333 average, 40 homers and 129 RBIs, and a shot to be the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.

If you go by the new metrics, however, Mike Trout would win the MVP in the way that Lyndon Johnson thrashed Barry Goldwater in 1964, or how Richard Nixon crushed George McGovern in 1972. According to the advanced numbers, Trout versus Cabrera is not close.

As of Wednesday morning, the wins above replacement leaders -- the WAR leaders -- for the American League:

1. Mike Trout, 10.2

2. Robinson Cano, 6.7

3. Miguel Cabrera, 6.1

WAR takes a much broader overview of a player's skills, also incorporating baserunning and defense, as the FanGraphs definition details here.

In the MVP voting of years past, defense and baserunning have tended to be treated like ugly stepchildren, and batting average and RBIs have been the favored categories. The accumulation of RBIs is the traditional way that players have evaluated themselves and one another; you hear constant references to this in conversations with those in uniform.

But in the past decade -- and in particular the past five years -- defense and baserunning metrics have gained a lot of attention in front offices because they fill out the broader picture of what a player is.

Cabrera is an extraordinary hitter; as I wrote here recently, if he retired today, he would have done enough to be voted into the Hall of Fame for work at the plate alone. He is also one of the worst defensive players in the majors; it's a simple fact that his presence at third base costs the Tigers runs. He is, on his best days, a station-to-station baserunner.

Trout, a rookie, is among the best hitters in the majors and will finish this season with something close to these numbers: 130 runs, 85 RBIs and a .950 OPS. He is also arguably the fastest baserunner and the most efficient, with 46 stolen bases in 50 attempts, constantly taking extra bases. And he is a spectacular defensive player, to the point that one club official recently evaluated his range as extending 7 feet beyond the fence because of his ability to get back to the wall. (Trout leads the majors in home run takeaways.)

Defense for baseball teams and players has not traditionally been viewed as a separate entity in the way it has been in the NFL. During the prime of Peyton Manning's career, the Colts' defense was thought of as something that the quarterback had to overcome.

The most progressive baseball front offices now do think of defense as another way of creating value. "It's a zero sum game," a GM said recently. "If you can save a run with your defense or create a run [on the basepaths], it's the same as hitting a home run."

By their way of thinking, Cabrera could be Manning -- and that old Colts defense as well. On the other hand, Trout could be thought of as Aaron Rodgers, Chris Johnson, Clay Matthews and Darrelle Revis all rolled into one player.

How will the MVP vote turn out? It's hard to say. There are 28 voters who will pick the AL MVP, two in each of the 14 American League cities -- which means 28 different perspectives, 28 different standards.

If they go with the old-school numbers, the MVP will be Cabrera or maybe Josh Hamilton.

If they evaluate through the prism used by most front offices -- as they did in 2010, with the Felix Hernandez Cy Young vote -- the only question will be whether Trout is a unanimous selection.

For the readers: Whom would you pick?

Cabrera says he would thank Prince Fielder if he wins the MVP.

From ESPN Stats & Information: After a huge night Tuesday, Cabrera leads the American League in batting average (.333) and RBIs (129) and is tied for second with 40 homers, just two behind leader Josh Hamilton. Cabrera's first home run Tuesday was off a pitch in the "middle-middle" part of the zone, an area where he has unsurprisingly feasted on pitches this season. Cabrera is 39-for-65 (.600 BA) with 12 HR in at-bats ending with a middle-middle pitch, both best in the major leagues. In addition, the home run came off a 68 mph curveball, the slowest pitch he has hit for a home run in the past four seasons.

Most homers off middle-middle pitches this season

12: Miguel Cabrera

12: Curtis Granderson

12: Corey Hart

11: Three tied with

.300 BA, 40 homers and 125 RBIs in single season (Tigers history)

2012: Miguel Cabrera

1961: Norm Cash

1940: Hank Greenberg

1938: Hank Greenberg

1937: Hank Greenberg

The Tigers didn't gain any ground on Tuesday, however, and Max Scherzer came out of the game with shoulder pain.

The contenders most in need of a victory Wednesday:

1. Los Angeles Dodgers, who are now 1.5 games back in the wild-card race.

2. Detroit.

3. Angels.

4. Pirates.

5. Brewers.

By The Numbers, Cabrera edition

From ESPN Stats & Info

6: Cabrera hit his 40th home run Tuesday, becoming the sixth player in Tigers history to have that many in a season. The last to do so was Cecil Fielder in 1991.

9: 440-plus-foot homers this season for Cabrera, most by any player this season. His first home run Tuesday went 446 feet.

129: Cabrera had six RBIs on Tuesday to bring his season total to a MLB-leading 129. His previous high for a season was 127 in 2008.

.441: Batting average during Cabrera's current eight-game hitting streak. He's hitting an AL best .333 this season, and his career high for a season is .344, which he had last year.

Elsewhere

Clayton Kershaw has been cleared to pitch.

• I wrote here the other day about which teams might go after Hamilton, and since then, one NL executive put in a vote for the San Francisco Giants. They could create some room on their payroll, he noted, by trading Hunter Pence or by not tendering him a contract, and at the end of 2013, the contracts of both Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum are set to expire. "The middle of their lineup could be Hamilton, [Buster] Posey and [Pablo] Sandoval, and that could be pretty amazing," the exec said.

Hamilton has power that could have an impact in any park, including San Francisco, where home runs don't come often. He could play any of the three outfield positions there as well.

• While you were sleeping, the Baltimore Orioles won a crazy 18-inning game in Seattle, Dan Connolly writes.

From the Elias Sports Bureau: It was the first game to go 18-plus innings without an error by either team since Cubs versus Astros on Aug. 15, 2006 (18 innings).

From ESPN Stats & Info:

1. The Orioles have 14 straight extra-inning wins (longest single-season streak since 1949 Indians, who won 17 straight).

2. Taylor Teagarden had the go-ahead RBI single in the 18th, and six of his seven hits this season have driven in runs, with three coming in extra innings.

3. Time of game: 5 hours, 44 minutes (second-longest game by innings, third-longest by time this season).

4. The Orioles' Nos. 4-8 hitters: 1-for-35, 10 strikeouts.

5. The Mariners went 0-for-17 with RISP (left 16 runners on base).

• There is surging interest in the Orioles and Athletics based on the ticket prices in the secondary market.

Chris Matcovich of Tiqiq.com sent over these numbers:

Orioles:

• Average ticket price from Sept. 1, 2011, to end of regular season: $45

• Average ticket price from Sept. 1, 2012, to end of regular season: $94.99

• Percentage change year-over-year: plus-111.1 percent

Athletics:

• Average ticket price from Sept. 1, 2011, to end of regular season: $49

• Average ticket price from Sept. 1, 2012, to end of regular season: $62.16

• Percentage change year-over-year: plus-26.86 percent

Pittsburgh Pirates owner Bob Nutting is unhappy with the Pirates' collapse and is asking hard questions, writes Dejan Kovacevic.

Dings and dents

1. Danny Espinosa has a bruise.

2. Brett Gardner is going to help out on defense and as a pinch runner, writes Mark Feinsand.

3. Jim Thome is expected to join the Orioles this weekend.

4. Jake Westbrook is working to come back.

5. A couple of Cincinnati Reds are working their way back toward getting into action -- Zack Cozart took batting practice, and Aroldis Chapman will throw a bullpen session.

6. Travis Hafner could be back in the Indians' lineup.

7. Andrelton Simmons is out with a sore shoulder.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. Yunel Escobar was suspended, David Waldstein writes. Something was lost in translation, writes Bob Elliott. His explanation defied logic, writes Cathal Kelly.

2. Longtime Yankees adviser Billy Connors is being demoted, writes George King.

3. Tim Bogar is going to interview for the Astros' managerial job. Zachary Levine takes a look at the Astros' search.

4. The San Diego Padres extended a minor league affiliation.

AL East notes

• The Tampa Bay Rays are six games behind the Orioles and just about done. It's been a frustrating season, writes Gary Shelton.

Andy Pettitte is the Yankees' go-to guy again, Harvey Araton writes.

• Felix Doubront threw well, and the Boston Red Sox came back to win.

AL Central notes

• The Chicago White Sox held serve with some old-fashioned power. Meanwhile, they are monitoring the innings of Chris Sale.

From ESPN Stats & Info: Max Scherzer left the game Tuesday after two innings with right shoulder fatigue. His fastball averaged 92.3 mph, his lowest average velocity in a start this season. Scherzer's season average entering Tuesday was 94.3 mph, fifth among qualified starters. Scherzer's fastball velocity had been trending upward as of late; his previous two starts were his two highest-average fastball velocities in the past four seasons.

• The Kansas City Royals are on the verge of elimination. They had to shuffle their rotation.

• The Cleveland Indians wasted chances, Paul Hoynes writes.

Joe Mauer is going for a batting title.

AL West notes

• Oakland got blasted, writes Susan Slusser.

Ryan Dempster had a fourth-inning meltdown.

Jered Weaver and the Los Angeles Angels took down the Rangers. Albert Pujols wasn't able to be at the game. The Angels' closer is back in business, writes Mark Whicker.

• The Seattle Mariners got an iron-man effort from catcher Miguel Olivo -- but lost.

NL East notes

• The Philadelphia Phillies are sticking with Ryan Howard.

• Domonic Brown's patience has paid off, writes John Finger.

• The Atlanta Braves rallied but lost.

• The New York Mets are chasing their own awful record.

• The Miami Marlins pulled out a win in extra innings.

NL Central notes

• The Milwaukee Brewers ran wild against the Pirates. Corey Hart can pinch-hit, but he can't start.

Kyle Lohse was The Man for the St. Louis Cardinals.

• The Reds' magic number is down to 4.

• The Pirates got steamrolled and fell behind the Brewers in the standings.

• The Chicago Cubs, playing out the string, lost again.

• The Astros have 100 losses.

NL West notes

• Tim Lincecum picked up his 10th win.

From ESPN Stats & Info, how he beat the Rockies:

A. Rockies hitters were 1-for-10 in at-bats ending with a fastball, including four strikeouts.

B. Rockies hitters were 0-for-7 in at-bats ending with a pitch on the inside part of the plate or further in, including 0-for-6 against the fastball.

C. Rockies hitters were 0-for-8 in at-bats ending with a pitch in the upper half of the zone or above, including 0-for-7 with four strikeouts against the fastball.

D. Rockies hitters were 0-for-13 in two-strike at-bats.

• Lincecum still needs polish, writes Carl Steward.

Wilin Rosario tied a record.

Ian Kennedy had a strong outing. Gerardo Parra has had difficulty with his limited playing time.

Chase Headley is worthy of second-half consideration, writes Jeff Sanders.

Other stuff

• The Washington Nationals could start on the road in the playoffs, Adam Kilgore writes. The Nationals will start selling playoff tickets Friday.

• The Colorado Rockies need anchors for their pitching staff, writes Troy Renck.

• The Marlins should stop complaining about their ballpark dimensions, writes Ozzie Guillen.

Ike Davis defended himself.

Michael Young is keeping faith in himself.

• An Oakland ballpark decision could come soon, and Scott Ostler is skeptical.

And today will be better than yesterday.