AL MVP: Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout?

(REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk) (REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk)
Last year, as Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers finished off a historic season in which he won the Triple Crown — his league’s titles in batting average, home runs and runs batted in — a previously inconceivable debate arose. Was Cabrera, the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years, the American League MVP?

Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels became the poster boy for the SABR crowd, because with the new-fangled WAR (wins above replacement) stat, numbers crunchers figured they had a way to quantify a player’s complete value — offense, defense and base running — and not just look at those old-school numbers. Cabrera won the actual award, in voting by the decidedly old-school Baseball Writers Association of America, but the sabermatricians’ voices were heard, and loudly.

Why bring that up again? Because as we hand out our awards for the 2013 season (and these are in theory, as The Washington Post prohibits its writers from voting for such honors), the same two men come with the two best seasons and virtually the same arguments behind them.

Here is a list of AL offensive categories which Cabrera leads, as of Friday morning: batting average (.345), on-base percentage (.440), slugging percentage (.640), on-base-plus-slugging (1.077), and RBI (137, tied with Baltimore’s Chris Davis). Throw in 44 home runs (trailing only Davis), and it’s a historic offensive season, even as he’s battled injuries to hit .246 and slug just .308 in September.

(AP Photo/George Nikitin) (AP Photo/George Nikitin)

But here is Trout’s resume, and like in 2012, it’s a bit more nuanced: In the traditional categories Cabrera leads, Trout ranks second in average (.324) and on-base percentage (.431), fourth in slugging percentage (.556), third in OPS (.987) and ninth in RBI (94). He leads in runs scored (108 to Cabrera’s 103), and has reached base an incredible 303 times and has 33 steals.

All of that helps Trout’s offensive WAR reach 9.9 (according to Baseball Reference) – ahead of Cabrera’s 8.8 as runner-up. Factor in all elements of the players’ games, and Trout has a 9.1 WAR; Cabrera ranks fifth at 7.0. Basically, by this science, Trout was worth two more wins to his Angels than Cabrera was to his Tigers.

But here’s where the new debate takes on an age-old flavor: The “V” in MVP stands for “valuable,” and value tends to be in the eye of the beholder. The Tigers won the AL Central. The Angels will finish with a losing record. Maybe the debate resembles not 2012, when Cabrera trumped Trout, but 1987, when Andre Dawson of the last-place Cubs beat out Ozzie Smith of the first-place Cardinals. Does winning matter?

In this case, it has to be a factor – just like all the traditional stats, just like all the new information. So, then, we give you your 2013 AL MVP, Miguel Cabrera.

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.

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Adam Kilgore · September 28, 2013