If you open your web browser and surf to any major baseball website or discussion thread, you're bound to find yourself caught in the middle of a raging debate over who should win the AL MVP award. In contrast to the NL MVP, which is a wide open contest involving about five different candidates, the AL debate has boiled down to essentially two players, both of whom are having incredible, historic years. They would be Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera. Trout is finishing up what might be the greatest rookie season ever, while Cabrera is two games away from becoming the first batting triple crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. The back-and-forth over the merits of these two has become a bit heated in the past couple of weeks. Many message board threads have been filled with all-caps rants and dogs insulted, and Godwin's Law has applied more often than it probably should. So, naturally, I figured I'd throw my own two cents into this whole firestorm.
As with any baseball award debate, some of the arguments on each side can border on inane. Take, for example, the assertion that Cabrera should be the MVP because he got his team to the playoffs. Never mind that the Angels have a better record or that the Tigers play in perhaps baseball's worst division. That's a silly argument that is easy to dismiss with a wave of the hand and a twiddling of the mustache. There are a few more like this on either side of the fight.
What I find a bit disturbing, however, is that the AL MVP race has somehow morphed into the tired old "Stats vs. Scouts" debate, the one that has the nerds in their moms' basement throwing numbers and graphing calculators while their cud-chewing adversaries harken back to the 19-aughts and rave about the "good face". It's as if scouts (or old-fashioned types, I guess) don't appreciate teenage freaks of nature who put up 30/30 rookie seasons, and that saber-types eschew pure-hitting monsters who lead the league in slugging. This old-timey vs. new school battle is one that died several years ago, as the two sides coexist almost symbiotically now, and yet several scribes are trying to resurrect the animosity. Give it a rest (For my full...and strange...take on the stats v. scouts debate, check out this post that I actually submitted to Baseball Prospectus a few years back).
The reason for this unfortunate regression to 2002-era in-fighting is WAR. Namely, the fact that Mike Trout leads the majors, by a wide margin, in WAR (using Baseball Reference's version) at 10.7, while Cabrera is fourth in the AL at 6.8. That's it. Trout's advocates like to point this out as Exhibit A in his defense, and that has fueled the anti-saber backlash from the pro-Cabrera side. I doubt there are any serious analysts out there using WAR as the be-all, end-all stat to conclude that Trout is the obvious choice, yet that's become the generality. WAR simply a part of the equation, and even the number's most ardent advocates will tell you that it has its flaws (namely the general nebulous nature of the defensive statistics included within it).
It's probably not going to be a surprise to you that I fall on Trout's side in this argument. I think Trout's superstar-level offense, combined with his excellent baserunning skills and top-flight defensive ability at a premium position, make him the AL's top player. What Cabrera is doing is amazing, but he is undoubtedly hurt by the fact that he plays some truly horrid defense (at a relatively easier position, natch) and runs the bases like a Gila Monster with a boulder chained to its back leg.
By pure hitting numbers, in a vacuum, Cabrera is the guy. As we all know, though, in the real world, the other stuff counts. Trout is the better all-around player. As for the Triple Crown...yes, it's great that Cabrera is probably going to be the first player to win it since Lyndon Johnson was holding staff meetings on the White House crapper. It's an amazing achievement for an amazing hitter. The thing is, those are just three arbitrary categories bunched together over a century ago. If we threw all of the baseball statistical categories into a big pot, stirred them up, and picked out runs scored, stolen bases, and OPS+ as the new Triple Crown numbers, then Trout would win.
My question to you fantasy-goers, though, is who would you take first in next year's fantasy draft? I think we're all in agreement that these are two first round talents and they're both on the short list to go one-two in any draft. It's obvious in keeper leagues that Trout is the guy you're going to take, but let's pretend this is a redraft league, and you only get to keep either player for one season. Also, let's assume that the outfield spots aren't split into left, center, right, and you only get a general "OF" position. Who do you take if you have the first pick in this situation?
It's not such an easy decision as you might think. Trout will once again probably be more valuable in real life, but luckily for us fantheads, defense matters not a lick in rotoball. Ever since Cabrera shifted to third base, it has upped his fantasy value exponentially. He's head and shoulders above any other fantasy third baseman right now, and once again he's going to beat Trout in a lot of the hitting categories. He's likely to still top him in batting average, OPS, home runs, RBIs, and he even strikes out less, to boot. Not to mention, with Prince Fielder hitting behind him, Cabrera scores a ton of runs, too, and he isn't that far behind Trout even this year.
Trout has youth and stolen bases on his side. He's already going to put up a 30/50 season at the age of 20, so who knows what's in store for this guy. He could have a season that combines the best moments of Super NES Ken Griffey and whatever moniker MVP Baseball used for Barry Bonds in a given year. He could easily outdo himself in 2013, and that's just damned scary.
So, let's have it. If you're heading into next season's redraft league, and the lottery balls give you the first pick, who is it going to be? Established awesomeness in Cabrera's rotund form, or the potential for even more with Trout?