If Miguel Cabrera Wins the Triple Crown, is he the MVP?
Short Answer: No.
As of today, Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera is leading the American League in both batting average (.333) and RBI’s (129). He is second in home runs with 40, just 2 behind Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton. Cabrera is also leading the league in slugging percentage, OPS+, and total bases. He’s having an MVP season. A season that win would MVP most years, which is hardly surprising from a player that has dominated the American League since coming over in 2008 and is looking at a fourth consecutive top-5 placing.
The question that has arisen in many places: if Miguel Cabrera wins the triple crown – does that make him MVP over Angels rookie center fielder Mike Trout?
1) Are those statistics really all-encompassing enough to make them an automatic MVP-winner?
First off, you’ve got batting average. Not a complete garbage statistic by any means. Most of the most ardent stat-lovers lead off with it in the rate-stat triple slash line. But it looks like an arbitrary sample of a player’s plate appearances, while completely ignoring some number of positive plate appearances. It also rates doubles and triples the same as singles. So, it combines the worst aspects of both on-base percentage and slugging percentage which both (when looked at together) tell a bigger story. Now, Cabrera is leading the league in slugging percentage and is third in on-base percentage.
Next, you have home runs which are fine. Moving on…
Finally, you have RBI’s, a hotly contested statistic, far less in-vogue now than in the past. For one thing, RBI’s have almost as much to do with who your teammates as they do your own personal skill; Miguel Cabrera would not be leading the league in RBI’s as a Seattle Mariner, and he would have about 150 as a Texas Ranger. And on-top of that, why are RBI’s any more significant than runs scored? Both are largely dependent on teammates and both are a direct reflection of the creation of a run that crosses that plate. Mike Trout, as a lead-off hitter, has been scoring runs at a historic pace – due to both his own skill (.396 OBP, 46/50 in SB) and his teammates (four Angels have OPS+’s over 120, in addition to Trout). And yet, due to the under-valued role of the lead-off hitter, RBI find their way into the triple crown equation and runs scored do not.
Now: it’s basically impossible to win the triple crown and have had a year that wasn’t MVP-caliber. In fact, anyone who finishes top-5 in all three categories will likely deserve to be in the discussion, provided their name isn’t Dante Bichette.
2) If he barely misses the Triple Crown, what would that change?
The question posed was: would winning the triple crown make Miguel Cabrera league MVP?
I counter with: what if he leads in home runs and RBI, but loses the batting average title by one point? In the grand picture, would one more hit have fundamentally transformed his season? What about three hits? Five hits? What if he’s one hit short and smashes a double in the eighth inning of a 10-0 blowout against a scrub call-up with the Tigers already eliminated to seize the fabled triple crown. Was his season un-MVP worthy in the seventh inning of that meaningless blow-out, but suddenly MVP-worthy because of that garbage double?
The MVP should be about the big picture, not about a single hit here or there. The difference between .334 and .333, or 137 RBI and 136 is negligible in the grand scheme of things, and the difference between those figures should not mark the difference between and MVP season and an also-ran.
3. Fielding counts in baseball.
This discussion has thus-far revolved solely around offensive prowess. What about fielding? Shouldn’t that matter? The MVP is an award given to the most valuable player, not hitter (note: yes, pitchers are players, because they play baseball). We have the Hank Aaron Award for the best hitter – MVP takes the whole player into account, so defense is part of the equation. Mike Trout is 21 years old, and is already the best defensive center fielder in the game, excelling at a defensive position like nobody’s business. Miguel Cabrera has never been a particular strong fielder as a first baseman and isn’t strong at third either.
This leaves Trout with a positional advantage at a harder position and a skill advantage as a much better fielder. This has resulted in Trout amassing 4 Wins Above Replacement more than Cabrera. WAR should not be in the end-all be-all, but, unlike batting average, home runs, and RBI, it looks at the whole player – and the difference between Trout and Cabrera. In fact, that difference is roughly the same as the difference between Cabrera and the league average regular player.
4. Yes, this has been done before.
In both 1942 and 1947, Ted Williams won the traditional triple crown and was denied the MVP, with pennant winners edging him both times (he was also denied the MVP when he hit .406 with a mind-blowing 235 OPS+). So, it wouldn’t exactly set a precedent if the MVP was denied to a triple crown winner.
The difference, of course, was that Williams was clearly wronged, leading the league in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS+, total bases, walks, and runs scored in both years with soul-shattering leads in every one of those categories. It’s like he was playing a different game – but of course, the adage at the time was that the MVP could only go to a member of a contending team.
Which brings us to our final point:
5) Don’t let a playoff appearance be the deciding factor.
At this juncture, both Trout and Cabrera would find themselves on the outside looking in if the season ended tonight.
If Cabrera’s efforts put the Tigers over the edge, that won’t make him MVP either, triple crown notwithstanding.
The MVP shouldn’t be denied to a player having a historically great season just because his teammates didn’t outperform another player’s teammates. Rank the players according to their own merits, and let the standings rank the teams.
In a way, we should feel sorry for Cabrera – at least as sorry as we possibly can for a man making over 20 million dollars a year. He has played well enough to win an MVP in each of the last three seasons and been edged each time – and just barely in 2010 and 2011. I’m confident that, at some point, he’ll get his – this kind of consistent dominance tends to yield the game’s highest honor at least once in a while.
But 2012 is Mike Trout’s year – no matter what three arbitrary statistics say.