Another day provided another chance to see what the likely leaders in the American League Most Valuable Player race were up to. Miguel Cabrera homered. Chris Davis homered. And Mike Trout, the guy you’d prefer to pick if you were starting your team tomorrow with a blank slate because he might be doing even more at the plate than either of them, even if his news item for the day involved a bad hammy.
If you want to be a reductionist and use WAR and WAR alone, this year’s MVP race might seem much like last year's: Trout narrowly leads, and Miggy’s behind him. Trout’s team won’t be playing in October, while Miggy’s team almost certainly will be. Davis hitting more home runs than anyone else on the planet adds a small variation on a theme that you might remember from last year, when Trout vs. the Triple Crown was resolved to little satisfaction with Cabrera crowned MVP. So we’re already prepped with an argument in which we might all think we already know the talking points, skipping ahead to use this as an excuse to rail about the BBWAA’s purported fogeydom to launch another debate on the state of statistical knowledge inside the game and out.
Except that’s not really the case here, because this year as opposed to last, the conversation should focus on offense, and whatever your flavor of metric there, the results so far produce a fairly simple answer: Miguel Cabrera should win (again), but for much stronger reasons this time around.
Just offense? There must be distinctions to be drawn because of their defensive responsibilities, right? Well, sort of, but one of the problems with reaching for WAR as a sorting tool in an argument like this is that the utility of any defensive metric is a wee bit more speculative than the offensive portion of the program. It’s informed, it’s better than ever and it’s still not as solid and precise as what we know about offensive value.
So sure, we can point out that Miguel Cabrera isn’t a good defensive third baseman. So what? Cabrera’s positional flexibility allowed the Tigers to sign Prince Fielder in the first place, and lining up behind the best strikeout staff in the league (with the Tigers whiffing almost 23 percent of all opposing batters), Cabrera’s limitations at a position that sees just 2.5 plays per game doesn’t come close to what he provides daily at bat.
In contrast, Chris Davis is reputed to be an excellent first baseman. Nevertheless, he doesn’t get much love from Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved or Total Zone (and first base is one of the half-dozen positions UZR doesn’t do so well with), so what do you do with that? You judge him on his bat, because he plays an offense-first position.
And Mike Trout? Well, playing about a third of the time in left and two-thirds of it in center this year muddies the picture, but using Total Zone or Defensive Runs Saved, you find the Angels’ left fielders rank around league-average, and their center fielders rank around average in Total Zone to boot. BIS’ Defensive Runs paints a much more bleak picture of their center fielders’ glove work, ranking them as one of the four teams getting bad defense from their CFs, but still less than a win’s worth of total impact on their year. That’s if you take their numbers at face value, instead of allowing for them as educated suggestions.
So face it: Defense isn’t really a significant component of any of their MVP cases. None of them play an up-the-middle infield position or catcher, where they would have to handle the ball more often than anyone else. So why not just chuck that part of the conversation altogether, because it obscures why we’re talking about the three of them in the first place: offense. And there, whether you like old-fangled stats or new, things get much more interesting and fun to talk about.
Trout: Second in batting average and OBP, fourth in slugging, third in OPS. Tied for fifth in steals. First in offense-only WAR -- which cares about your peers at your position(s). Second in Baseball Prospectus’ true average (TAv), third in FanGraphs’ weighted on-base average (wOBA). Second in runs created.
Cabrera: Leads in batting average, OBP, slugging percentage, OPS and total bases. Second in home runs. Second in offense-only WAR. First in true average, wOBA and runs created.
Davis: Seventh in OBP, second in slugging and OPS. Leads baseball in home runs. Third in offense-only WAR, second in wOBA, third in true average and runs created.
From that, if you focus on what they’ve done with a bat in their hands it seems to me that it’s pretty obviously Miggy’s race to win with less than a quarter of the season to go. For the purpose of this conversation, Davis’ homers don’t overcome the bigger pile of stuff that Cabrera and Trout do. Miggy has homers, Trout has steals, and the former is much more valuable than the latter. Trout’s lone real bragging rights over Miggy this year is offense-only WAR, and there the margin is so slender (Trout was at 8.2 oWAR to Miggy’s 8.0 through Saturday) that it’s functionally identical.
So, we’re done here, right? As if. Let the arguments rage, because isn’t that a big part of the fun in the first place?
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.