MVP, Cy Young races in AL and NL undecided as season winds down
If Miguel Cabrera wins the Triple Corown he'd likely pass Mike Trout for AL MVP
Buster Posey leads for NL MVP but may not be league's best catcher
Trout and Arizona's Wade Miley have the Rookie of the Year awards locked up
There are less than two weeks left in the 2012 Major League Baseball season, and there is still plenty to be decided about who most deserves some of the major player awards. The most extreme case is the race for the National League's Most Valuable Player award, which could legitimately go to any one of four men. Clayton Kershaw's hip impingement could well decide the National League Cy Young race, though it hasn't yet, and in the American League, the MVP and Cy Young races threaten to once again stoke the battle between old-school thinking and progressive analysis. Here, then, is the penultimate Awards Watch of the regular season.
Note: Rookies are players who, prior to the current season, had fewer than 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the majors or spent fewer than 45 days on the active roster prior to rosters expanding on Sept. 1. The number in parentheses after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list. All stats are through Wednesday, September 19. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold italics.
1. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (1)
Season Stats: .327/.395/.556, 27 HR, 77 RBI, 118 R, 46 SB
2. Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Tigers (2)
Season Stats: .333/.398/.614, 41 HR, 130 RBI, 101 R
No hitter has won the Triple Crown -- leading the league in batting average, home runs, and RBIs -- since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, 45 years ago. Miguel Cabrera currently leads the American League in two of those three categories and, after going deep Wednesday night, is just one home run shy of Josh Hamilton's league-leading total of 42. If Cabrera wins the Triple Crown, I fully expect that he'll also win the AL Most Valuable Player award. However, the Triple Crown alone will not convince me that Cabrera has had a better season than Mike Trout.
The thing is, the Triple Crown really only measures two things: the ability to hit for average and the ability to hit for power. Driving in runs is a by-product of those two and of hitting with a lot of runners on base, a measurement which thus favors a middle-of-the-order hitter like Cabrera over a leadoff man like Trout. Cabrera clearly hits for more power than Trout, but the gap in batting average between the two is small. As for driving runs in, we can correct for Trout's relative lack of opportunities by looking at what percentage of the runners on base during their plate appearances each has driven home. Through Tuesday's action, Cabrera had plated 21.4 percent of 312 runners, while Trout had plated 18.2 percent of just 191. Again, not a huge gap (Cabrera's percentage ranks second in the league, Trout's ninth).
I'm not going to argue that Cabrera isn't the better hitter -- he clearly is -- but I think the gap is smaller than the home run and RBI categoies suggest. Meanwhile, nearly all of Cabrera's value is contained in his production at the plate (I'll give him credit for playing third base every day, but only a little, given that he's sub-par in the field). Trout, on the other hand, is a superb centerfielder and the best baserunner in the game (his major league-best 46 steals have come at an amazing 92 percent success rate, and he's just as good at taking the extra base). To me, that compensates for the difference between the two at the plate, as well as the 20-odd games Cabrera played in while Trout was in Triple-A in April. Advanced statistics like Wins Above Replacement (whatever iteration you prefer) suggest that my analysis actually sells Trout short.
Incidentally, since 1925, the hitting Triple Crown has been won 10 times, but on four of those occasions, the player that won it did not win the MVP award. Thus, there's plenty of precedent for Triple Crown winners not winning the MVP.
3. Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees (3)
Season Stats: .301/.371/.539, 30 HR, 78 RBI, 91 R
Cases can be made for the Rangers' Hamilton or Adrian Beltre in this spot, but I favor Cano, who has reached base more often than either one and has been more consistent and more valuable in the field than Hamilton. Not that it much matters. This is a two-man race.
1. Buster Posey, C, Giants (1)
Season Stats: .334/.409/.542, 22 HR, 94 RBI
It can be argued that Posey isn't even the best catcher in the National League this year. Yadier Molina is clearly the superior defender and has hit 324/.382/.513 with 20 home runs and, my favorite part, 12 stolen bases in 15 attempts. Molina has thrown out 47 percent of opposing basestealers to Posey's 31 percent, and Molina has caught about 140 more innings.
That said, both throw out runners more often than the league average and, while Molina is clearly the superior thrower, his reputation also plays a role. There have been 48 fewer attempts made against Molina, and Posey has actually thrown out more runners on the season. Quantifying the other aspects of catching are more difficult, but to my eye, while Molina is obviously the better defender and having a fantastic season at the plate, Posey is accomplished enough behind the dish that his advantage beside it (including roughly 30 additional points of both on-base percentage and slugging) is enough to give him the edge.
Posey leads not just catchers -- not just the National League but all of baseball -- in the park-adjusted OPS+ (171 to Molina's 140, not even close), and while Molina has the edge in Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement (bWAR), the two are effectively tied in that imprecise statistic (6.6 for Molina to 6.4 for Posey).
The way I view this race is that there are four men (the three listed here and Molina, who is an extremely close fourth but just doesn't have the stats to compare to the other two men listed here) who are almost equally deserving of the award. Forced to choose, I take Posey.
2. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (3)
Season Stats: .340/.410/.567, 29 HR, 89 RBI, 101 R, 19 SB
McCutchen has finally broken out of his funk, hitting .333/.478/.667 over his last 10 games with four home runs and three steals in as many attempts. That his performance hasn't resulted in a similar recovery by the Pirates, who are 2-8 over that span, is a good reminder that player performance and team performance are two distinct things.
When the Pirates were in a playoff position and McCutchen was the clear choice for MVP, I repeatedly stated that the Pirates' unexpected success had nothing to do with McCutchen's first-place rank on this list (though the inverse was not true). Similarly, the Pirates' recent nose-dive, which on Wednesday night saw them fall back to .500 and sink below the Phillies into a tie with the Diamondbacks in the wild-card standings, essentially ending their postseason hopes, won't sink McCutchen's candidacy, at least not in this space.
3. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (2)
Season Stats: .313/.388/.599, 40 HR, 104 RBI, 96 R, 27 SB
I very nearly flipped Braun and McCutchen, but the latter's advantage in on-base percentage, his comparatively pitching-friendly home park, and his position (centerfield as opposed to left) were just enough to give McCutchen the edge, though by the time you read this, I may have changed my mind again.
NEXT: Cy Young and Rookie of the Year