Posted: Tuesday September 25, 2012 12:38PM ; Updated: Tuesday September 25, 2012 12:38PM
Tom Verducci
Tom Verducci>INSIDE BASEBALL

Cabrera chasing Triple Crown, but it's not what it used to be

Story Highlights

Miguel Cabrera leads the AL in batting average and RBIs and is second in homers

The Triple Crown has diminished because the understanding of stats has evolved

Even if he does win it, Mike Trout of the Angels may still win the AL MVP award

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Miguel Cabrera
Miguel Cabrera is bidding to become just the 12th man in the Modern Era to lead his league in batting average, home runs and RBIs in the same year.
AP

The American League MVP race seems to have an obvious outcome to many people based on the possibility of one rare, historic achievement. After all, how can you deny the MVP to somebody who leads the league in three select, major categories, something that's been done only 14 times by just seven players previously?

Then again, you would hate to overlook somebody else like Miguel Cabrera.

That's right, the guy with the chance to pull off the rare triple -- even rarer than the one Cabrera has in his sights -- is Mike Trout. The Angels rookie leads the league in runs, stolen bases and WAR, a trifecta that has been accomplished only by Rickey Henderson (four times), Ty Cobb (three times), Billy Hamilton (twice), Willie Mays, Snuffy Stirnweiss, George Burns and Honus Wagner.

The point is that offensive categories are like wild blueberries: you pick them and make what you want. Trout's trifecta lacks a catchy name or a link to the glory days of horse racing, so nobody pays it attention. On the other hand, the one Cabrera is chasing, in which a player leads the league in batting average, home runs and RBIs, is known famously as the Triple Crown -- and it's been done 17 times by 14 players. It's the blueberry pie of hitting compilations.

This is no knock on Cabrera or the Triple Crown. Both are impressive. It's just that whether Cabrera wins the Triple Crown or not has absolutely no bearing on the MVP. Look at it this way: Josh Hamilton hit his 43rd home run last night, breaking a tie for the home run lead with Cabrera. Does a home run by a Texas Ranger (or, to flip it, blurry vision by that same Ranger that kept him out of the lineup over the weekend) decide whether a Tiger or an Angel wins the MVP? Is Cabrera less worthy because Hamilton hit a home run?

The Triple Crown is cool in the way that typewriters, rotary phones or vinyl records are cool: There's an undeniable acquired history there, and it's been so long since most people have seen one that now there is great novelty to it. But the truth in all cases is that we know better now.

The Triple Crown is an interesting relic from baseball cards and Sunday morning newspapers, which used to be the way people found out batting averages of major league players. Actually, it wasn't until the 1940s that the Triple Crown held much resonance in baseball at all. RBIs did not become an official statistic until 1920. The home run didn't become a regular staple of the game until Babe Ruth popularized it in the late 1920s. In the days of Cobb, people thought batting average, hits and runs were the most important offensive categories.

The Sporting News first made mention of a baseball Triple Crown in 1936 and the New York Times began using the term in the early 1940s. Baseball simply co-opted the term from horse racing, where it was used in Europe in the late 19th century and in America in the early 20th century while the sport was wildly popular.

In the past quarter century, the proliferation of sabermetrics and a deeper understanding of player values have diminished the importance of batting average. We also learned runs batted in are mostly a function of the performance of teammates and of lineup construction. But baseball loves tradition, and the statistics are the mortar to bind generations. Thus, Cabrera becomes the next Yaz, who followed Frank Robby, who is in the fraternity with Teddy Ballgame.

The history of baseball essentially is one giant series of Venn diagrams. Linking great players through historic achievements is super cool. I get it. But what I also get is that any great achievement with a well-worn patina -- the Triple Crown, .300 hitter, 20-game winner, 30-30 player, no-hitter, cycle, etc. -- is but a loose shorthand of defining value.

It's still possible that Cabrera wins the MVP because he wins the Triple Crown. Baseball writers (32 of whom vote on the award) are in the narrative business, after all. Who among them can resist a good narrative? But if Cabrera wins the MVP it should be because he was better than Trout at bringing his team to the last days of contention, if not the postseason itself, and not because he won the equivalent of a game of Bingo!

Whether Cabrera is in fact the MVP over Trout is still in question, regardless of the Triple Crown. Cabrera is clearly the better slugger and Trout the better runner and defender who has impacted games in many more ways than Cabrera. Indeed, Cabrera's one edge over Trout -- hitting -- isn't as large as you might think.

Cabrera has a big lead over Trout in total bases: 361-290. But that's only part of the story in terms of accounting for bases gained and lost. Cabrera, for instance, should get credit for another 67 bases from walks and hit by pitches. He also deserves another 36 bases because of stolen bases and taking extra bases on teammates' hits, such as going from first to third. But he also loses 39 bases for caught stealings, grounding into double plays and running into outs on the bases. That gives him a net of 424 bases.

Now consider Trout beyond his 290 total bases from hits. He gets credit for another 66 bases from walks and hit by pitches. He also gets another 98 bases via steals and running extra bases. He gets docked 19 bases for caught stealings, grounding into double plays and getting thrown out on the bases. That gives Trout a net of 435 bases.

Here's the math:

Cabrera: (361 + 67 + 36) - 39 = 424

Trout: (290 + 66 + 98) -- 19 = 435

Suddenly it's clear that Cabrera has an edge in hitting, but not on offense. The slight edge there actually goes to Trout.

And we haven't even mentioned defense yet. Defensive metrics are notoriously wonky -- they contradict one another and often show wild year-to-year fluctuations, when defensive skills generally are more consistent -- but no matter which one you like, even if it's the Eyeball Test, Trout is way beyond Cabrera in terms of defensive value.

So does that mean Trout is the clear MVP? No. You also have to consider team context. Both Detroit and Los Angeles are outside of the playoffs today, but if Cabrera or Trout should lead their team into the postseason, that gets them bonus points in a tight race.

What also comes into play is performance down the stretch. A win in April counts the same in the standings as a win in September, but there is weighted value to performing well when there are fewer games to play -- because there are fewer opportunities remaining. It's the same logic why the ninth inning is more highly leveraged than the third, with the befitting managerial moves (pinch-hitters, best arms, etc.) to prove it.

In this regard of late-season importance, Cabrera blows away Trout. Since August 1, Cabrera has a much more impressive slash line (.352/.424/.710) than Trout (.273/.367/.464) -- though Trout has scored more runs (42-38) and their team's records are virtually identical (26-22 in the Tigers' 48 games with Cabrera; 27-22 in the Angels' 49 games with Trout). Remember, too, Trout spotted Cabrera virtually the entire month of April, when Trout was in the minors for all but three games.

The bottom line is that the AL MVP should be . . . too close to call right now. Trout did enter the month with a huge gap in value, but Cabrera has closed it considerably. If you believe in impacting games in more ways more often than anybody else, Trout is your MVP. If you believe in the greater volume of hitting stats, particularly down the stretch, Cabrera is your man. And if you believe in the Triple Crown defining the MVP, sit down with a big hunk of blueberry pie and hope the idea passes.

 
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