Through Sunday, per baseball-reference.com, Angels centerfielder Mike Trout had a 10.4 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), first in the American League, while Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera had a 6.8, second among position players. That might seem the clearest reason to honor Trout, and not Cabrera, as the AL MVP, but it's not remotely close to the best.
Cabrera's case rests largely with two magic words: Triple Crown. At week's end he led the league in batting average (.331), home runs (42) and RBIs (133). Cabrera, 29, would be just the 11th player to achieve this feat in modern baseball, and he'd be the first since Red Sox outfielder Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. But a Triple Crown should not guarantee the MVP award, not least because it only reflects performance in the batter's box. It's also based on two statistics—batting average and RBIs—that we know to be less important when assessing overall performance. (In his MVP and Triple Crown season of '67, Yaz also led the league with a WAR of 12.0.)
While Trout's batting is comparable—he was hitting .323 through Sunday, with an OBP of .394 (to Cabrera's .396) and a slugging percentage of .554 (to Cabrera's .614)—the image of the Angels' 21-year-old rookie centerfielder doesn't end as Cabrera's does: with lumber in his hands. Close your eyes and picture number 27 in red and white stealing a home run with an over-the-fence leap, or scoring from first on a single, or swiping second so easily he doesn't even slide. What's certain is that you had a long list of images to choose from, many of which had nothing to do with hitting.
What has made the Cabrera vs. Trout debate even more heated is that it seems to pit traditional stats vs. new-school analytics. But the discussion transcends both points of view. It's about not about numbers; it's about baseball. Trout should win the award for the same reasons Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella did in the 1950s. He's the best player.
Trout led the league in steals (46) at week's end while being caught just four times, and he runs the bases as well as any player in the game. He's an excellent defensive outfielder while Cabrera is a below-average defensive third baseman. (It should be noted that Cabrera was moved to third after four years at first when the Tigers signed Prince Fielder in the off-season.) Yes, all of that is folded into WAR, but the reason for picking Trout is older than he is. It's older than sabermetrics. It's older than this magazine.
The supporters of Cabrera argue that he's carried the Tigers in September during their chase for the AL Central crown. Setting aside the myth that games in one month are more important than games in another, as of Sunday, the Angels' record was 3½ games better than Detroit's. Arguing that team success should play a role is in effect crediting Cabrera for the fact that the Rangers are better than the White Sox.
Cabrera has been the best hitter in baseball this season, and he may well do something a rare few have done. The MVP award, however, is about more than carrying a big stick. When you consider everything a player can do—whether you picture it in your mind's eye or see it on a screen full of data—the only conclusion is that Mike Trout is the AL MVP.
Picking the AL MVP is easy compared to naming winners in some other races
AL CY YOUNG
Tigers righthander Justin Verlander has quietly been about as effective (2.74 ERA) as he was when he won this award a season ago, despite getting less defensive and offensive support.
AL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
There is no way Mike Trout can lose this award. The two runners-up are veterans, anyway: Yu Darvish (Rangers) played in Japan and Yoenis Cespedes (A's) played in Cuba.
In an excruciatingly close race, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina is the choice. He's batting.319/.376/.503 while throwing out 47% of base stealers, allowing just 33 steals this year.
NL CY YOUNG
This battle is also tight, with R.A. Dickey(above) and Johnny Cueto (Reds) nearly impossible to separate. Dickey leads the league in innings, strikeouts and ERA, so he's the pick.
NL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
The Nationals' Bryce Harper leads in media coverage and has had a big September. Diamondbacks lefty Wade Miley(above) earns the honor because he's been superb all season.
A late-season surge might not be enough to put Milwaukee in the postseason this year, but at the very least, a once-dim future has suddenly been brightened
Last Friday night Brewers outfielder Norichika Aoki kicked off a game-winning three-run rally in the ninth by laying down a beautiful bunt for a single. It was just one of the many times that Aoki, 30, an MLB rookie who played five seasons in the Japanese leagues, has sparked the Brewers' offense down the stretch. In 90 games as the leadoff man, Aoki has a .361 OBP and has scored 56 runs. He's a big part of why the Brewers still lead the NL in runs scored even without Prince Fielder, and Milwaukee's potent offense is the reason the team is still fighting for a playoff berth.
A seller in July and left for dead in August, the Brewers have won 25 of 32 games to become wild-card contenders heading into the final two weeks. Aside from Aoki, Milwaukee is getting an MVP-caliber performance from Ryan Braun (he's a stolen base shy of another 30--30 season and leads the NL in OPS and total bases) and a decent Fielder imitation from free-agent replacement Aramis Ramirez (.298/.361/.534 with 25 homers). In this 32-game stretch, Milwaukee has outscored its opponents by more than two runs per game.
The offense is only part of the story. The Brewers, who have the most losses in MLB (nine) when leading after eight innings, have had just one of those collapses during this stretch. Closer John Axford, who lost his job briefly in early August after blowing seven of 15 save chances in a 26-game stretch, has been flawless since Aug. 10. The rest of the bullpen has followed suit: A group that combined for a 4.41 ERA in August improved to 3.20 in September.
Will it be enough? The Brewers trail the Cardinals, last year's September wonders, by 2½ games for the final playoff berth, and they have no games left against the Redbirds. They do have six games at home against the Astros and the Padres, and they may need to win every one of those to catch St. Louis. That they're in this position at all, though, is an encouraging development for a team that brings back nearly every major contributor in 2013.
Photograph by BRAD MANGIN/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES
BAT CHANCE While Cabrera is on pace to have a historic season, Trout (right) would be the first rookie MVP since Ichiro Suzuki in 2001.
GARY A. VASQUEZ/US PRESSWIRE (TROUT)
[See caption above]
JOHN BIEVER (VERLANDER)
ROBERT BECK (TROUT)
DAVID WELKER/GETTY IMAGES (MOLINA)
CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA (DICKEY)
MARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE (MILEY)
JEFFREY PHELPS/AP (AOKI)
SWING MAN In his first MLB season Aoki has set the table for the Brewers down the stretch, with a .361 OBP in 90 games.