On the first pitch he saw, Miguel Cabrera simply uncoiled. It wasn’t difficult, and it wasn’t majestic, and it wasn’t terribly impressive, since Bruce Chen was on the mound, but just like that, Cabrera had his second home run in as many pitches seen, a screamer to left-center field that put the Tigers ahead for good and helped them (more or less) dismiss the Royals from the race for the AL Central crown. It was his 40th of the season, and if not the final flourish, perhaps the climax of his clinching of the AL MVP. It will be his second consecutive award.
The man who should have won the first one, and will probably deserve the second, too, also reached 40 on Sunday afternoon. There were no playoff implications whatsoever, and it wasn’t exactly a bomb, but Mike Trout singled (on a 2-0 count) in the first inning against the Astros, marking the 40th straight game in which he has reached base. (Officially. Unofficially, since he reached on an error during his last empty line score, July 2, he’s been on base in 48 straight. If you’re feeling terribly dangerous and want to credit him for the fielder’s choice he hit into on June 21, it goes out to 56 games. Trout has failed to reach base in only eight games all year, and in two of those, he reached on errors.)
Those aren’t considered commensurate achievements, and they don’t have equal value. If nothing else, they draw a contrast between constant but incremental value added, and value that comes in big gulps, followed by drier spells. Nor does counting games in which one makes a positive impact hurt Cabrera any: He’s reached in 22 straight, every game he’s played since July 20, and before that, had reached in every game he had played since July 1. He has missed eight games over that span, whereas Trout (though he could be out Monday after his hamstring tightened on him Sunday afternoon) has missed just a single game all season, on June 30, but it’s not like Cabrera has durability issues, either.
I don’t mean, in other words, to put Trout on a pedestal, and decry the attention Cabrera is getting. Cabrera deserves his due. He’s been peak Albert Pujols for the last 14 months, which is a more historic statement than the currency of the name suggests. Give the man his MVP award; I don’t care.
But Mike Trout is the best player in baseball. He’s the best player ever, for his age, and an historic talent even if these were his age-26 and age-27 seasons. He’s been peak Barry Bonds for the last 16 months, which (with apologies to Pujols, Cabrera and heavy-handed moralists everywhere) is a more amazing feat than Cabrera’s.
Going further into history, I’ll invoke another pair of names with which to frame this discussion: Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. In this case, Cabrera gets a friendlier pairing. He is closer to Williams, the slugger with the incomprehensible stat line but questionable, negligible or even negative non-batting value. Trout is DiMaggio, the all-around talent whose reputation matched that of Williams despite the gap in their sheer offensive production.
Only there are two things I should mention, two caveats that scream that things are not as that comparison makes them appear. For one thing, whether or not Joe D had superior speed, stealing bases simply was not a major part of the game in those days, and so the utility of his legs were limited. DiMaggio only stole 30 bases in his career, albeit one stained by leg injuries. Mike Trout has 81 stolen bases in 301 career games, not even (quite) two full seasons’ worth. He’s only been caught nine times. He adds value on the bases in other ways, just as the stories say DiMaggio’s did, but here and now, it’s much easier to credit Trout for his superior athleticism, relative to Cabrera.
(We all know, of course, that Trout is also a far better fielder than Cabrera, just as DiMaggio was much better than Williams. I won’t beat that drum too hard right now, but keep it in mind.)
The other caveat is that Trout isn’t dissimilar to Williams at the plate lately, either. In fact, even though Cabrera has drawn nine more intentional walks than Trout this year, Trout has five more total free passes. No, scratch that, because getting hit by a pitch is a skill, and Trout has been clipped four more times than Cabrera has this year, too. The gap in unintentional walks-plus-times hit is a gaudy 18, which can hardly be explained away by the 38 extra times Trout has stepped up, due to Cabrera’s injuries.
There are hidden outs to consider, too. Trout has grounded into just seven double plays all season, in 97 opportunities—times up with a runner on first and fewer than two outs in the inning. Cabrera has done it 16 times in 120 chances. Trout has four more sacrifice flies, but the difference, accounting for the relative costs of those outs, is still about five outs that Cabrera has made, where Trout has made them not.
Williams wasn’t the master of those marginal things that Trout does better than Cabrera, but he was the absolute master of consistency, of grinding out at-bats in a way that wore down opponents and gave him the chance to do something positive every single day. It’s Williams who holds the all-time record for consecutive games reaching base at least once. He did it 84 times, beginning July 1, 1949. Trout can’t quite catch Williams by year’s end, unless you count the error on July 2 as reaching. But he’s the guy with the chance to do it. Not only has he the speed and the contact skills, but Trout also sees 4.10 pitches per plate appearance this season. Cabrera sees 3.66. If one of these two is Williams, despite Cabrera’s imitation of one of his stat lines, it’s Trout who fits the mentality, the precision and the talent.
Okay, enough with rough historical parallel. I just wanted to elucidate what we’re talking about. I’m not sure runs batted in and batting average are still steering this conversation. But home runs might be. That might be why I keep hearing that Trout is falling into third in the MVP discussion (behind Chris Davis), which is preposterous. And that’s unfortunate. We’re at the point, one would hope, where homers and slugging average no longer need to rule evaluations of power, let alone overall production. Cabrera’s doubles-triples-home runs line goes 24-1-40. Trout’s goes 34-8-21. Cabrera has delivered more value through mashing the ball, but not all that much.
Meanwhile, though Cabrera has been on base more often (a .452 OBP versus a .430 figure for Trout), Trout does more once he gets on, does more to get on (taking pitches, for instance) and gets on more often in ways that don’t get counted in OBP (he’s reached on nine errors, to Cabrera’s none; count Trout’s errors as hits and his OBP balloons to .446). Awarding the MVP certainly did not used to be such a one-dimensional exercise. It was in the halcyon days of Williams and DiMaggio that guys like Marty Marion, Joe Gordon and Phil Rizzuto took home trophies. Since it is, though—since offense is what the award is about now—we should take the time to evaluate offense more carefully.
Those nice, round numbers, like 40, can be helpful attention-grabbers for players having transcendent seasons, as Trout and Cabrera each are. Our brains are programmed from kindergarten onward to recognize those numbers, and that’s not wrong. It’s only when we choose to count 40 of one good thing as crucial, marvelous even, while ignoring 40 of another good thing, that the conversation begins to really degrade.Next post: David DeJesus Dealt to D.C.: Don’t Ask Me Why
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