Trout vs. Cabrera, Or How To Evaluate Players

I realize there have been a seemingly infinite amount of posts around the internet comparing Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera during the 2012 season.  As many of you have probably realized, I’m strongly in the “stathead”/Trout camp, though I was not surprised at the results of the voting.  I am going to try to find all of Cabrera’s advantages and show how Trout compares.

Oct 16, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera (24) at bat during game three of the 2012 ALCS against the New York Yankees at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The one point in favor of Cabrera that is hardest to argue against is Trout spending April in AAA.  While Trout played 22 less games, he only ended with 58 fewer PA, 14 games worth for Trout.  In WAR, he received two runs less of a replacement-level bonus while also being deprived of accumulating more hitting, baserunning, and fielding value.  This is definitely an advantage for Cabrera, but it’s not as big as most people think.

Another big point made by the pro-Cabrera camp is the “perceived” disparity of performance in August and September.  Cabrera was a better hitter both months, but Trout led in WAR each month.  In August, Trout combined for a +5 Fielding and Baserunning mark, while Cabrera was -2.  Trout also had 22 more PA that month, which is three-quarters of a run difference.  September saw the PA difference even up, but Trout also hit a little better.

Even if you don’t believe in WAR, why should when you do well during the season matter?  Would Cabrera have been less valuable if he would have flipped April and May with August and September, giving the Tigers a 10-12 game lead in the division before fading a bit down the stretch?  If anything, I think early performance is better, giving the team opportunities to rest players more.  This same logic comes in play with the late-game performance of the two.  Cabrera hit better late in the game, but if he would have hit better early in the game, the Tigers may not have had to use important relievers as often, saving some bullets for the postseason.

The most debatable point is everyone giving credit to Cabrera for his TEAM making the playoffs.  The Tigers made the playoffs because they played in the worst division in baseball.  The Angels won one more game than the Tigers this season, but couldn’t make the playoffs because the A’s and Rangers won more games.  I could also make the case that Justin Verlander was just as important to the Tigers making the playoffs as Cabrera was, with Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson not too far behind.   You can’t blame Trout for the underachievement of the non-Jered Weaver portion of the Angels’ starting rotation either.

Moving on to counting stats, Cabrera’s 58 PA advantage is quickly erased, as he made 56 more outs than Trout this year.  Even if you adjust for the higher rate of DP opportunities, Cabrera hit into 12 more double plays than the average player, while Trout hit into three less.  Cabrera had six less singles, 13 more doubles, eight less triples, and 14 more homers.  He also walked one time less, was hit by a pitch three less times, reached on an error three less times, and had one less sacrifice fly.  This works in the favor of Cabrera by 10 homers or so, which is about 15 runs.  If you believe in park factors, Angels Stadium has been a pitcher’s park recently, while Comerica Park has been essentially neutral since moving in the left-field fences.  This lessens the gap some, but I’ll still give Cabrera a five homer, or seven run, advantage.

Many still use RBI as a main crutch in the argument, not factoring in batting order position.  Cabrera saw 138 more runners on base, or .16 more per PA, than Trout.  Using Trout’s runners/PA rate, Cabrera would have seen 110 less baserunners, and since he drove in 22% of baserunners this season, that results in 24 less RBI, bringing the 56 RBI gap down to 34.  The main point of this paragraph is that the batters around a hitter have a large influence on RBI chances and the stat should not be used for evaluation.  The same theory can be applied to Trout’s runs scored advantage.

September 21, 2012; Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout (27) runs the bases after hitting a solo home run in the seventh inning against the Chicago White Sox at Angel Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

To go along with the RBI case is the “clutch” issue, which I somewhat went over earlier.  WPA is a nice stat to show how much each PA or SB attempt affects the outcome of the game.  Cabrera had a WPA of 4.8, while Trout was at 5.3.  Using the more neutral RE24, Trout leads Cabrera 53.9 to 47.1.  Despite Cabrera hitting much better late in the game and having so many more RBI, Trout did more to help the Angels win games with his hitting and base stealing alone, and I didn’t even get into taking extra bases and defense.

I believe that after seeing all of this analysis, the offensive gap between the two is not as large as most believe, if there is any at all.  I don’t think anyone could fathom arguing that Cabrera was a better baserunner or defender, so those two factors give Trout the overall advantage.  As I said before, I wasn’t surprised that Cabrera won the MVP.  I was disappointed that 22 of the 28 voters thought Cabrera was better.

Now, how can I spin this to make it appropriate to put on an Atlanta Braves site?  The debate between these two players represents all the market inefficiencies found since the turn of the millennium.  First, OBP reigned king in Moneyball, the first undervalued asset.  Major defensive strides were made around 2003-04, helping teams like the Rays become competitive with less expense.  Now baserunning is becoming less of an unknown and a cheap method for improvement.  Every team is trying to spend the least to get the most production, and players specializing in OBP, defense, and baserunning will usually come cheaper than a player of similar value using batting average and power as their main strengths.  This is why a player like Denard Span is more pleasing to the statistically-inclined fan than a traditional follower.  The inefficiencies are starting to lessen, so teams should take advantage of them while they last.

Topics: Atlanta Braves, FanSided, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout

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  • fireboss

    MVP position depends on what you consider and how you define value. A diamond ring is far more valuable than a bow and arrow but if you need to defend your life I’ll take a 9MM, the diamond is of no value at that moment in time. That’s the crux of the disagreement though it hasn’t been articulated well. Neither side is wrong, it’s all in how you view value,

    One point I would disagree with is that April games are the same as September games. While they count the same in the won loss column, they simply are not the same game. April games see shorter outings by starters as they work into the season. Managers handle bullpens and game situations differently than they do in September. There is more on the line for the challengers and spoilers work hard to beat them just to say they did. In a September game you will see closers in the 8th inning, that doesn’t happen in April so no, a September game isn’t the same.

    The argument that Trout would have performed exactly the same starting in March is valid as is the flip side that says he was tiring and wearing down in August and September, starting earlier means he hits his wall earlier and while he played 131 games in the minors in 2010 that’s no where near as grueling as 162 in the majors. I don;t know the answer to whether he was wearing down any more than you know for certain he would have got his second wind and went on another remarkable streak. We only know what happened. I do know this. With or without Mike Trout the Angels finish third. Without Miguel Cabrera the Tigers are watching the White Sox stagger into the post season and may have finished behind the Royals. Whether that matches your definition of value is not for me to say but it is enough for me to choose Cabrera as MVP even though Trout was the most spectacular player all year long.

    • Lee Trocinski

      It must be nice that Trout was “wearing down” and still had months as good or better than Cabrera in Aug. and Sep. I never made an argument about how Trout would have done if he started right away, so I’m not sure where that comment came from.

      There is also no way a spoiler’s bullpen is better in September than it is in April. Most any quality reliever making over $1M will be gone from that team, so while they may be putting in the best of the remaining staff, it’s still probably a AAA guy.

      • fireboss

        All of Trouts numbers peaked in July and even though they were still great numbers they dropped off in August & September so either the grind of the schedule was wearing him down or pitchers were figuring out ways to blunt his production. True most players would love that kind of blunted production but a 100 point drop in average and OBP in August does show something happened. While his OBP was back to 400 in September the difference was +6 walks over August as hits were the same as August and strikeouts were up by three while plate appearances were up by just one.

        You didn;t make that explicit argument – I have heard it and seen others write it – instead you said that he only ended up with 58 fewer PA because of his time in AAA and that it cost him 2 WAR runs. That implies that had he started with the Angels he would have earned those two WAR runs because his performance would have started as it did and continued at the same pace. That’s a projection. It’s just as possible that he could have slumped or gone on an even bigger hitting spree. We simply don’t know that. It’s most probably correct but we don’t know.
        The cliche that you can’t win a championship in April but you can lose one is true. That doesn’t mean games are played the same way, managed the same way or that those involved take part with the same sense of urgency, In April bullpens are used differently starters are on programs to get them up to full speed because while pitchers are ahead of hitters most aren’t where they will be in May. Even if they are managers tend to pull them early and ‘save the arms’ while in September he leaves them in longer because there’s nothing to same them for if they don’t win. A win is a win but for those involved in post season races it’s harder to win in September when every pitching mistake and strikeout are amplified and the pressure in on. In April you say we’ll get them next time but in September there is no next time, losing a game then might end your season.

        • Lee Trocinski

          He peaked in July because he was off-the-charts hot and could never sustain an .800 SLG%. His August and September weren’t far off his May and June numbers.

          With the playing time argument, the 2 “WAR runs” only equals .2 WAR, since approximately 10 runs equals one win. To be only that much more valuable over those 58 PA, he would only had to have been League average in those extra PA, not sustain his current production. The difference is minute, but I don’t think I factored any sort of projection in my argument.

          I agree September games have more pressure, but if the Tigers and Cabrera would have started well and had a big divisional lead, there would have been a reduced sense of pressure for every game. Also, the Tigers played their last 13 games against the Royals and Twins. Those two teams tried hard to win, but they didn’t the quality arms to leave in for clutch situations.

          Cabrera’s season wasn’t an all-time elite season. Braun, Trout, McCutchen, Posey, and Votto (in 220 less PA) were all within 10 batting runs of Cabrera, all but possibly Votto possessing a better all-around package. Cabrera was a better hitter last year and just as good in ’10 and ’06. This has nothing to do with my argument, but many use the “historically significance” argument for Cabrera. His 5.6 batting wins is tied for 242nd all-time, better than it sounds, but not that close to the top.