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.
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.
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.