Miguel Cabrera has won a Most Valuable Player award that he did not deserve. For the second year in a row Mike Trout, who was far and away baseball's most valuable player (this year and last), will go home empty-handed.
For all of his gaudy offensive numbers--his .348/.442/.634 batting line, his 1.078 OPS, his 187 OPS+ (all of which led the major leagues, by the way)--Miguel Cabrera was not the American League's most valuable player this year. He wasn't last year, either. According to WAR, Miguel Cabrera has never been his league's most valuable player, or even its second most valuable player. He's never been the league's most valuable position player, either. He was third once (this year), fourth once (last year) and fifth once (2011). And yet he has not one, but two MVP awards.
Last year he won the Triple Crown, something nobody had done since 1967, and I'm sure the writers felt some pressure to honor that achievement with an MVP award. How would they be able to justify not giving him the award? So they played up his team's postseason status and his willingness to change positions to accommodate Prince Fielder and his countless big hits down the stretch, conveniently ignoring the indisputable fact that Trout was baseball's best player by a huge margin.
This year the reasoning was very similar. Detroit made the playoffs, the Angels didn't. Cabrera hit even better than he did in 2012. He didn't win the Triple Crown again, but was in the running for much of the season before injuries slowed him down in September, allowing Chris Davis to capture both the home run and RBI crowns.
That Cabrera is the sport's best hitter is unquestioned. Joey Votto has his supporters and David Ortiz was impossible to get out in the World Series, but Cabrera's clearly the best. But baseball is more than hitting. Trout, who's a really really good hitter but just a notch below Cabrera, makes up that ground (quite literally) with his legs. When it comes to speed Trout blows away Cabrera, who's a bad baserunner and an even worse defender at a key position. Trout is so much better at the other aspects of the game that he's worth multiple more wins to his team per season than Cabrera is.
But baseball writers, people who are paid to watch and write about baseball, don't see this. I guess they're missing something. (Side note, the person who voted Trout seventh on their ballot should have their voting privileges revoked. To not have Trout in your top three, let alone your top five, is indefensible).
In a much less infuriating vote, Andrew McCutchen was named the NL's Most Valuable Player, becoming the first Pittsburgh Pirate to take home the trophy since Barry Bonds did so in 1990. Funny thing was, McCutchen won despite dropping off considerably from last year, when he finished third behind Buster Posey and Ryan Braun. Despite playing the same number of games and recording one additional plate appearance this year, 'Cutch hit ten fewer home runs, knocked in 12 fewer runs, scored ten fewer runs, and compiled 32 fewer total bases. He lost ten points on his batting average, 45 points on his slugging percentage and 42 points off his OPS. He grounded into more double plays.
It just goes to show you can't control how the other players in your league perform. Sometimes you have a great year and you're not the most valuable player, but even if you slip a bit you can still be MVP the next year. I think of Alex Rodriguez, whose lone MVP from his three magnificent seasons with Texas came after what was clearly the worst of the three.
And yet, because McCutchen played better defense and ran the bases better (sound familiar?) than he did in 2012, he was actually a more valuable baseball player this year, worth 8.2 bWAR this season compared to 7.2 in 2012. With all due respect to Votto, Clayton Kershaw, and Matt Carpenter, McCutchen was the true MVP this year, especially when you factor in his role of helping Pittsburgh snap its string of 20 consecutive losing seasons. There's no way the Pirates sniff the playoffs without him.
Here's what really bugs me though. The NL race was almost identical to the American League race, with McCutchen and Paul Goldschmidt standing in for lesser versions of Trout and Cabrera. Goldschmidt was the Senior Circuit's top hitter, leading the league in home runs, RBI, slugging, OPS, OPS+, total bases, and extra base hits. McCutchen's numbers were less impressive, but because he's the complete package he out-WARed Arizona's slugging first-baseman.
So if Trout and Cabrera are McCutchen and Goldschmidt on steroids (figuratively speaking), then why didn't Trout win? The only thing I can think of is that McCutchen was part of a much more compelling narrative. He was the best player on a team that made the playoffs, which nobody saw coming. Trout was the best player on a team that massively underachieved and was an afterthought for much of the season. Too much attention was paid to what went wrong with the Angels (Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols sucking, no pitching) than the amazing feats Trout was performing on the diamond everyday.
I guess my point is that the MVP award has a lot to do with context. Context has not been kind to Mike Trout these past few years, but context is ever-changing. Conventional wisdom says he's still young, and thus has plenty of time to win multiple MVP awards. I hope he does. I hope someday he gets recognized for what he is: the best player in baseball.