Cabrera's MVP chances hinge on closing stretch

Cabrera's MVP chances hinge on closing stretch

Cabrera's MVP chances hinge on closing stretch
DETROIT -- If the season ended today, Miguel Cabrera would almost surely lose out to Angels rookie outfielder Mike Trout for the American League MVP Award. The balloting probably wouldn't be close.

Fortunately for the Tigers -- despite all the predictions, opinions and, in some cases, coronations -- the season doesn't end today. If it did, they'd have bigger concerns, because they'd be watching the postseason from home while the Orioles and Rays played for the AL Wild Card and the White Sox represented the AL Central.

At the pace Cabrera has picked up, there should be no shortage of discussion for the award between now and then. Thanks in no small part to Tigers manager Jim Leyland, it's already going on.

When Leyland went on a Detroit area morning radio show and suggested Cabrera would be the MVP right now, and referred to Trout's season as a "wonderboy" story, he set off a reaction -- not so much for promoting Cabrera, but because of the opinion on Trout.

"If the voting was today, Miguel Cabrera's the MVP," Leyland argued. "However, he could run into one of these wonderboy stories, a young kid, 20 years old. Everybody gets excited about that. Everybody loves that. It's got a nice ring to it. It should have. So I think that's dangerous for Miggy.

"But in my opinion, he's the best hitter in baseball, the most productive. I think he's the MVP if the voting were to go in today. But there's time left in the season, so you just have to see how that plays out."

The "wonderboy" part probably wasn't the right term to use, but to be fair, Leyland called Trout "one of the best young players I've ever seen." And equating best hitter with the MVP was too simplistic.

Reigning AL MVP Award winner Justin Verlander picked up the cause on Wednesday, taking to Twitter to say, "It's time national media start recognizing Miggy's MVP candidacy."

Cabrera's not there yet. But he's also not so far off that it's a done deal. This is the same season in which Josh Hamilton was proclaimed by some as the no-doubt AL MVP Award winner around Memorial Day.

Trout entered Thursday with a 13-point advantage in batting average, 15 points in on-base percentage, 10 points in slugging and 25 points in OPS. Trout's isolated power -- basically extra bases per at-bat -- is almost on par (.255) with Cabrera (.259), while his baserunning success is unmatched by anyone in the AL so far.

If you go by advanced measurement of Wins Above Replacement, which has become a bigger factor every year in MVP discussion, there's a clear advantage, with Trout (7.0) about two full wins better than Cabrera (5.1), with both Verlander (5.2) and Robinson Cano (5.4) sandwiched in between, according to the formula used on Meanwhile, Austin Jackson is quietly right behind at 4.8, while no other Angel ranks above 3.0 -- and that's Jered Weaver, not Albert Pujols.

Offensively, the gap isn't nearly that big. Where Trout really gains points is in his baserunning and fielding. On the bases, Cabrera is never going to match that, especially with a bad ankle these days. Defensively, Cabrera's statistics mask the observation that he has played third base better than expected.

If Cabrera is going to win, he's clearly going to have to outhit Trout to the point that it overshadows the other factors. The fact that his cause is picking up as the best hitter in baseball, if not most valuable, shows how he can do it.

While many assume that the Tigers will overtake the White Sox for the division title, few account for what Cabrera might do to get them there.

When the Tigers ran away with the AL Central last September, Cabrera batted .429 (39-for-91) with 21 RBIs for the month, by far his best month of the season. Add in 20 walks and he reached base more than half the time (.532 OBP). Cabrera's 1.290 OPS for that final month topped even Trout's best rate this July (1.259 OPS). It wasn't going to push Cabrera past Verlander for MVP consideration, but it won him a batting title.

That's not to say Cabrera will do it again, but the way he's hitting lately, it's absolutely fair to say he's capable. If Cabrera does, barring an equally impressive month from Trout, it's going to keep the conversation going.

Cabrera's effort Wednesday pushed him to a .362 average and a 1.094 OPS for the month, with five home runs and 18 RBIs. Trout's August so far has shown his lowest numbers since April, with a .269 average, .876 OPS, four homers and 11 RBIs. It's a small sample size, but it demonstrates how hard it is to maintain what he has done this summer.

Part of what made Fred Lynn's AL MVP Award resume as a rookie in 1975, beyond the Red Sox's division title, was a strong finish. His .333 average in his final 23 games after Sept. 1 was higher than his .331 average for the season, despite a drop in his power numbers and RBIs. Likewise, Pujols finished his amazing 2001 rookie campaign -- albeit not a National League MVP Award-winning one -- batting .311 over his final month, with six homers and RBIs.

In contrast, Evan Longoria, the catalyst behind the Rays' amazing postseason run in 2008, and the last position player to win Rookie of the Year honors by a unanimous vote, batted just .239 over his final month, with five homers and 14 RBIs.

Even if Cabrera simply maintains his current pace, he'll finish with historic numbers. He's on track to become the first Tiger since Hank Greenberg in 1937 to put up 200 hits, 40 home runs and 140 RBIs in the same season.

In Cabrera's favor, just five other Major League players have done it since then -- Todd Helton in 2000, Vinny Castilla and Albert Belle in 1998, Mo Vaughn in '96 and Al Rosen in '53. The bad news for Cabrera is that only Rosen won MVP honors. None of the other guys came close.

That could well be Cabrera's fate as well. But the one point Leyland made that won't draw an argument is that it's far from over.

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.