In the late 1800s, Henry Chadwick, in an effort to figure out who was good and who wasn't in the game of baseball, began tabulating batting average. Walks and extra-base hits didn't figure in and were not included in what was to become the primary measurement of a player's offensive contribution.
Let's cut Chadwick some slack. In the early days of the game, walks were considered to be the fault of the pitcher, and home runs were rarities. Chadwick was doing this, by the way, in roughly the same era when doctors stuck leeches on sick people, and the Army thought throwing thousands of foot soldiers directly into artillery fire was a good idea. Medicine and military strategy have since advanced.
Baseball is another story. As Cabrera has vaulted to the top of several random categories, a quaint bit of nostalgia has come roaring back to blind those still clinging to the stats rooted in Civil War-era tabulations: the Triple Crown.
It's not that batting average, home runs and RBIs are meaningless. It's just that they are nowhere near the three most important offensive categories in baseball.
Let's just deal with batting average, since it is one of the three categories that some believe should almost automatically bring an MVP to Cabrera. John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, called batting average a "venerable, uncannily durable fraud" in his book "The Hidden Game of Baseball."
"Time has given the batting average a powerful hold on the American baseball public; everyone knows that a man who hits .300 is a good hitter while one who hits .250 is not," Thorn wrote. "Everyone knows that, no matter that it is not true. You want to trade Bill Madlock for Mike Schmidt? BA treats all its hits in egalitarian fashion. A two-out bunt single in the ninth with no one on base and your team trailing by six runs counts the same as Bobby Thomson's shot heard 'round the world."
Thorn wrote that in 1984. He must be amazed, as a pioneer in sabermetrics, to see analytic departments in Major League front offices while the media clings to batting average.
Let's go through the rest of the big three. The weakness of RBIs are obvious. It is very much a team-dependent stat. Certainly driving in runs is important, but it is very much a result of the number of times your teammates get on base.
Home runs are important to tabulate. But what about doubles? Or triples? Don't those count? Adam Dunn has more home runs this year than Robinson Cano, Andrew McCutchen, Mike Trout, Chase Headley and Prince Fielder. To borrow Thorn's methodology, do you want to tell me you'd take Dunn over any of those five? Not a chance. So let's not blindly follow any of these stats, let alone all three thrown together.
Now that, hopefully, we see the Triple Crown to be the antiquated throwback that it is, we can also admit that anyone winning it has had a monstrous offensive season. So the real question is: Who's having the better season, Cabrera or Trout, the Angels' rookie outfielder?
The first two numbers to look at are on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Cabrera began the day at .395/.612, Trout was at .394/.554. That's a sizable advantage in power for Cabrera. The Detroit slugger also led the league with 361 total bases, while Trout had 290. That's 71 more bases. Trout was kept in Triple-A until April 28 and has 67 fewer plate appearances, but that's not Cabrera's problem.
But while Triple Crown devotees look to three stats and shut it down, someone actually doing some MVP analysis should look at the whole game -- including baserunning and defense.
It's easy to say Trout is better on the basepaths than Miggy, but the actually quantifiable difference is staggering. Trout has 42 net steals. Cabrera has three. Beyond stolen bases, it's possible to at least get a good idea of a baserunner's effectiveness by measuring extra bases taken. XBT should appeal to the old-timey, computer-hating scout types -- it counts every time a player goes from first to third or second to home on a single, or they score from first on a double. Trout had 55 through Saturday. Cabrera had 30. Twenty-five more bases is a sizable difference. The rookie's percentage of successful extra bases taken, by the way, is as high as Willie Mays' career mark. Mays has the best percentage of anyone I've been able to find in the history of the game, and by a wide margin.
Adding net steals and extra bases taken, Trout was 64 bases better than Cabrera. Sixty-four! Cabrera's advantage in total bases earned from hitting, which was 71, is nearly wiped out by Trout's running superiority. This is rough math, but extra bases taken while running are ignored by on-base and slugging (and of course by the Triple Crown stats).
One more running/hitting stat -- grounded-into double plays. Cabrera has 28. Trout has seven. That's 21 more outs that are not accounted for in Cabrera's hitting line. Notice I'm talking double plays, going from first to third and scoring from second on singles. Wins Above Replacement will not be brought up in the analysis. We don't need new math, only a logical progression of thought. When you put it together objectively, Trout -- even missing the first month of the season -- is the better offensive player in 2012.
The issue of "clutch" hitting, is another column. Cabrera certainly excels in that area. Trout does as well, and his job is to set up the "clutch" run-scoring opportunities. Once there, as we have seen, he's the among the best ever.
So that's half the game of baseball. Want to venture into the other half, Triple Crown fans? Cabrera certainly deserves credit for moving to third base for the good of his team. He has not been a disaster, despite predictions from almost everywhere. Let's just use one defensive metric, Bill James' runs saved, and call this a day. Cabrera is currently at minus-5 runs saved at third. Trout is at plus-25. That means over the course of the season, as best as we can decipher, Trout has saved 25 more runs than the average player at his position. This is an immense number of runs saved. So we have the best defensive center fielder in baseball (tied with Michael Bourn of the Braves), or the 28th-best third baseman. Center field and third base have roughly the same value defensively, so this, too, is a blowout.
By things we can easily measure, Trout is about dead even with Cabrera in total bases while hitting and running at a higher level, doing so in 67 fewer plate appearances, and making 21 fewer outs via double plays alone. He is also 30 runs better defensively. It's just not close.
Look, if Miguel Cabrera wins the Triple Crown this year, he deserves to be put alongside Carl Yastrzemski, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig. It just doesn't mean, on its own, that he was the best player in the American League. He's not. Mike Trout is.
Good analysis asks the question, then answers it based on evidence. Lazy analysis has a conclusion, then looks for anything to back it up. When you ask, "Who is the best player in the American League?" the answer this year, even with the possibility of a Triple Crown, is inescapable.
Brian Kenny is a host for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less