Cabrera, Trout. Trout, Cabrera. For weeks, the American League MVP Award debate raged last year.
Some billed it as a battle between the old school and the new, a status check of where sabermetric savvy currently rates in the pulse of the populace in relation to traditional stats with more sentimental meaning. Too often, the debate became a referendum on the Wins Above Replacement metric, an approach that only served to dumb down the debate. Because at the end of the day (or season, as it were), all you really needed were your eyes -- not WAR -- to tell you Mike Trout was the better all-around player, Miguel Cabrera the better hitter.
Now, how you applied those obvious truths into your opinion on the AL MVP Award was ultimately up to you, and we definitely all had our opinions. But as far as the official MVP selection was concerned, all that really mattered was how the 28 voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America felt about it.
The results were decisive: Miguel Cabrera received 22 first-place votes; Mike Trout got six.
So all of those ridiculously researched and passionately penned columns in support of Trout didn't gain much traction among the electorate. And as we begin to see a new proliferation of such pieces on the Internet here in the waning weeks of the 2013 season, in which Trout is once again the better all-around player and Cabrera once again the better hitter, we can take a pretty darned good guess at how the voting will shake out. The only wrinkle this year is whether Chris Davis -- who, like Miggy, fares quite well in the counting stats -- will overtake Trout for the No. 2 spot.
But hey, just because we know the likely ending doesn't mean we shouldn't appreciate the process, and the latest installment of the Cabrera-Trout dispute still makes for fun column fodder.
There is, however, one prominent problem with the pro-Trout crowd this time around:
Even if you can appreciate Trout's all-around skills and historic start to his career, you can't possibly make the argument that he's been more valuable to the bottom line of 2013 standings significance.
And that kind of value has to count for something in a Most Valuable Player Award discussion, doesn't it?
Trout's Angels, of course, have been out of the running in the AL West almost from the beginning. Even with the wiggle room afforded by the expanded postseason format, they've been a non-factor in the AL Wild Card chase since at least the beginning of August (and, if we're being honest, probably much earlier than that).
One of the many reasons Trout deserved a better fate in the BBWAA voting last year was that he single-handedly reshaped the outlook for the Angels upon his late-April arrival. That was a fundamentally different team with Trout aboard, and, as a result, it was a mathematically relevant team, with regard to the Wild Card race going into the final week of the season. The Angels had the sixth-best record in baseball between April 28 -- the day Trout arrived -- and season's end. It wasn't a coincidence.
And here's the thing people forget: The Angels were better than the Tigers last year. You can look it up. Better record. Better run differential. Tougher division. Much tougher, in fact.
So when the AL MVP Award came down to Cabrera and Trout, you didn't just have WAR on your side if you favored the kid. You had the value equation. You had the ability to tout Trout as the best player on a team that probably would have been a true contender if it would have had the good sense to put him on the Opening Day roster.
This year, you obviously can't make that argument. Nor can you reasonably state that Trout, whose offensive output has remained remarkably consistent, has had quite the defensive or baserunning impact he had in 2012. The latter sentence is nitpicky, no doubt, but it's also the truth, based on the advanced defensive data and the simple stolen-base tally.
Cabrera, meanwhile, is not just the best hitter on the planet, but he's been remarkably clutch in the crunch of the pennant chase. Since the All-Star break, he's hit 10 homers and struck out just 12 times. It's one thing to lead the Majors in batting average, OPS and RBIs, as Miggy currently does; it's another to actually improve upon what was a Triple Crown season a year before (his month-by-month OPS has been better in every month but July, and only then by the slimmest of margins) and to do so within the context of a division race.
Actually, the Tigers aren't in much of a division race anymore. Not really. Miggy saw to that when he ripped the heart out of the Indians with a ninth-inning homer on Aug. 7, and then did likewise to the Royals in the ninth inning Saturday night.
Those were MVP moments, a great hitter truly rising to the occasion. The kind of stuff you pay your hard-earned cash to see. And what we are seeing is a premier hitter at the peak of his powers, one who disrupts opposing managers' strategizing and fans' bathroom breaks.
Listen, I respect the statistical minutiae that ought to be considered here, and I comprehend what my eyes tell me when I watch Trout play baseball. Believe me, I fully understand that Trout, especially at 22, is the guy I'd want to start my team with.
But let's not get carried away here. In the course of tabulating Trout's times on base from reaching on an error or Trout's stats relative to his salary or Trout's park-adjusted run expectancy values or Trout's productive outs, let's not lose sight of the season storyline. Let's understand that you can embrace all the advanced data, appreciate all the things, big and small, that Trout does to impact a baseball game and still concede that Miguel Cabrera, as we sit here today, is the AL MVP.
Because ultimately, there is still something to be said for being the best player on the better team.
Of course, that's just my opinion. There are and will be plenty of others.