Meaningful games. A winning team. A playoff contender. However you phrase it or define it, this is the guideline -- unwritten though it may be -- that continues to carry clout in the hearts and minds of a majority of members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
Proof positive arrived yet again Thursday night, when Miguel Cabrera was named the American League Most Valuable Player and Andrew McCutchen the National League MVP.
There is and will be uproar over the AL side of the equation, because Cabrera, for the second straight season, edged a kid named Mike Trout who is, almost indisputably, the best all-around player in the game today.
To me, though, what happened in the AL wasn't especially surprising. I think even the most vocal members of the pro-Trout movement acknowledged that Cabrera was highly likely to overtake Trout again. That's something even Trout himself acknowledged at season's end.
In fact, the results in both the AL and the NL served to confirm the living, breathing bias that hampered Trout in 2013 -- a bias that, perhaps against my better judgment, I totally appreciate and understand, for reasons I'll attempt to explain further down.
First, it's important to note that Trout's 2013 candidacy was very different than his 2012 case.
In 2012, Trout's Angels had a better record than Cabrera's Tigers. They had a better run differential, and they played in a tougher division -- one that prevented their better record from being enough to earn them an October spot. The fact that they were contenders at all was directly attributable to the spark provided by Trout after his late-April arrival.
The voters, though, were swayed not just by the Tigers' postseason position but by Cabrera's historic feat of winning the first Triple Crown since 1967. Like it or not, this is a sport with sacred cows, and the Triple Crown is one of them. Had Miggy hit just two fewer home runs in 2012, I'd like to believe more voters -- maybe not a majority, but certainly more -- would have realized that Trout was the best player on one of the AL's best teams and was entirely deserving of the MVP honor in his rookie year.
Anyway, in 2013, it was a much different story, a much different scene, and not just because you now had two guys with incredible offensive numbers -- Cabrera and Baltimore's Chris Davis -- to account for.
We once again had a mountain of mathematical data trumpeting the impact Trout provides on both sides of the ball, but he was tripped up by his teammates. He was burdened by the weight of not playing a "meaningful" game in pretty much the entire second half. Maybe that's unfair, and -- going by the guidelines handed out to BBWAA voters, which specifically state that the MVP "need not come from a division winner or playoff qualifier" -- it's not even a recommended route toward determining an MVP. But Trout is far from the first or last to suffer from such a stigma.
As a matter of fact, Miggy himself suffered from it in 2010.
That year, Josh Hamilton was the AL MVP, despite playing in just 110 regular-season games (the voting rules specifically state that voters should take games played into account). Hamilton had fewer at-bats than Cabrera, fewer home runs than Cabrera, fewer RBIs than Cabrera, a lower on-base percentage than Cabrera. He beat him in batting average and slugging percentage, but, most meaningfully, he played for the AL West champs while Cabrera played for a Tigers squad that finished at .500.
Hamilton had 22 first-place votes to Cabrera's five, similar to Cabrera's 22-6 tally over Trout a year ago and 23-5 edge this year.
This, you've no doubt noticed, is part of a much larger trend. Since 1995, an MVP has come from a non-playoff club just six times -- five in the NL and only one (the Rangers' Alex Rodriguez, in 2003) in the AL.
So, yeah, this process of accounting for team achievement in awarding an individual honor can be a bit unfair.
But does that make it outright wrong?
Not in every instance. Had Trout's 2013 performance been overwhelmingly otherworldly, I would happily argue for him. But I'm not exactly sure that's the case.
Don't get me wrong: Trout is, by far, a superior baserunner and defender to Cabrera. But Trout's numbers in both categories took a tumble in 2013. He stole 33 bases in 40 tries (.825 success rate) this season after swiping 49 in 54 (.907) in 2012. His UZR/150 innings (and, understand, there is no fully trustworthy defensive metric to analyze a player's performance, which is inherently part of the problem here) dropped from 13.0 from 4.0.
If so much of the Trout-for-MVP argument is tied to the manner in which he laps Cabrera in those two underappreciated categories, it would have helped if his own numbers didn't show some regression from 2012.
Wins Above Replacement was not an entirely worthwhile argument for Trout, either, even if he did finish more than two "wins" better than any other player. The stat is still rudimentary enough that its components vary from platform to platform. And if you rooted your argument for Trout in WAR (I certainly hope not), you would have had to make a similar argument for the Brewers' Carlos Gomez (who, largely because of his defensive work in center field, led the NL in Baseball Reference's WAR calculation). I didn't see nearly as much pro-Gomez propaganda as I did pro-Trout.
Again, Cabrera, I believe, had a fundamentally better case against Trout this year than last. He improved upon his Best Hitter on the Planet status -- something that had seemed impossible. His average jumped from .330 to .348, his on-base percentage from .393 to .442, his slugging percentage from .606 to .636. He endured a series of injuries near season's end that killed what had been a realistic shot at a second straight Triple Crown and left him with a .729 OPS in September.
That the Tigers' offensive production dropped from 5.14 runs per game in the season's first five months to 3.73 in September demonstrates just how valuable a healthy Cabrera was to their bottom line. That their AL Central lead on the Indians shrunk from 8 1/2 games to a single game in that final month illustrates it all the more.
Oh, and by the way, Cabrera abused the Indians to the tune of a 1.092 OPS, including a soul-crushing game-winning homer in a huge August series at Progressive Field.
I'd say there's value in that.
In the NL vote, the voters showed they actually do recognize value beyond the bat.
McCutchen's offensive performance paled in comparison to that of the D-backs' Paul Goldschmidt, whose clutch numbers were extraordinary. McCutchen ranked just three points ahead of Goldschmidt in on-base percentage and 43 points behind him in slugging percentage, with 15 fewer homers and 41 fewer RBIs. But McCutchen had Goldschmidt beat in the stolen-base tally (27 to 15), he played a superior defensive position (center field vs. first base), and he played it well.
Wait, doesn't this sound familiar? An argument that one guy was the best hitter but the other was the best player?
And the best player won?
By a BBWAA vote?
How does this happen?
Well, it happens, of course, because McCutchen satisfied the standings stipulation. He led the way for a Pirates team that reached the playoffs for the first time in 21 years. McCutchen checked off every box, be it traditional, statistical or narrational. This was a layup.
But we know exactly what would have happened had McCutchen compiled those same numbers on a losing club. In fact, last year, he had better offensive numbers than he did in 2013 and received just one first-place vote.
Meaningful games. A winning team. A playoff contender. However you term it, this factor still has value in the value equation.
I'm not saying that's the correct course of action in every instance, because every season has a different field with different particulars attached to it.
But in 2013, unlike 2012, I, for one, was totally on board with the argument that Miguel Cabrera was more valuable than Mike Trout. This time, the BBWAA got it right.