Midway through August in 2011, Miguel Cabrera and Detroit Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon were standing around the batting cage when McClendon challenged his superstar slugger. “You act that guy in Boston (Adrian Gonzalez) is better than you,” McClendon remarked, referring to a significant edge in the batting race between Gonzalez, who was leading, and Cabrera who was in a pack roughly 10 points behind the leader in average.
Cabrera, as the story goes, responded “You don’t think I can win the batting title? (expletive) it, I’m gonna win the (expletive) batting title.” And he did.
I don’t know if McClendon made a similar challenge to Cabrera this year, but if he did, it looks like the goals are much loftier. Entering play on Wednesday, Cabrera is not only the favorite to repeat as batting champ, but he has a legitimate shot at a triple crown; something that has been done by anyone since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Shockingly enough, there are many who think that even if he does win the triple crown, he still shouldn’t be the MVP of the league.
Since bursting onto the scene in 2003, Cabrera has been a rising star. Since coming over to the Tigers prior to the 2008 season, however, Cabrera has placed in the top-five of the MVP balloting three times, including a controversial runner-up finish to Josh Hamilton in 2010. In separate seasons, Cabrera has lead the league in batting (2011), home runs (2008), and RBI (2010). This year, he’s looking to lead the league in all three categories at once.
Cabrera leads the league in hitting by six points over Mike Trout, he’s second in homers, two behind Hamilton, and leads Hamilton by six in RBI. Not only that, but Cabrera is also leading the league in slugging, OPS, and total bases.
Yet, despite a season that, in any other year, would be more than good enough to be a run-away winner of the MVP award, Cabrera doesn’t even seem to be the favorite this year.
Trout has been the talk of baseball since he was recalled by the Angels on April 21. He’s played outstanding defense in the outfield, he’s leading the league in stolen bases, and his offensive numbers have been great across the board. In fact, Trout is not only second to Cabrera in batting, but second in OPS as well.
The main argument for Trout over Cabrera is centered on the overwhelming advantage Trout holds in defensive and baserunning value. Cabrera’s defense was cited in 2010 as well, when he was a poor defensive first baseman while Hamilton displayed above average defense in the outfield. This year, Cabrera is playing a more difficult position at third base, and he’s done so at much better-than-expected levels. He’s still not good, at least according to defensive metrics, but he’s clearly been better than the dumpster fire most pundits were predicting.
Trout is an outstanding lead-off man, but one with an inflated .380 batting average on balls in play. By contrast, Cabrera’s BABIP is a much more reasonable .335. Cabrera has more RBI than anyone else, but he’s also grounded into more double plays than anyone else. Part of that is that he has had the second-most potential double-play situations in the league.
Comparing Cabrera to Trout is difficult because they are two completely different players in terms of style. Trout is a rare combination of speed and power, while Cabrera’s value lies completely as an offensive force. But while it’s not fair to hold stolen base totals against Cabrera, it’s also not fair to marginalize Cabrera’s advantages as a pure hitter.
It’s not just that Cabrera is first in OPS and Trout is second. It’s that Cabrera is a full 54 points ahead of Trout in that category. The difference between Cabrera and Trout is greater than the difference between Trout and the seventh-place hitter, Robinson Cano. And while Trout’s time in the minor league certainly hurt him in counting stats, it’s equally impressive that Cabrera’s lead over second-place Adrian Beltre in total bases is larger than the difference between second and Derek Jeter, who is 12th in the league.
Cabrera isn’t simply leading the league, he’s lapping the field.
Mike Trout has had an amazing rookie season, the likes of which we have never seen before. But Cabrera is having yet another monster campaign in a string of monster campaigns and he just might win the triple crown.
Cabrera has been the best hitter in baseball for a few years now, and there appears to be nothing he cannot accomplish at the plate. If he’s set his mind on winning a triple crown, I wouldn’t be against him. And if that’s not enough to be named the most valuable player, they may as well stop handing out the award.