The American League MVP Race With A Month To Go

The American League MVP race, at least in the eyes of the media, seems to have been narrowed to two candidates. Los Angeles Angels’ centerfielder Mike Trout and Detroit Tigers’ third baseman Miguel Cabrera. I find it hard to argue with the merits of either candidate, but before we barrel into September and lose sight of everyone else, can we give the field a proper vetting? That’s our purpose here today.

A couple points about my views of the MVP race before we begin and it’s that I reject two key cornerstones that underpin the voting. The first is that you have to make the playoffs. I have no problem with integrating a player’s individual performance into a team goal, but it seems to me that a fairer way would be whether a player helped his team reach a significant milestone—i.e, for a team like the Mariners or Brewers, making it to .500 would be a significant achievement. So why rule out Felix Hernandez or Ryan Braun if they were the difference between the team winning as often as it lost or the team being Triple-A caliber? And since I mentioned King Felix, let me also say that I find the bias against starting pitchers silly. Yes, they only play every fifth day. And their importance to that game is so monumental that they’re listed in parentheses in every game schedule. Impact makes up for lost volume.

With that out of the way, let’s get on with the show. Here are the core numbers for Trout and Cabrera coming into Tuesday’s games, listed in the following fashion: On-Base Percentage/Slugging Percentage, Batting Average/HR, RBI/R

Mike Trout: .396/.570, .332/25, 74/108
Miguel Cabrera: .398/.588, .331/33, 111/87

Cabrera has the better numbers and plays in a deep ballpark, heavily geared toward pitchers. He’s also got significantly more at-bats, thanks to Trout’s late call-up from the minors. While the at-bats obviously contribute to the stats based on volume, they also underscore an even more important point—Cabrera’s been on the field more, and is therefore more valuable.

But on the flip side, Detroit’s also getting a big year from Prince Fielder (.411/.518) and Austin Jackson is having a surprising .387/.492 season at the top of the lineup and setting the table. Trout has less support around him, even with Albert Pujols back to swinging the bat well. From a team standpoint, each player is pushing a team that’s played below preseason expectations and keeping them in a tight playoff race. I think the combination of superior numbers, tougher park and more playing time favor Cabrera, but Trout’s relative impact on the team is high enough that I could be moved by a strong September.

That covers the two big candidates. But like presidential politics, some third-party choices are hoping to angle their way for our attention. Fielder deserves a high finish, but we’ve covered the fact he’s not most valuable on his own team. The next choice would be Josh Hamilton at Texas, who seemed to be running away with this award for the first half of the season until a staggering slump in July put him behind the eight-ball.

Hamilton’s numbers are as follows: .355/.585, .290/38, 114/89. Taken overall, they are a little behind Cabrera, in spite of the fact that Texas’ park is as good for hitters as Detroit’s is bad. And he’s got another Top 10 candidate on his own team in Adrian Beltre (.353/.546), while David Murphy has numbers that are close to MVP-caliber (.401/.515), but with 361 at-bats just hasn’t played enough to merit a high finish in the voting. Hamilton’s year has to be downgraded from MVP to very good.

The Yankees will push Robinson Cano, and at .366/.544, .303/28, and 71/80, he deserves a shout-out. But those run production numbers are low given the lineup he’s in, and the ballpark is the most hitter-friendly one we’ve covered yet. Believe it or not, New York has not produced an MVP since 1985 with Don Mattingly (although in spite of my loathing of this team, I thought Derek Jeter deserved it in 2009), and there’s no reason Cano should end the string.

Now we come to the name everyone will laugh at, but hear me out first. It’s Toronto’s Edwin Encarcion. Playing in a lineup where his one support, Jose Bautista, first slumped and then got hurt, Encarcion has quietly put up a monster season–.383/.570, .286/37, 95/84. Yes, Encarcion has 37 home runs. The problem, at least for me, is not the team being out of contention (though given some preseason expectations of contending, the Jays 60-74 record certainly doesn’t help). It’s the DH issue. When a player doesn’t play half the game he needs to elevate himself well beyond the rest of the field. Encarcion’s year is great, but it’s not well above and beyond.

There are two serious candidates from the starting pitching ranks and that would be Felix Hernandez and David Price. Hernandez is 13-6 with 2.51 ERA and 204 IP. This moves him ahead of Justin Verlander, who has the same innings and almost the same record, at 13-7, but a 2.73 ERA and has the aforementioned pitching environment. Price is 17-5 with 180 IP and a 2.54 ERA, while leading a staff that’s singlehandedly pitched Tampa back into the AL East race. Of these three, I would be inclined toward Hernandez because of the value of innings pitched.

And if Seattle can get to .500 (they are currently 66-70), I’m inclined to give Hernandez my vote. The workload he’s taken on is huge and he could be fairly said to have carried a team toward a significant achievement. Of course they still have to get there—just as Detroit and Los Angeles still have to make the playoffs to achieve their goals, and like Seattle, both teams are little bit on the outside right now. But my top three would be King Felix, Cabrera and Trout in that order as we hit the final month.