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Trout Versus Cabrera – Before They Existed

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It seems like we’ve all heard the arguments about the AL MVP. At this point we’ve been hearing the same arguments for two years, and the way both Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera are playing it doesn’t look like those arguments are going to end any time soon. The questions just keep rolling in about how to decide. Is it better to provide value everywhere, or just superior value in one area? Does Trout’s base running boost his offensive value over Cabrera’s hitting? Where does value come in from the field? What is value; how is it determined? The questions seem endless, but the funny part about the topic is that Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera don’t even provide the original Trout v. Cabrera debate.

In 1996 Ken Caminiti won the National League Most Valuable Player Award. That season he hit .326/.408/.621 with 40 home runs and 130 runs batted in (to date, Cabrera is hitting .349/.445/.647 with 44 home runs and 136 runs batted in – for reference). Caminiti was third in runs batted in and fifth in batting average and home runs. Caminiti was “that guy” that was very strong in the Triple Crown categories, but didn’t provide value anywhere but the plate. While he was an above average defender (plus three runs saved on defense that season), he didn’t really provide great value. He was basically average everywhere but the plate, and finished the season fourth in the NL with 7.5 Wins Above Replacement.

That same season, Bonds finished fifth in Most Valuable Player voting despite having hit .308/.461/.615 with 42 home runs and 132 runs batted in. Bonds also stole 40 bases and was ten runs above average on defense. In essence, Bonds did everything well. He was fast, he didn’t get caught stealing much (meaning he was smart), he hit for average, got on base, hit for power, fielded, threw, etc. All of that added up to Bonds leading the NL in WAR by a fair amount, with 9.2 Wins Above Replacement (1.5 WAR higher than second).

Why is this important? Because this is the Trout v. Cabrera debate, just 15 years before Trout’s rookie season. That season the Giants finished with 68 wins, thus Barry Bonds was over-looked. Bonds finished second in the league in OPS, led the league in “offense” (as described by fangraphs.com), provided positive run value on defense, and pretty decent value on the base paths. In Trout’s case, the Angels are going to miss the postseason despite his phenomenal performances for two years in which he led his league in offense, provided above average defense, and had positive value on the basepaths.

As it seems, as long as there is a player who has a large RBI total and hits the ball far there will be a clear MVP favorite. While the times are changing, they have not changed and thus the debate still exists. Mike Trout and Barry Bonds provide strikingly similar campaigns, while Miguel Cabrera and Ken Caminiti have the same “MVP-like” characteristics as well. Our best hope is that as times change, and knowledge advances, the opinions of writers will, too. Until then, we’ll continually have the discussion about how all around players have not, do not, and maybe never will get the recognition they deserve.

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