The 2013 Major League Baseball season has largely been defined by two men, at least thus far: Detroit Tigers third baseman and reigning American League MVP Miguel Cabrera and Baltimore Orioles slugging sensation Chris Davis.
But the path to the MVP award is long, difficult and full of surprises. If you were to hold the vote today, odds are good that Cabrera and Davis would finish 1-2 in the vote (most likely with Cabrera first).
Broadcaster Brian Kenny and analyst Jim Kaat had this very debate on a recent episode of MLB Now on MLB Network. For those unfamiliar with the show, Kenny follows baseball as much as any analyst and also uses sabermetric analysis to evaluate the game. Kaat is an "old-school thinker" who wants nothing to do with new fancy advanced statistics and computers.
Kaat added nothing to the debate, saying on national television that the most valuable players in baseball are pitchers like Mariano Rivera and Jason Grilli, who are in for about 60-70 innings a year. Kenny went with Cabrera, unsurprisingly.
For the record, not that anyone wants to have another long debate following last year's fiery proceedings, but you have to throw Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim outfielder Mike Trout in the mix, as well. He won't win, but that's not to say that Trout isn't worthy. It's because the Angels are having a disappointing season. The voters who think that one player should be able to carry a team to the playoffs or at least a winning record won't bring themselves to look at how great Trout has been once again.
Yet what happens through July in the baseball season is far from whole story when it comes to the MVP race. There have been many instances where a player is having a strong season, puts together an incredible finish and cruises to victory, like Cabrera and Buster Posey did last year.
So as the debate rages on about Cabrera versus Davis, we are going to examine what each player must do in order to capture the MVP award in the American League.
For the purposes of this discussion, analysis is going to be based on a prediction of what will happen, not how we would vote. Therefore, we are going to factor in things that voters probably shouldn't look at (team record, playoff positioning, etc.) but always do.
The Standard Numbers
First, in order to talk about the direction we are going with Cabrera and Davis, we have to understand where we are. Here are the numbers for both players as of July 22.
As you can see, Cabrera dominates Davis in these categories. We have nine stats listed, with the Tigers star leading in six of them. They are close in four of them (slugging percentage, triples, RBI and runs), but the fact that Cabrera has a 47 point lead in average and 64 points of on-base percentage gives him a decided advantage in terms of value added.
Since there are so many numbers out there that we can use to evaluate a player and his value added, here is what they say about the value that Cabrera and Davis have brought this season.
|PLAYER||oWAR||dWAR||wOBA||wRC+||ISO||BsR||GIDP||UZR & DRS||Total WAR|
Again, Cabrera takes the crown in virtually all of these categories. However, when you dive deeper, the race becomes a bit closer. It's not enough to offset the gulf between the two in on-base percentage, the most important offensive statistic to consider because getting on base is the whole purpose of hitting, but it does make things more interesting.
For instance, in a league where power numbers are down across the board, Davis' 85-point lead in Isolated Power is a huge asset.
Even though we think of Cabrera as someone who can start rallies, the fact that he has grounded into 14 double plays, fifth most in the AL, shows that he is just as adept at killing a rally too. Davis hits so many balls in the air that it is harder for him to ground into a double play.
Cabrera's 17 point edge in wOBA, which measures the run-scoring probability of hitting better than average and OPS, is fairly significant. As is the fact that he has a full win above replacement edge over Davis.
Neither player is going to win a Gold Glove, or at least they shouldn't. Considering that a lot of voters seem to hand out those awards based on offensive production, it's a miracle Cabrera doesn't have one yet.
The point of all this is Cabrera is the leader in the clubhouse for the MVP award when you break down the numbers right now. As we move forward, here is what else needs to happen for both players.
Those numbers I listed are ones that some voters will look at to determine who wins. Unfortunately an many members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who vote on awards still don't want to consider some of the statistical analysis almost every team is using.
How are your teams doing?
All you have to do is look back to last year in the great Cabrera-Trout debate to know that making the playoffs can significantly bolster an MVP resume.
It didn't matter to voters that the Angels actually won more games than the Tigers and played in a much, much better division. Voters saw was that the Tigers were playing in October and the Angels were not.
Fast forward to this year. The storyline could repeat. The Tigers are again leading the American League Central and are favored to win their third straight division championship.
The Orioles have managed to carry over their surprise success from 2012 into 2013, but they play in a better and deeper division than the Tigers, making it more difficult for them to make the postseason.
Once again, the fact that the Orioles (56-43) have a better record than the Tigers (53-44) doesn't matter to a large contingent of voters. If your team is in the playoffs, you are going to get votes.
It also doesn't help Davis' case that since MLB switched to the wild-card playoff format in 1995, 29 of the 36 players (80.6%) to win the MVP award in both leagues were from playoff teams.
The last player to accomplish the feat for a team that didn't make the playoffs was Albert Pujols with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2008. He hit .357/.462/.653 with 37 home runs and a ridiculous 104-54 walk-to-strikeout ratio.
Davis obviously isn't the same hitter that Pujols was, so it is going to take an extraordinary power output on his part to win the award.
History is on your side
Not to keep harping on Cabrera in 2012 as a point of reference for this season, but the other big reason in his winning the award last year was being the first person since 1967 to accomplish the Triple Crown.
Just looking at average, home runs and RBI doesn't give you the whole story of what a player adds to a team. But a Triple Crown is an easy feat for voters to digest and doesn't need advance statistics to appreciate.
Both Cabrera and Davis are flirting with history this season, or at least are on pace to flirt with history by the time we reach the end of the season.
Davis is on pace to hit 62 home runs, which would break Roger Maris' American League record. There will be some voters who agree that if Davis gets to 62 homers, his new record would be deserving of an MVP vote.
However, Davis is also competing against Cabrera's chase for history. The Tigers star is looking to become the first player since Ted Williams (1942 and 1947) to win multiple Triple Crowns and the first to do it in consecutive seasons.
Cabrera currently leads the league in average and RBI, while trailing only Davis in home runs. There is also a strong possibility that Cabrera maintains his current performance throughout the season because of his ability to work counts, avoid strikeouts and draw walks.
I still maintain that at some point Davis is going to hit a wall because, even though the power is incredible, he has struck out 115 times in 356 at-bats. When you strikeout in 32 percent of your at-bats, it is really hard to hit for a high average and drive the ball as consistently as he has so far this season.
If that slump occurs, it opens the door for Cabrera to not only take advantage in the MVP race but also catch up to Davis in home runs and win the Triple Crown once again.
History is always going to play a big part when voters cast their MVP ballot. Cabrera has the edge on Davis in that regard, both because of what he did last year and the fact he is just a better all-around hitter.
What's the best narrative?
Finally, when you take into account all of the pieces we have mentioned, add in a few unexpected and unpredictable items along the way—like a walk-off hit here, a late-inning home run there, etc.—especially late in the season, and the MVP narrative begins to be written.
The narrative last year was that Cabrera carried the Tigers to the playoffs. Those people making that case failed to mention that Austin Jackson had a great season, Prince Fielder is always good and Justin Verlander was the best pitcher on the planet.
This year's narrative could be Cabrera asserting his dominance on the rest of baseball, especially offensively, in ways that we have never seen. Forget the Triple Crown for a moment. Just examine the categories, both traditional and non-traditional, that he leads the league in: average, on-base percentage, hits, runs, RBI, walks, OPS+, wOBA, wRC+ and WAR.
Davis will not have that kind of narrative working for him.
But his greatest triumph, or at least the one that could play extremely well with voters trying to get away from the "steroid era," is him hitting 62 home runs.
All the numbers in the world that would point in Cabrera's favor may not be enough to push him past Davis, who could serve as some kind of new-age baseball hero in wake of those players from the past generation who tarnished the game.
Again, I don't think that will happen. Everyone is talking about Cabrera as being the best hitter in the world right now, so Davis just being the best power hitter wouldn't be able to trump everything else. But it will still be incredibly interesting to see how the vote would play out.
Cabrera has the inside track on the MVP award again, and it is his to lose. Davis is not far behind him. Neither is Trout. But it is the Tigers star's award to lose at this point.
If you want to debate the AL MVP race, or anything else baseball related, feel free to hit me up on Twitter with questions or comments.