A Cabrera Triple Crown would paint a clearer MVP picture

Tyler Kepner / New York Times News Service /


Published Sep 30, 2012 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

Let’s answer the big question right away: If Miguel Cabrera wins the Triple Crown, he should be the American League’s MVP. To lead the league in batting average, homers and runs batted in and not be named MVP simply does not feel right.

Cabrera, the Detroit Tigers’ third baseman, has a chance at the first Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. If he does it, history will remember Cabrera as the standout performer of 2012. We know that he does not run or field as well as others. But to give the MVP to another player seems to be overthinking the issue.

The Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout is a breathtaking talent, capable of amazing feats wherever he is on the field. We do not need statistics to appreciate Trout’s many skills. Watch him for a few games, and it is obvious Trout holds a wide lead in Wins Above Replacement, the numerical measure of a player’s all-around contribution to his team. Trout does it all.

Cabrera does not do it all, and nobody is claiming that the Triple Crown categories perfectly define greatness. But if he does lead in all three, this is what it would mean: Cabrera hit the most balls over the fence, brought the most runs in to score and had the highest percentage of hits to at-bats — while becoming the first player in 45 years to lead in all three. That has to stand for something.

History is one of baseball’s charms and, for a lot of fans, a reason to care so much about the game. Giving Cabrera the MVP seems to be the appropriate way to honor that achievement — if, indeed, he does it.

If Cabrera wins only two of the categories, he joins a much less selective group. Since Yastrzemski’s feat, there have been 47 instances of a player leading his league in two of the Triple Crown statistics. In absence of a truly historic season, the award should go to Trout, who is so close to Cabrera in OPS (combined on-base and slugging percentage) that his edge on the bases and on defense puts him over the top.

Even if he misses the Triple Crown, of course, Cabrera will be strongly considered, and last week in Detroit, his teammates stumped for his candidacy. Justin Verlander, who won the award last year, wore a T-shirt Monday endorsing Cabrera for MVP.

“It just means you’re the best player in your league that year, and he’s been one of the best players — and consistently, the best player in baseball — for the last seven or eight years,” Verlander said. “I know it goes year by year, but think he deserves credit for that.

“Kind of the way I put it is, you go into LA, and Trout’s not the guy. You know he’s good, and you know how talented he is and how good of a year he’s having, but he’s still not the guy you say, ‘I can’t let him beat us.’ That’s Pujols. But in our lineup, he is, and yet he still manages to beat you. That’s saying something.”

Don Kelly, a Tigers utility man, said Cabrera deserved recognition for shifting positions to accommodate Prince Fielder. Established stars do not always switch willingly.

“To move from first base to third base, I think, has been lost in the whole thing,” Kelly said. “That’s not an easy transition in itself, and then to put up even better numbers playing a different position this year? You’re talking about most valuable player — and to do that for a team, that’s valuable in itself.”

In most cases, like the Trout-Cabrera comparison, the performance of a player’s team should be largely irrelevant. Voters tend to see it differently, placing greater emphasis on candidates who lead their teams to the playoffs. But value is value, whether it helps a team win 95 games or 75, and the MVP goes to an individual, not a team. The team award is the championship trophy.

Sometimes, though, team performance is hard to ignore, and Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen suffers greatly because of it. McCutchen had a breakout season, and in July was the favorite to be National League MVP. But McCutchen has been ordinary over the past two months as his team has wheezed to the finish, likely to continue a streak of losing seasons that started in 1993.

Two catchers — San Francisco’s Buster Posey and St. Louis’ Yadier Molina — deserve strong consideration. Excelling at the plate while playing such a demanding position is surely harder than any noncatcher realizes, and both have been dominant forces in lineups that withstood major losses during the season.

Posey’s offensive numbers are better than Molina’s, and Posey plays his home games in a pitcher’s park. But Molina is a superior defender who throws out almost half of all potential base stealers. (Posey throws out fewer than 30 percent.)

Fortunately, voters do not have to distinguish between Posey and Molina, at least at the top of the ballot. That spot belongs to Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers’ left fielder who won the award last season. Braun has played even better this year, and while the Brewers are unlikely to make the playoffs, that is mainly the fault of their late-inning relief, not Braun.

Braun faced a 50-game suspension at the start of the season because of a failed drug test last October. He fought the punishment and won, to Major League Baseball’s chagrin, and some voters could choose to take a stand against him.

But to do so would be to violate the spirit of the award. The MVP can be interpreted various ways — statistics, contributions to a winning team, historical significance — and that is part of what makes it so fascinating. But, irrefutably, the award signifies one season, and one season only. Braun has been active all season, without any positive drug tests.

Braun’s ordeal last offseason is irrelevant, and with other top sluggers like Matt Kemp and Joey Votto missing time with injuries, Braun stands alone as the most productive hitter in the league.