Except this time, the shoe is on the other foot.
2001 was probably the height of the steroid era. Over in the NL, Barry Bonds had his record 73-homer campaign, with Sammy Sosa chipping in 64 and even Luis Gonzalez hitting 57. Things weren’t quite so silly in the American League, but consider that Rafael Palmeiro had 47 homers and 123 RBI and finished tied for 14th in the MVP balloting.
There were five legitimate candidates for AL MVP that year, none necessarily head and shoulders above the others:
Roberto Alomar (2B Cle): .336/.415/.541, 20 HR, 100 RBI, 30 SB in 575 AB
Bret Boone (2B Sea): .331/.372/.578, 37 HR, 141 RBI, 5 SB in 623 AB
Jason Giambi (1B Oak): .342/.477/.660, 38 HR, 120 RBI, 2 SB in 520 AB
Alex Rodriguez (SS Tex): .318/.399/.622, 52 HR, 135 RBI, 18 SB in 632 AB
Ichiro Suzuki (RF Sea): .350/.381/.457, 8 HR, 69 RBI, 56 SB in 692 AB
Most correctly figured the balloting would come down to Ichiro and Giambi. Ichiro had the narrative, having just arrived from Japan in time to lead the Mariners to a record 116-win season. He was also vying to become the first player since Fred Lynn in 1975 to win both the Rookie of the Year and the MVP in the same year. Giambi was second to Ichiro in average, first in OBP and first in slugging, all for a 102-win A’s club. Maybe Rodriguez was truly the AL’s best player, but his Rangers won 73 games; he ended up finishing sixth in the balloting.
Of course, statheads at the time believed Giambi was more valuable than Ichiro. We weren’t quite so noisy about it then, but it seemed pretty obvious to us. No amount of speed and defense from a right fielder was making up for 300 points of OPS. In fact, Ichiro wasn’t even the Mariners’ best player; Boone had pretty much the same OBP, an extra 100 points of slugging and probably the greater defensive value of the two.
Alas, Ichiro won in a close vote. He got 11 of the 28 first-place votes, compared to eight for Giambi, and he won 289 points to 281. Boone got seven first-place votes and finished third. Alomar, playing for a first-place Cleveland team, got the remaining two first-place votes and finished fourth.
11 years later things have swung the other way around. The 2012 AL MVP will come down to these two guys:
Miguel Cabrera (3B Det): .325/.390/.601, 43 HR, 136 RBI, 4 SB in 612 AB
Mike Trout (CF LAA): .321/.395/.557, 30 HR, 80 RBI, 48 SB in 546 AB
And now the statheads favor the all-around player. It’s not hard to see why. Ichiro and Giambi were separated by 300 points of OPS. Cabrera and Trout are separated by 40. Defense and baserunning certainly makes up for that.
As for the Triple Crown, it’s really neat, but in the end, it wouldn’t make Cabrera any less valuable if someone else in the league had hit .360 or finished with 50 homers. Cabrera isn’t outpacing the rest of the league this year like Giambi did in 2001. Giambi had 97 points of OPS on anyone else in the league. Cabrera has 39. Giambi’s OPS+ was 199, Cabrera’s is 164. Cabrera had higher OPSs and OPS+s in both 2010 and ’11.
And Trout, obviously, is hitting a whole lot better than Ichiro did in 2001. He’s second in the AL in OPS. Ichiro was 26th. Trout has a 167 OPS+, Ichiro was at 126.
There is one complicating factor: because Trout opened the year in the minors, Cabrera has played an extra 22 games. That carries quite a bit of weight in my mind. I’d still vote Trout, but I’m not going to be all that disappointed when Cabrera wins.
It seems to me that everyone dug in on Trout vs. Cabrera weeks ago, which is a shame, because it really has rendered September irrelevant. It’s also pretty sad, since it seems like no one can write a column defending their choice without attacking the other side.
Here’s the way I see it: Trout is having a historic season, with a legitimate flaw in that he was a non-factor in April. Cabrera is having a Cabrera season; he’s one of the game’s three best hitters and thus is worthy of MVP consideration on an annual basis. He’s about due to win one. He hasn’t been the best player, but he has been awfully good for 22 more games than the other guy. And one imagines Trout will be a candidate a few more times before he’s done.