Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera

Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera a proxy battle in a larger cold war

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Miguel Cabrera has beaten out Mike Trout for the AL MVP award for the second straight year. It’s not a surprise.

Cabrera dominated offensively for most of 2013 and a consensus about him being the MVP front-runner was firmly in place by mid-summer. By the time he was injured at the end of August, there was no going back in the minds of most voters. Trout only had one bad month too. The difference? His came in April, when he stumbled out of the gate. While his dominating May-September ended up putting him right back to the top of the leader boards by the end of the year, in the minds of MVP voters, Trout was swimming against the current for most of the season.

But, at least on the surface, it shouldn’t have been as hard as a swim in 2013 as it was in 2012, should it have? After all, last year Cabrera did something pretty rare and extraordinary: he won the Triple Crown. And last year Trout, in the minds of some at least, came out of nowhere — he wasn’t in the big leagues until the end of April after all — and had not burst into the public consciousness as an MVP candidate until the season was well underway. Give Trout a full season of overall dominance, take away Miguel Cabrera’s triple crown and add in a dash of people’s general preference for new faces and new stories and, at the very least, the 2013 MVP vote should have been a lot closer than the 2012 vote, yes?

Apparently not. This year Cabrera was listed first on 23 of 30 ballots cast by and second on the other seven ballots. Trout received five first-place votes. The rest of his support was spread out: he got 19 second place votes, three third place votes, and single votes for fourth, fifth and seventh place. In 2012 it was around the same. The numbers were a tad different because, by virtue of the Astros moving to the American league, there were 30 voters in 2013 and only 28 in 2012, but Cabrera nabbed 22 of 28 first place votes and Trout got six. He received more second place votes, however, and none of that crazy down-ballot support he got this year.

In short: Cabrera didn’t miss much of a beat with voters, while Trout’s support, if anything, weakened and became more diffuse. What the heck is going on?

A short and simple answer is mere variance. A different group of voters were pulled out of the pool in 2013 than in 2012. Stuff happens. But I think there is more than mere variance going on. I think that that MVP award voting, at least in the American league, has taken on political and philosophical overtones, and that this year’s result was a function of that.

The philosophical differences are pretty clear. The Cabrera people have come to believe that the MVP award should go to baseball’s best hitter on a contending team. The Trout people believe that the MVP is the best all-around player regardless of where his team finishes. I say “come to believe” in the case of Cabrera, because one look at the history of MVP award provides plenty of examples of people other than the best hitter on a contending team winning. Pitchers, like Justin Verlander in 2011. Big sluggers on last place teams like Andre Dawson in 1987. singles-hitting speedsters like Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. Relievers like Rollie Fingers in 1981 or Dennis Eckersley in 1992. Players who had good seasons but whose primary argument was couched in terms of his emotional or inspirational impact like Kirk Gibson in 1988 and Terry Pendelton in 1991. Historically, anything has gone for the MVP award, but in the past two years the notion that the MVP award must go to the best hitter on a contending team has been the primary argument for Cabrera and the primary disqualifier for Trout in the minds of the voters.

This philosophical divide is not unprecedented, of course. We’ve seen tastes and dispositions in awards change over time. Sometimes Cy Young winners are guys who win a lot of games, sometimes they’re ERA/strikeout-first candidates. Occasionally Rookie of the Year awards will go to late-bloomers who finally got called up and did well and sometimes they’ll go to hot prospects. Manager of the Year has always been all over the map. The prevalent thought on the MVP award just happens now to strongly favor hitting over defense and base running and strongly favors contenders over players on bad teams.

But I think the political overtones of all of this are far more interesting and far more decisive. More than just a preference for certain stats over others, the Trout vs. Cabrera debate has come to serve as a proxy war between baseball’s old guard, represented by established baseball writers with BBWAA credentials and attendant awards votes on the one hand and a newer guard, consisting of baseball fans and, increasingly, writers, whose voice and opinion has come to flourish on the Internet. There is some crossover here, of course. Many Cabrera backers can be found on Twitter and in online message boards and some of baseball writing’s most recognizable and established names such as Ken Rosenthal and Joe Posnanski cast first place votes for Trout this year. But, those exceptions notwithstanding, the contours of this battle are pretty familiar by now.

And it’s clearly about more than baseball. If one, as I do, reads just about everything written on the Trout vs. Cabrera debate, one quickly realizes that baseball has become secondary to the discourse. There’s more written about the very debate itself than these two players’ baseball bonafides, which are usually assumed. There’s talk about the allegedly strident tone of the Trout backers, who are claimed to be dogmatic in their adherence to sabermetrics (never mind that one can and many do make great cases for Trout without a single reference to a stat less than 100 years old).  There’s talk about the hidebound and luddite disposition of the Cabrera backers, who are claimed to be stuck in the past and unable to follow basic logic (never mind that the intelligence and baseball acumen of the overwhelming number of Cabrera voters is beyond question).

In my view it’s a debate about a debate. And it’s an argument an altogether different thing than which player is most valuable. It’s about the future of media and baseball coverage. The evidence for this is the tone the debate has taken.

It’s not, as many say, nasty. Others who talk about it say it is, but really, I’ve not seen too many examples of actual hateful rhetoric from Trout or Cabrera backers. To the extent that exists it has been on the margins or from people who don’t actually write about baseball as either their profession or as a significant avocation. People who do are generally civil about this stuff if, for no other reason, most of the discourse takes place on Twitter, and people who are hostile and rude on Twitter get blocked by other users, and people don’t want to get blocked.

No, it’s not about hostility. It’s about defensiveness and insecurity. And there is plenty of that to go around.

Cabrera backers among the baseball writer establishment are defensive and insecure about their place as authorities on the game. Their newspapers have cut back or gone under, their competition for the eyes of readers and viewers has grown intense and the most basic facts and assumptions underlying the enterprise of sports journalism have undergone a sea change in the past decade. It’s a pretty rough world, and even if their position is secure, they’ve seen dozens of friends and colleagues lose their jobs.

There is defensiveness and insecurity on the side of the Trout backers too. These people — and I speak from personal experience — are defensive and insecure about being taken seriously as baseball authorities. About wading into a world that, a few short years ago, would have barred the door and which now only allows them in begrudgingly. To the extent they are allowed in its with caveats and, in some cases, as second-class citizens. Some are rejected for the BBWAA. Some are let in the BBWAA, but their status is lesser. Some are let into the press box, but not the main part of it. And, even if they get a good gig in the new world of baseball media there’s always someone telling them, usually implicitly but not always, that they didn’t earn their way there.

While, 25 years ago, the Old Guard/Cabrera people may have been more accepting of a differing view about who should be the MVP, when the source of that differing view are people seen to be threatening their very livelihoods — people from the Internet — there is far less consideration and far more reaction. Yelling, or something close to it, directed at the threat and borne of a fear that their position on the matter is more than just an opinion — it’s the very thing separating me, the authority, from them, the threat. By the same token, while, if just talking among friends, New Guard/Trout people would never call someone a luddite or question their reason and intelligence, when putting forth their arguments in baseball media, there is far less congeniality and far more yelling. A concern that, if their arguments aren’t made painfully loud and exceedingly clear, they will be lost in the noise of the Internet and their desire — to actually be an authority — will be thwarted.

This is why we are where we are. This is why the rhetoric from some on the Trout side has turned, frankly, silly, what with references to “the intelligentsia” and “enlightened” people. They’re compensating. This is also why you see silly things like seventh place votes for Trout from the Old Guard/Cabrera folks. They’re compensating too.  Everyone is so damn worried about their place in the world that they’ll say and do the silliest things in order to justify it. And, for the moment anyway, the Cabrera folks have a greater hold on the BBWAA, so their reaction — and Cabrera’s attendant solidification as MVP despite no triple crown and a full season from Trout — is worth more in the voting.

This dynamic won’t last forever, of course. For one thing, the people involved in it are generally pretty smart and reasonable people and, if they haven’t already figured out that these skirmishes are dumb, they will eventually. This happens with all proxy wars. They are mere footnotes to and offshots of the larger cold wars which encompass far greater and far more fundamental political and philosophical differences.

But those end too and a new way of organizing the world is eventually agreed upon. It happens with things as large and as important as nation-states. It’ll happen with something as small and relatively unimportant as the world of baseball journalism too.

Clint Barmes retires

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 29:  Shortstop Clint Barmes #12 of the Pittsburgh Pirates throws to first to complete a double play to end the seventh inning after forcing out Chone Figgins #18 of the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on May 29, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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Veteran infielder Clint Barmes has announced his retirement.

Barmes was playing for Triple-A Omaha in the Royals system and he simply came to the decision to hang it up during a recent game when he was replaced late in the game to make way for a younger player. He tells Jessica Kleinschmidt of FanDuel that it was a cold night, he was stiffening up and, in a rather matter-of-fact tone, says he just decided that he had played enough.

Barmes, 37, played eight years with the Rockies, three with the Pirates and one each with San Diego and Houston. He was one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball for several years but one 23-homer season in 2009 notwithstanding, he never really hit and once the range started to go so too did his justification for being on a big league roster. Last season he hit just .232 with a .633 OPS in 98 games for the Padres. He hadn’t topped a .700 OPS since 2009. His hope to snag a utility infielder role on the Royals this spring didn’t pan out but the club signed him to a minor league deal after releasing him and it’s not crazy to think that he would’ve gotten a chance to play in Kansas City at some point this season.

Still, he sounds pretty fulfilled and content with his decision to hang ’em up. And, unlike a lot of guys, he got the chance to make the decision himself rather than have someone else make it for him.

Bartolo Colon: not always a longball threat

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 05:  Bartolo Colon #40 of the New York Mets heads back to the dugut after he struck out swinging in the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles on May 5, 2015 at Citi Field in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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The baseball world went batty when Mets starter Bartolo Colon hit a homer a couple of weeks ago. That, combined with a few other nice offensive performances from pitchers in the days surrounding that led to a mini groundswell of “this is why the DH is dumb! Pitchers batting provides us with such wonderful entertainment!” chatter.

Which is fine as far as it goes. But for every yin of a serendipitous pitcher home run comes the yang of pitcher hitting futility. Or, in some cases, pitchers not even trying. Colon himself took that to the next level last night, telling the opposition to just groove him fastballs at which he promised not to swing due to a sore back:

At the plate, Colon did his best to not contribute to Gonzalez’s rough night, telling catcher Wilson Ramos he wasn’t going to swing.

“I swing at the balls pretty hard and I thought, not worth making my back worse, so I told their catcher from the beginning, `Just throw it right down the middle, I’m not swinging,'” Colon said through a translator. “After that first at-bat and they threw me that changeup, I was like: `No, I promise you. Throw it right down the middle. I am not going to swing.'”

And he didn’t swing. He struck out looking all three trips he took to the plate, watching fourteen pitches sail by in the process.

This is a venial sin, not a mortal one, as pitchers have been mailing it in at the plate since the game was invented (pitchers’ inability and lack of need to hit was being noted in the 19th century). But it is rather ironic that the majority of anti-DH sentiment comes from people who like to cite the purity of the game and all that jazz. I get the strong sense that folks who care about such things would, in all other instances, lose their minds if a player not only took three plays off in a game but literally told the opposition he wasn’t going to try.

Tony Gwynn’s family sues tobacco companies for wrongful death

Tony Gwynn
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The widow of Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn and their two children, former major leaguer Tony Gwynn Jr. and Anisha Gwynn-Jones, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit in San Diego Superior Court arising out of Gwynn’s death of oral cancer in 2014.

According to the lawsuit, Gwynn started dipping as a 17-year-old while playing baseball for San Diego State. According to the complaint, “Once Defendants got Tony addicted to their products, he became a self-described `tobacco junkie”‘ who used 1 1/2 to 2 cans of Skoal per day.” The suit seeks unspecified damages against Altria Group Corp., the parent company of Philip Morris, and US Smokeless Tobacco Co. LLC.

It will not be an easy lawsuit for the Gwynn family to win. While Gwynn himself cited his copious tobacco use as the cause of the salivary gland cancer which eventually killed him — and while it makes a lot of intuitive sense to assume that smokeless tobacco use + time = oral cancer — Gwynn’s specific form of cancer, of the parotid gland, is not associated with tobacco use. The gland which developed the cancer was around his ear and there has been no observed link between smokeless tobacco use and cancer of that particular gland, let alone any sort of consensus on the matter. There are strong links, obviously, between smokeless tobacco use and cancer of the stomach, esophagus, pancreas, mouth, and throat, in addition to other health problems.

None of which is to say definitively that tobacco didn’t cause Gwynn’s cancer — there just isn’t enough medical data on this form of cancer to be so certain — or that the defendants in this case may not settle with the Gwynn family to avoid the expense, risk and bad p.r. of defending a suit arising out of the death of a beloved figure. But it is certainly not a slam dunk by any stretch of the imagination, and Gwynn’s family will have the burden of proof.

And That Happened: Monday’s scores and highlights

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MAY 23:  Hunter Pence #8 and Matt Duffy #5 of the San Francisco Giants celebrates after Pence hit a walk-off rbi single to score Brandon Belt #9 (not pictured) against the San Diego Padres in the bottom of the ninth inning at AT&T Park on May 23, 2016 in San Francisco, California. The Giants won the game 1-0.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Dodgers 1, Reds 0: Clayton Kershaw with a two-hit shutout. And he only needed 102 pitches to do it. His opponent, Brandon Finnegan was almost as good, allowing one run over eight innings. And that run came on a double play. Low offense and both pitchers going the distance led to a game time of two hours eleven minutes. Welcome to 1966.

Giants 1, Padres 0: Johnny Cueto tossed a two-hit shutout of his own. And he had to, as the Giants and Padres traded zeroes until the ninth inning when Hunter Pence doubled in Brandon Belt for the walkoff win.

Mets 7, Nationals 1David Wright, Yoenis Cespedes and Neil Walker all homered, with Cespedes and Walker going back-to-back in the fifth inning. Bartolo Colon allowed only one run over seven innings. Colon also did this, due to a stiff back:

At the plate, Colon did his best to not contribute to Gonzalez’s rough night, telling catcher Wilson Ramos he wasn’t going to swing.

“I swing at the balls pretty hard and I thought, not worth making my back worse, so I told their catcher from the beginning, `Just throw it right down the middle, I’m not swinging,” Colon said through a translator. “After that first at-bat and they threw me that changeup, I was like: `No, I promise you. Throw it right down the middle. I am not going to swing.”

If you’re going to all gaga and anti-DH when pitchers hit homers, you kinda gotta contend with this too, do you not?

Cardinals 4, Cubs 3Randal Grichuk hit a walkoff homer. He’s also the latest addition to the “Describe in Literal Terms What Happened” All-Star Team:

“I was trying to battle and get a pitch in the zone and put good wood on it and get on. Luckily, I was able to get a homer.”

ESPN is busy preparing a seven figure offer sheet for him to be an analyst when his playing career is over.

White Sox 7, Indians 6; Indians 5, White Sox 1: The old Doubleheader of Existential Stasis, as the clubs split and ask themselves if it would have been better to never have left bed that morning. Todd Frazier hit a solo shot and Brett Lawrie hit a three-run homer for the White Sox in the first game. In the nightcap Jose Ramirez, Rajai Davis and Juan Uribe went deep for the Tribe. It doesn’t matter, I’ll probably get hit by a car anyway. Eat at Arby’s.

Pirates 6, Rockies 3: A scary moment when Pirates starter Ryan Vogelsong was hit in the face with a pitch. He’s been admitted to a hospital but seems alright. Wilfredo Boscan was the emergency reliever, allowing two runs on two hits and himself hitting an RBI single in four innings. It was a bad game all around for folks near home plate: umpire Jeff Nelson left the game after some debris hit him in the eye during a play at home.

Tigers 5, Phillies 4: Two homers for Miguel Cabrera who apparently did not feel any bad effects from that bruised knee on Sunday. Miggy also doubled and scored a run on a Victor Martinez single. J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos also homered for Detroit, which has won six of seven.

Marlins 7, Rays 6: Four hits for Ichiro, bringing the future Hall of Famer to 2,960 in the U.S. portion of his career. More importantly, one of his singles contributed to an eighth inning rally which helped the Marlins come from behind. Suzuki is 10 for 13 in the past three games. As a part time player he ain’t exactly as important to Miami as David Ortiz is to Boston, but he too is going out on top, presuming he is going out, hitting .417/.478/.467 on the season.

Angels 2, Rangers 0: The Angels were supposed to be a carcass on the highway after losing 40% of their pitching staff to ligament injuries but they’ve won eight of 11 because, well, baseball. Albert Pujols‘ homer in the third inning was his 569th, which ties him for 12th in career homers with Rafael Palmeiro. Nick Tropeano allowed four hits and one walk while striking out six while pitching into the seventh inning.

Royals 10, Twins 4: Sal Perez went 5-for-5, hitting a double, a triple and three singles while driving in one. Omar Infante only had one hit, but it was a two-run double and he added a sac fly to give him three driven in on the night. Ricky Nolasco gave up six runs on eight hits in less than three innings of work, so that continues to be a great situation for the Twins. Between this season, next season and his inevitable buyout, Nolasco is owed $25 million by the end of next year. The Twins have the worst record in baseball, which is saying a lot given that the Braves are in this league.

Athletics 5, Mariners 0: Rich Hill tossed eight shutout innings and notched his seventh win of the year, which is a pretty good trick for a guy pitching for a team that’s in fourth place and six games under .500.