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.

Sports and politics share some of their worst excesses

CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 19:  Montana alternative delegate Susan Reneau shouts "guilty" as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks on the second day of the Republican National Convention on July 19, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicked off on July 18.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post writes a column today — likely part of the Post’s overall Inauguration coverage — about how the world of sports and sports fandom is a refreshing change from the world of politics. It’s a place where “facts are still facts,” he says. Where  “debates, though sometimes loud, are surrounded by oceans of substantiated facts and often informed by respected experts who depend on rational analysis to make their points.” Contrasted with politics, of course, where objective fact has turned into opinion and vice-versa.

I get what he’s trying to say and I think he’s well-intentioned. But I also think he badly misreads both sports discourse and political discourse, each of which have borrowed the worst excesses from the other. And by this I do not mean the extent to which the substance of sports and politics overlap, which we have often argued about in this space. This is not a “stick to sports” point. I’m talking about the way in which sports fans interact with sports and political people interact with politics, even in a relative vacuum.

Politics has coopted sports discourse in the most toxic and wrongheaded of ways. The idea that “scoreboard!” is all that matters. The belief that winning is the only objective as opposed to a means to an end. Notions of rooting and tribalism, and that “our team” and “the opposing team” is the proper way to view the parties to the contest. All of those things — each of which make sense to varying degrees in a sports context — have been imported into politics and have served to degrade them.

Likewise, contrary to what Boswell says, sports fans and commentators have eagerly begun to traffic in political-style reality creation, distortion and spin. He takes an oblique swipe at the “hot takers” like Skip Bayless and talk radio shouters, but he’s deluded if he thinks that they do not have more influence over sports fans than do than “the respected experts who depend on rational analysis to make their points” which he describes. Bayless and his crowd are a direct aping of “Crossfire”-style political shows.

Likewise, the concept of fan loyalty is increasingly discussed and routinely encouraged by sports leagues and teams in terms that were once reserved for party politics. The notion that those who have succeeded have done so because they are worthy and all of those who are worthy have succeeded is likewise fully believed by both sports fans and political actors. The idea that validation of one sort — electoral or competitive — justifies overlooking the political or athletic actor’s real life transgressions likewise crosses political and athletic lines. How much do sports fans and citizens overlook crimes and misdemeanors if there is a sufficient redemption or comeback narrative to cloak them?

Yet Boswell believes there to be a fundamental gap between how sports and politics are practiced and consumed. To explain it, he says this:

One partial explanation for the gap between the way we talk about sports and the way we talk about some other subjects may be the distorting force field of ideology. When we have a deep attachment to unprovable beliefs, ideas and emotions get intertwined. The psychological cost of disentangling them can be profound.

Tell me that you have not witnessed that dynamic among people whose identities have become far too wound up in the sports teams for which they root. There is ideology among sports fans just as much as there is among political partisans, even if the stakes aren’t as high.

He also says this:

For example, Clemson and Alabama have split the past two college football titles. Yet both coaches, in both years, deferred respectfully to the results, didn’t seek scapegoats, didn’t claim the results were invalid and, by their example, encouraged their fans to take pride in the battle — won or lost — and analyze it with enthusiasm but without distortion.

As if sports fans haven’t spent years re-litigating the Tuck Rule, Don Denkinger or Maradona’s Hand of God. As if notions of good sportsmanship and proper perspective are satisfied by merely accepting results. As if cheating scandals, real, imagined or inflated beyond all perspective, have not caused people to question the very legitimacy of the players in question.

As I said at the outset, I get what Boswell is trying to get at. And I find it admirable that he’s looking to sports to find some grace in an increasingly graceless world. Moreover, none of this is to say that sports don’t provide some refuge from raging political storms. They do.

But the world of sports is every bit as susceptible to the reality-denying, magical thinking storms which have increasingly come to characterize politics. And those raging political storms are very much fueled by a type and mode of passion that was first cultivated in sports and repurposed for a larger stage.

I mean, are these things really all that different?

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Which current players are Cooperstown bound?

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With the election of Tim Raines, Jeff Bagwell and Ivan Rodriguez and with the Hall of Fame press conferences over, let’s wrap up Hall of Fame week with a look at today’s game and see if we can’t figure out who among current big leaguers are likely to get the call to Cooperstown one day.

The No-Brainers

I think it’s a 100% lock that, absent their being identified as international terrorist masterminds, the following guys are already in:

Albert Pujols — He’ll break 600 homers this season, is a three-time MVP, has a couple of World Series rings and will be above 3,000 hits before he’s done. He could’ve been hit by a bus five years ago and still would be a lock.

Ichiro Suzuki — Over 3,000 hits in this country, over 4,000 hits between here and Japan, with some added spice due to him breaking people of notion that only Japanese pitchers, and not hitters, could be effective in Major League Baseball. A first ballot guy, just like Pujols.

Miguel Cabrera — He has two MVPs, a Triple Crown and is approaching 500 homers and 3,000 hits already despite still being only 33 years-old. He may be beginning to descend from his career peak, but there is no reason at all to think that he doesn’t have several years of top performance left. He, like Pujols and Ichiro are already in.

Adrian Beltre — As recently as a couple of years ago I was convinced that voters would fail to appreciate his greatness, but something has changed recently in the way he is discussed by the baseball commentariat. His defense has been spectacular and has remained so even as he approaches 40 and, unlike what may have been the case a decade ago, it is widely appreciated. He’ll pass 3,000 hits this year.

Yadier Molina — I would’ve put him in the next lower category before Wednesday, but Ivan Rodriguez’s first ballot election shows that defense behind the plate carries more weight with the electorate than many considered it to. There’s also the fact that Molina has always been talked about as a Hall of Famer and has the respect of everyone he’s ever played with, often being cited as the heart and soul of the successful Cardinals teams of the past decade and change. Voters love that and that’ll do a lot to make up for the lack of typical Hall of Fame offensive numbers.

Justin Verlander — An MVP/Cy Young combo and a couple of other years when he could’ve easily won the Cy Young set Verlander apart, especially if his rebound 2016 presages a few more years of excellence. Assuming a normal decline, he’ll top 3,000 strikeouts will be between 225-250 wins one thinks. Wherever he ends up on those numbers, though, there is going to be — heck, there has to be — a rethinking of what a Hall of Fame starting pitcher looks like by the voters in the coming years. Guys like Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling are getting overlooked because they don’t have 300 wins and a boatload of complete games, with voters not yet grokking that the game has changed. By the time Verlander is on the ballot, I suspect that they will have fully grokked it and that his case will be easier than it has been for some others who came before. The guy to watch as this dynamic unfolds: Roy Halladay, who hits the ballot in two years.

 

Probably In, But People Will Argue

Carlos Beltran — His career stock has improved as he’s continued to an effective hitter late in his career, but I feel like he may not yet be fully appreciated by many due to the lack of hardware and rings and things. Overall, however, his numbers are comparable to several Hall of Famers. One thing a lot of people overlook in Hall of Fame careers is just how much playing for one team — which was once the norm due to the Reserve Clause — colors the narrative of a player’s case. Beltran is Billy Williams, right? Except without the entire career with the Cubs and the adoration of those fans to speak for him. As we’ve seen with Tim Raines, having someone stump for a guy is important. Which team’s fan base stumps for Beltran?

 

Probably NOT in, But People Will Stump For Them

Chase Utley — I feel like he’s just short, though that’s mostly due to him getting a late start in his career and not compiling some of the counting stats voters like to see. Was definitely the best second baseman around for a number of years and has the rate stats and defensive reputation. A good case can be made for him. But the same is true of Larry Walker, Alan Trammell and a number of other guys who haven’t gotten the Hall of Fame love.

Jimmy Rollins — Utley’s former teammate may have an opposite case: a lot of good counting stats based on being a regular at 21, but he has somewhat lackluster rate stats and secondary stats for a Hall of Famer.

Joe Mauer — If he had stuck at catcher he’d have a stronger case — and if he weren’t so unfairly denigrated by Twins fans and those who cover them his existing case would be more appreciated — but the odd arc of his career and setbacks due to concussions will likely make him fall short. There’s a very interesting statistical/historical case to be made for Mauer, but it’s not one that, barring an unexpected late career offensive renaissance, will get much of a hearing I suppose.

 

On the way, but need to pad their resumes

Clayton Kershaw — The only thing keeping him out of the “already in” group is the fact that he has only played for nine seasons and you have to have ten in order to be eligible. Yes, even after 10 his career will be super short, but what he has done in his nine seasons — three Cy Youngs and three other top-5 Cy Young finishes, four ERA crowns and three strikeout crowns, — has been pretty outstanding. I suppose that if he suddenly turned into a tomato can and spent a decade with ERAs in the 5s people would rethink him, but the smart money has him cruising in based on his first decade alone, padded with even merely good later years. And there’s no reason to think that his next couple of years will be merely good.

Robinson Cano — Only 12 seasons under his belt but already north of 2,200 hits and, barring serious injury, will likely finish his career at or near the top of most offensive categories for second basemen. He plays every dang day. Multiple All-Star selections and a lot of MVP votes. Barring a Dale Murphy-style falloff, I think he makes it.

Dustin Pedroia — Likely has it on peak performance already — the Rookie of the Year, the MVP, a couple of World Series rings for which he is given a large amount of credit — but he has only played 11 seasons, which is generally too short for Hall of Famers not named Koufax. Second baseman have historically fallen off younger than players at other positions, but if Pedroia, like Cano, avoids that and has a standard career decline, he’s Cooperstown bound.

Buster Posey — There are only eight years under Buster’s belt, but they’ve been great years. Someone besides Bruce Bochy will get credit for the Giants’ three World Series rings, and it’ll likely be Posey. That is, if his down 2016 season isn’t the beginning of an unexpectedly sharp falloff.

Mike Trout — The shortest tenure of anyone on this list, but the guy has already put together a Hall of Fame peak by the age of 25 and only needs to gain eligibility. If he falls off to merely very good starting now he’ll have already made it. WAR is a counting stat which accumulates over a career. By the time 2017 is over, he will likely have passed Hall of Famers Tony Lazzeri, Kirby Puckett, Orlando Cepeda, Larry Doby, Nellie Fox, Bobby Doerr, Mickey Cochrane and Tony Perez. In less than seven full seasons.

UPDATE: Joey Votto — I forgot him when I first published this. Which, I dunno, was maybe some weird unconscious impulse I had which channels what I think voters will do. We’ve come a long way in appreciating on-base ability and rate stats and eschewing RBIs and things when it comes to evaluating hitters, but I feel like, to some, Votto is an extreme case here. He shouldn’t be — he’s a career .313 hitter and has slugged to the tune of .536 — but the negative narrative that has been written by some in the media that Votto is too timid a hitter or that his taking walks somehow has hurt the Reds has had some annoying staying power. All of that said: he’s only got ten years in. If he continues doing what he’s doing, he’ll be a strong Hall candidate. If he has even one or two more years where he shuts the naysayers up and, say, finishes first or second in the MVP voting, he’ll be in. Alternatively: if the Reds ever trade him to a contender and people see how valuable his production is in a lineup with even a modicum of support, that narrative changes immediately.

Others

Ian Kinsler — Dustin Pedroia without the MVP and the rings? I suppose a lot of people would take issue with that, but they’re a lot more similar than you may suspect. Kinsler has a higher bWAR in the same number of seasons as Pedroia, even if he doesn’t have the same level of fame.

Max Scherzer — If he can keep up the peak he’s established over the past few seasons for a bit longer, or if he can show remarkable longevity, he could possibly make up for blooming a bit late.

Zach Greinke — Could go either way. We’ve likely already seen his best seasons — and his two best were, uncharacteristically for a Hall of Famer, several years apart — but if he has several more good ones, he’s in the conversation.

Felix Hernandez — I feel like 2017 will be key. Two years ago I’d have said he was well on his way, but two average seasons in a row at ages 29 and 30 could be the precursor to a less-than-Hall-of-Fame second act.

There are likewise several players who have begun careers which look a lot like guys who eventually made the Hall of Fame — Freddie Freeman, Anthony Rizzo, Chris Sale, Jose Altuve, Manny Machado, etc. etc. — but for the most part they’re just too early in the game to project. Let’s hold off on them for a few years, shall we?

I feel pretty good about this list thus far, however. What say you?