November 16, 2012 at 5:20 pm

John Niyo

MVP debate overshadowed star turns by Tigers' Miguel Cabrera, Angels' Mike Trout

It says here, in the minority opinion, Mike Trout deserved to win the American League MVP award.

But the unanimous AL rookie of the year lost out to Miguel Cabrera in a mildly surprising landslide Thursday.

Yet, if anyone deserved better than this, it might be Cabrera, even after he claimed 22 of 28 first-place votes to succeed Justin Verlander as Detroit's second MVP in as many years.

Cabrera, the sublime Tigers slugger, became baseball's first Triple Crown winner in nearly a half-century, but somehow this fall he also managed to get painted as a poster boy for the Flat Earth Society.

A vote for Cabrera inexorably came to be viewed as a vote for pig-headed ignorance instead of an affirmation of a truly remarkable season. It represented, in various screeds in recent weeks, an endorsement of intelligent design and a denial of climate change, as if Trout were a polar bear or an Arctic ice shelf instead of a game-changing 21-year-old ballplayer.

There simply was no middle ground in this ridiculously overwrought MVP debate, only the kind of extremes generally reserved for politics and Southeastern Conference football. Which is kind of a shame, really, because both players were extremely worthy of the honor.

And just to be clear, if Trout had won, I'd be saying the same thing, as the anti-math backlash would've been something fierce, a cross between Karl Rove on election night and Dan Gilbert the night LeBron James took his talents to South Beach.

Chill out, everybody

Seriously now, is it really this important — is it really that big of a blow to fact-based thinking — Cabrera beat Trout for a purely subjective postseason baseball award? I mean, it's not as if the 28 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America handed the MVP to Delmon Young or spurred a recession.

"Hopefully, every year it's a battle like that," Cabrera said on a conference call, avoiding the controversy the same way he avoids swinging at bad pitches.

And, hopefully, next time it'll be a little more civil as the arguments about numbers and nuance and nostalgia take shape, or don't, depending on the candidates.

The race was billed as a war — pun intended — between old-school thinking and new-school analytics, which never seemed right, even if all the in-fighting had Cabrera fooled.

"I was a little concerned," he admitted, when he was asked a decidedly old-school question about all those fancy "new" statistics. "I thought Trout was going to win because they put his numbers over mine."

I would've, by the way, if I'd had a ballot, though I would've had a harder time deciding than many — in my business or Cabrera's — whose opinions I respect.

By any measure, Cabrera had an amazing year. It's just that Trout had one that, by most objective measures, was better.

Yes, Cabrera made history by winning the Triple Crown, something no player had done since 1967. But did you know nobody — ever — put together the collection of numbers Trout did when you combine his batting average, runs, homers and steals?

Beyond the raw numbers everyone can understand, Cabrera also led the league in slugging percentage and total bases. But Trout led the league in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), an all-encompassing metric that factors in defense, among other things.

And therein lies part of the problem for Cabrera's camp: The deeper you delved into the numbers, the more they added up in Trout's favor. It's one thing to look at the Triple Crown categories that TV networks still show during every at-bat; it's another to look at the ones — and there are many — that truly explain a player's value.

Cabrera might be the most feared hitter in the game, and that's probably why most of his major league peers would — and did — crown him the MVP. But Trout turned in the best all-around performance at the plate and in the field in 2012.

Subjective subject

Now, the actual ballot issued by the BBWAA begins by noting: "There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means." It goes on to say it's an individual choice, and that the rules haven't changed since 1931: The MVP doesn't need to be a player on a playoff team, and just about anything — offense, defense, games played, character, effort — can be a factor.

In short, it's a free country. You're allowed to vote as you please. (Though will someone please explain how you could leave Yankees star Robinson Cano off a 10-player ballot?)

So, sure, there's an argument to be made that Cabrera's value was enhanced by his late-season "clutch" performance. (A monstrous 1.079 OPS in September, for starters.) Or that he played hurt for part of that playoff push and missed just one game all season. (Trout, who began the season in the minors, played in 22 fewer games.) Or that his team did, in fact, make the postseason. (You remember the playoffs, right, Tigers fans?)

Then again, there's a counter-argument to be made for Trout playing in a pitcher's park and the Angels posting an 80-56 record with him in the lineup and finishing with more wins than the Tigers in a tougher division. And so on.

But again, those are all arguments that can be made without shouting, aren't they? Those are arguments that can be made while acknowledging the other side carries some weight, too.

You can buy into the math without destroying the myth, can't you?

For baseball's sake, I hope so.

john.niyo@detnews.com

twitter.com/JohnNiyo

Miguel Cabrera claimed 22 of 28 first-place votes to succeed Justin Verlander as Detroits second MVP in as many years. / Robin Buckson/Detroit News
Miguel Cabrera added a fourth leg to his historic Triple Crown, being ... (Robin Buckson/Detroit News)