Last week, Miguel Cabrera won another MVP. Predictably, the progeny of Bill James screamed bloody murder. But, but, but…they cried. What about Mike Trout? What about all those things he does so much better than Cabrera, things that we can now so neatly quantify? And given that, how could voters possibly have dismissed as insignificant the swollen lead in WAR (wins above replacement) that Trout held over Cabrera? It’s just not fair or sensible, they complained.
For two years, the AL MVP vote has divided the baseball community. I’m not interested in adding to that debate. Gun to my head I’d probably side with the Bill James wing of the divide. Instead, I wonder what all this means about MVP voting going forward, because Miguel Cabrera may be the last of his kind: the one-dimensional slugger who runs away with the MVP Award.
MVP voters, made up of mostly newspaper writers from major league baseball cities, have for decades swooned over the menacing slugger. Home runs, extra base power, RBI, perceived ability to hit in the clutch. These skills are what often caught the attention of voters. Defense? There is another award for that. Base running? Well, you can’t expect guys who drive in runs to also manufacture them on the bases. No, give me the thumpers. This mindset resulted in the MVP triumphs of such singularly skilled and massively framed big boppers as Harmon Killebrew, Boog Powell, Willie Stargell, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Dick Allen, and Frank Thomas. None of these power hitters finished in the top five that year in major league baseball in WAR (as defined by Baseball Reference) and all of them except Allen and McCovey were topped in WAR by another position player in their own league. The one year Reggie Jackson, of Mr. October fame, won the AL MVP he finished behind Bobby Grich in league position player WAR, trailing the Angels second baseman by a half a point. More recently, Juan Gonzalez and Mo Vaughn won MVPs in the 1990s without finishing in the top ten in major league baseball in WAR.
Ten years, twenty years from now, as the old crop of MVP voters is replaced by voters more comfortable with modern statistics and analytics, players with profiles similar to Reggie Jackson or Harmon Killebrew will probably fall almost entirely out of the MVP race consideration. In 2030, when Miguel Cabrera’s clone trails Mike Trout’s clone by two WAR points it will be Trout who wins in a landslide. And this will represent progress, I think. I mean, I’m pretty sure. After all, stripping out context and giving the nod to the more complete ballplayer is a triumph of reason and fairness.
Part of me, however, will mourn the erosion of prestige of the guys who can simply mash and not do much else. Harmon Killebrew, Willie Stargell, Reggie Jackson, Frank Thomas. You fantasied about them being on whatever team you rooted for. In their best years no one scared you more. To suggest that they were not the league’s best player, that someone like Bobby Grich was instead, just wouldn’t have made sense, on an emotional level. But in twenty years, MVP voters, armed with lots of sensible data, will cast their vote for the player who in aggregate did more things well than any other player. Debates will still rage, no doubt. I suspect the question of whether the MVP winner should play for a winner will persist. But the fearsome, one-trick slugger, the guy whose every at-bat quickens the pulse and dampens the palms, will probably have no shot at winning the game’s most prestigious award.