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Miguel Cabrera was the meat in the Tigers' stew

Posted: November 23, 2012 - 12:07am

The eyes have it.

In a battle of computer analysis versus people who still watch baseball as, you know, a sport, what we saw with our Detroit vision was what most voters saw as well:

Miguel Cabrera is the Most Valuable Player in the American League this year.

“It means a lot,” he told reporters over the phone from Miami. “I’m very thankful. ... I thought it was gonna be very close.”

So did everyone. But the debate ended last week night when the results were announced, with Cabrera earning 22 of the 28 first-place votes from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. It reinforced what Tigers fans have been saying all season: This guy is a monster.

It also answered the kind of frenzied cyberspace argument that never shadowed baseball 20 years ago but may never stop shadowing it now.

Statistics geeks insisted Cabrera was less worthy than Angels rookie centerfielder Mike Trout. Not because Trout’s traditional baseball numbers were better. They weren’t. Cabrera had more home runs (44), more runs batted in (139) and a better batting average (.330) than Trout and everyone else in the American League. It gave him the sport’s first Triple Crown in 45 years.

But Trout excelled in the kind of numbers that weren’t even considered a few years ago, mostly because A) They were impossible to measure, and B) Nobody gave a hoot.

Today, every stat matters. There is no end to the appetite for categories - from OBP to OPS to WAR. I mean, OMG! The number of triples hit while wearing a certain-colored underwear is probably being measured as we speak.

So in areas such as “how many Cabrera home runs would have gone out in Angel Stadium of Anaheim” or “batting average when leading off an inning” or “Win Probability Added,” Trout had the edge. At least this is what we were told.

I mean, did you do the math? I didn’t. I like to actually see the sun once in a while.

Plus he has intangibles

Besides, if you live in Detroit, you didn’t need a slide rule. This was an easy choice. People here watched Cabrera, 29, tower above the game in 2012. Day after day, game after game, he was a Herculean force. Valuable? What other word was there? How many late-inning heroics? How many clutch hits? And he only missed one game all year.

“During the season, a lot of guys tell me I’m gonna be the MVP,” Cabrera said, laughing. “But they said the same thing to Trout.”

Yes, it’s true, Trout is faster, Trout is a better defensive player, Trout is a leadoff hitter, and Trout edged Cabrera in several of those made-for-Microsoft categories.

But if you are going to go molten deep into intangibles, why stop at things like “which guy hit more homers into the power alleys?” (A real statistic, I am sorry to say.)

Why not also consider such intangibles as locker-room presence? Teammates love playing around - and around with - Miggy. He helps the room.

How about his effect on pitchers? Nobody wanted the embarrassment of him slamming a pitch over the wall. The amount of effort pitchers expended on Cabrera or the guy batting ahead of him surely took its toll and affected the pitches other batters saw. Why not find a way to measure that? (Don’t worry. I’m sure someone is working on it as we speak.)

What about the debilitating power of a three-run homer? How many opposing teams slumped after Cabrera muscled one out? How about team confidence? You heard everyone from Prince Fielder to Justin Verlander speak in awed tones about being on the same team as Cabrera. Doesn’t that embolden teammates and bring out their best?

How about the value of a guy who could shift from first to third base - as Cabrera did this past season - to make room for Fielder? Ask manager Jim Leyland how valuable that is.

How about the fact that Cabrera’s team made the playoffs and Trout’s did not? (“Yes,” countered Team Trout, “but the Angels actually won more games.”) How about the fact that Cabrera played the whole season while Trout started his in the minors? (“Yes,” said the Trout Shouters, “but the Angels won a greater percentage with Trout than Detroit did with Cabrera.”)

How about this? How about that? The fact is, voters are not instructed to give more credence to any one category than another. Twenty-eight sportswriters, two from each AL city, decide, in their own minds, what is “valuable” and who displayed it the most.

They chose Cabrera.

By an overwhelming majority.

In the end, memories were more powerful than microchips.

A rival for the future

Which, by the way, speaks to a larger issue about baseball. It is simply being saturated with situational statistics. What other sport keeps coming up with new categories to watch the same game? A box score now reads like an annual report. And this WAR statistic - which measures the number of wins a player gives his team versus a replacement player of minor league/bench talent (honestly, who comes up with this stuff?) - is another way of declaring, “Nerds win!”

We need to slow down the shoveling of raw data into the “what can we come up with next?” machine. It is actually creating a divide between those who like to watch the game of baseball and those who want to reduce it to binary code.

To that end, Cabrera’s winning was actually a bell ring for the old school. There is also an element of tradition here. The last three Triple Crown winners were also voted as MVP.

“I think they can use both,” Cabrera said when asked about computer stats versus old-time performance. “In the end, it’s gonna be the same. You gotta play baseball.”

Indeed.

This was a nice moment for the Tigers - and a small consolation prize for owner Mike Ilitch and president Dave Dombrowski, who, like Cabrera, would have traded a World Series ring for any postseason award. But the Tigers now have back-to-back MVPs (Verlander last year), which speaks pretty well for their ability to develop and sign talent. It’s also nice that Cabrera has seemingly made a turn for the better with his off-field behavior.

And none of this diminishes the season Trout gave the Los Angeles Angels - and baseball history. Rarely has a rookie so dominated on so many levels. It is scary to think that Trout, only 21, will get better. And if he improves even incrementally, who is going to beat him for MVP in years to come?

But for today, for this season, anyhow, Cabrera gets the nod. In a season of fits and starts, he was a reliable Tiger, a consistent source of power, and a shadow that fell on opposing pitchers even before he reached the batter’s box. He was the meat in the stew that became the American League champions, and while it is possible to argue the other way, it’s undeniable to argue this one.

“Hopefully every year it can be a battle like that,” Cabrera said.

This year, what you saw is what he got.

MVP.

The eyes have it.

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