Miguel Cabrera and handicapping the AL MVP race

Aw, shucks. Me?

So, we know that Miguel Cabrera has a chance at completing the triple crown -- leading his league in average, HR and RBI. As with every year, it remains unlikely. But with less than a month to go in the season, he's positioned himself well. Yet, what might be a more realistic possibility is Miguel Cabrera winning the AL MVP vote.

A month ago, I myself said that Mike Trout of the L.A. Angels was running away in the MVP race. It was true at the time -- even though some don't like to hear that. Trout is one of those rare players who was batting for average, batting for power, stealing bases and playing far-above-average defense at a premium position. If he was a Tiger rather than an Angel, I don't think people would have debated the thought at all.

But that was then. This is now. In the 28 days, he has batted .275 with a .767 OPS. He has had four home runs, 10 RBI and eight stolen bases. Perhaps more importantly than that, the Angels have fallen back a bit in the playoff hunt. While representing a playoff team is not a requirement in MVP voting, missing the playoffs has been shown to hurt a player's chances of winning the award, year after year.

Cabrera, during that time, has hit .373 with an OPS of 1.142. He's driven out six home runs and driven in 20 RBI. He has caught Trout for the AL lead in batting average -- taking a narrow .3302 to .32976 lead -- while leading sitting in a tie with Josh Hamilton in RBI and trailing the HR lead by four. Cabrera leads the AL in OPS, with .991 to Trout's .957.

While that certainly sets Cabrera up for the Silver Slugger award for third base and gives him a comfortable lead for the unheralded Hank Aaron award, some outside of Detroit can still ask, fairly, if it makes him the MVP.

Well, if Detroit makes the playoffs, why not?

This is a handicapping post, taking what I have learned from following the votes closely and reading what some voters like to say. This is not a post that seems to argue about sabermetrics or point out that someone's WAR or wOBA is higher than someone else's, or that some player, if removed from his team's roster, would result in an avalanche and 120 loss year.

Top 4

Miguel Cabrera, Tigers

If he guides the Tigers to the playoffs, and if he gets near the triple crown, I think this might finally be his year. Each of the past few years, he was close, but fell just short. Maybe it was the years the Tigers missed the playoffs. Maybe it was because his own teammate overshadowed him by nearing winning 25 games.

Everyone in baseball knows how important Cabrera is to his team. Everyone in baseball knows he's consistently one of the top batters in the game. I'm pretty sure everyone in baseball handicaps his Hall of Fame chances, barring unforeseen circumstances, as pretty darn good. With Cabrera, you always feel like it's only a matter of time before he wins the MVP. And that's knowing he's never going to be an elite defender or a fast runner. Hey, those things don't necessarily matter. It was only a few years ago NL voters handed Ryan Howard the MVP award.

This year, he's got a few handy story lines that the writers can fall back on. Those are not required, but a nice narrative sure helps. He's, of course, a year away from an ugly pre-spring training episode that involved alcohol. While that is an off-the-field matter I tend to believe should remain out of the headlines, we've seen in the past that writers like a good reformation story. And as far as the public knows, he's been straight-and-narrow first. He also offered to change positions this year, taking on the more difficult third base so that Prince Fielder could continue playing in the field. While Cabrera will win no Gold Gloves over there, he's not embarrassing himself either.

So right now, I'd put Cabrera in the lead -- again, if the Tigers make the playoffs. If they don't, there's going to be a real mess in the ballots I believe.

Mike Trout, Angels

Oh, Mike Trout. If only you played for a for-sure playoff team, things might be different. Look, Trout is having the most amazing year. He influences a game in multiple ways. Rookie or not, he's having a season that should win the MVP award. Two knocks: One, voters generally don't give the award to someone outside a playoff team. Alex Rodriguez a few years ago while with the Texas Rangers is an exception. But more often than not, it goes to a playoff participant. The other knock is that his season began on April 28. You have to think it would look a lot better for a player to be contributing to his team for an entire season rather than missing the first month. Still, Trout, he's awesome. If he were to win, I wouldn't spend a lot of time scoffing the pick.

Robinson Cano, Yankees

Cano just kind of quietly sneaks in here -- and not just because he's a Yankee. He's not atop any lists, yet he does a little bit of everything well. He's batting .302. His OBP is .367, his SLG .544, his OPS .910. That puts him in the top 12 or better across the board in the batting stats most people who vote actually know. He also plays second base -- one of those important "up the middle" positions. His advanced numbers there -- again, not that the voters look there -- are great. His .990 fielding percentage seems fine to me, too.

All that, and he's Robby Cano, a Yankee without an MVP to his name. If neither Trout nor Cabrera make the playoffs, the MVP award could be a battle between Cano and ...

Josh Hamilton, Rangers

Don't look now, but he's surging. He's batting .294 with a .944 OPS. He single-handedly might keep Cabrera from winning the triple crown due to his lead in HR and his neck-and-neck race in RBI. His team is obviously a contender for the AL pennant, and maybe will finally get over the World Series hump. He hits in the middle of that lineup, drives in runs, and plays a key role in the outfield. Winning the award in 2010 doesn't disqualify him either -- as there have been other players to win it multiple times during the past few years. I just feel like his season is just maybe a notch below.

The rest

Adrian Beltre, Rangers

He's close. Slick fielder, nice hitter. But I'm having a hard time putting him above Josh Hamilton, to be honest. Which is why he ends up "on the outside looking in" rather than on the top tier. But if you'd like to consider this placement as saying Beltre's in the top five, I think that's a fair assessment.

Austin Jackson, Tigers

He hits. He gets on base. He has some power. He fields at an amazingly-high level. He could definitely get some votes. But he has no realistic shot at winning.

Justin Verlander, Tigers

While you can make a great argument just how important Verlander is to his team, and some would argue he's more important than Cabrera, he has no chance at winning back-to-back MVP awards. Especially if he doesn't even make it to 20 wins.

Adam Jones, Orioles

If the Orioles hold on and make the playoffs -- and we'll see how the AL East division title thing plays out, but it sure seems like they're going to make the playoffs as at least a wild card team, doesn't it? -- people are going to want to find ways to reward their players. The only problem is, none of them stand out. The old "best player on the team" argument means I have to nominate Adam Jones for being in the conversation. Not only is he a friend of Quintin Berry, which has to be worth a few votes, he plays center field (one can debate if he plays "solid" or "poor" there depending on one's love of advanced stats, I suppose), hits for some power, drives in some runs. But that slash line, it just isn't real pretty compared to the batters above him: . 289 average, .336 on-base percentage, .511 slugging. (For power, he's in the top 11 in the league, for the other stats, well, he made the first page of ESPN's rankings is about all you can say for him.) As for counting stats, his home runs are a step behind, and his RBIs are at least two steps back. Sure, you can talk about Adam Jones, but he's not going to win.

Rather than a poll, you can post your rankings and thoughts in the comments!

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