We all remember the seemingly endless debate last fall over who should win the American League MVP. Mike Trout was the champion of sabermetricians everywhere, having put up +10.9 bWAR in what was probably the most spectacular rookie season in baseball history. Meanwhile, Tigers fans and the more "traditional-minded" quadrant of baseball fans were more enthralled with Miguel Cabrera's Triple Crown season and year-to-year consistency. Despite the back-and-forth among internet commenters, Cabrera won in a landslide, picking up 22 of the 28 first place votes.
Without rehashing too much of that feisty debate, let's look ahead to this year's MVP race. Once again, Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout are front-runners. Joining them in the conversation this season is Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, who is having a career year at the plate.
Going into Friday's games, Cabrera has a comfortable lead in the AL batting title race. His .359 average leads Davis by 22 points. If Cabrera maintains this lead, it will be his third consecutive batting title, a feat that has not been accomplished by a right-handed hitter since Rogers Hornsby won six consecutive batting crowns for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1920s.
Cabrera also leads the American League with a .450 on-base percentage, and his .630 slugging average is second to Davis at .720. Cabrera's 71 RBI also lead the AL, and his 19 home runs are tied for second-most in the league with Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Dunn.
Unlike 2012, Cabrera is winning the advanced statistics battle this year. His +4.0 bWAR is second among position players to Baltimore's Manny Machado, who is at +4.5 bWAR largely thanks to +2.1 defensive WAR. If Fangraphs' WAR is your preferred one-stop shop statistic, Cabrera leads the AL with +4.4 fWAR. Cabrera has a weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .455 and a weighted runs created plus (wRC+) of 192, both of which rank second in the American League.
Of all the offensive statistics that Cabrera ranks second in, Davis leads the way. His .720 slugging average is miles ahead of everyone, and he leads the AL with a .468 wOBA and 200 wRC+. He has been worth +3.6 bWAR and +4.2 fWAR, both of which rank third in the league.
The biggest knock against Davis at this point -- and honestly, we're splitting hairs here -- is that he hasn't been very solid defensively at first base. He has been worth -6 defensive runs saved so far this year and has a UZR/150 of -1.4. This was the main drawback against Cabrera's MVP candidacy last season, but many gave Cabrera a free pass because he plays a more difficult position at third base. Whether or not that is fair, Davis doesn't have that crutch to fall back upon.
On the left coast, Trout has rebounded from a slow start in which he hit .261/.333/.432 in April with two home runs. Since May 1st, he is hitting .352/.432/.632 with 10 home runs and 28 RBI, and is all but a lock to win the AL Player of the Month award in June. Also, he is 16 for 19 in steal attempts on the season. Remember how we all thought he was bound to regress from his 2012 season? It hasn't happened yet.
Mike Trout has regressed from a 166 wRC+ last year all the way to a 163 wRC+ this year.— David Cameron (@DCameronFG) June 21, 2013
Trout's.405 wOBA ranks fourth in the AL, while the aforementioned 163 wRC+ ranks third. He has been worth +3.0 bWAR and +4.3 fWAR, which rank eighth and second in the AL, respectively.
The move to left field has seemingly hurt Trout's defensive advantage that was a sizeable component of his gaudy WAR value last season. He has been worth -12 defensive runs saved in the Angels' outfield this year, a far cry from the +21 he had last season -- not to mention a lesson in the volatility of advanced defensive metrics.
David Ortiz and Evan Longoria are both putting up excellent seasons for their respective clubs, but are a step below the three main contenders at this point. Ortiz, as usual, will lose votes because he is a designated hitter, while Longoria's lack of RBI opportunities (among other factors) will cost him when compared with Cabrera and Davis.
The AL MVP vote is once again shaping up to be a tightly-contested race. If the season were to end today, I would imagine that Davis would be the winner with Cabrera as a close second, but there is still a lot of baseball to be played. If Mike Trout keeps putting up the mind-boggling numbers he has amassed over the past 50 games, it's going to be hard for voters to look away for a second straight season.
As for Cabrera, he may once again fall victim to his own success. He is putting up better numbers than those that won him the Triple Crown, but unless he challenges for a second consecutive crown or challenges for Hack Wilson's RBI record, he may fall short in the 2013 MVP race.