Staying up to date on the battles for all the various MLB playoff spots is a full-time job that requires daily attention -- and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in this space, for the rest of the season.
The big news: Well, we were due a day like this. The Yankees and Orioles both lost. The White Sox lost, and the Tigers lost twice to the Twins. So everything kind of stayed the same in the East and Central.
The little news: The Rangers, A’s and Angels all won … so everything kind of stayed the same in the West too, but for different reasons.
Who is in: The Yankees still lead the East by a game. The White Sox lead the Tigers by a game after kind of a disastrous day for Detroit. And the Rangers are four games up on Oakland in the West, with Oakland 2½ games up on the Angels for the second wild card. A no-movement day.
Quirky statistic: Baltimore lost a one-run game to Boston. You know the Orioles have an amazing record in one run games -- 27-9 on the season, one of the best such records in baseball history – but they are 3-3 in one-run games in September.
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OK, let’s really dive into this Miguel Cabrera-Mike Trout MVP argument, now that an old friend, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, has weighed in.
“You can SABER all you want to,” Gardenhire said, which, unless I’m mistaken, is exactly what Men Without Hats told us to do in the 1980s. Gardenhire’s point -- one that seems to be making all the usual rounds inside baseball, around the sportswriter bars and among all the actors from the movie “Trouble With The Curve” -- is that while Mike Trout is having a fine year, you know, with all of his fancy-shmancy “numbers,” Miguel Cabrera is on the brink of winning the Triple Crown, and dadgum it, attention must finally be paid to such a person.
“If you’re going for a Triple Crown, that’s an MVP season,” Gardy concluded. “He’s got this team in the playoff hunt. Whether they get there or not can’t solely depend upon him, but he’s the reason they’re in it right now, and that’s an MVP. He’s the best player in our league.”
OK, well, a couple of things. First of all, last I checked there was this guy, what’s his name, tip of the tongue, oh yeah, this guy Justin Verlander who pitches for the Tigers, and -- let me look this up, yep, I thought I was right about this -- the guy won the Cy Young AND MVP awards last year. Prince Fielder plays for the Tigers. Austin Jackson plays for the Tigers. I mean, the Tigers are not exactly the Bad News Bears with Kelly Leak. They have a $130-plus million payroll and are loaded with stars and were heavily favored to win the division in a walk, and instead they are 80-72 and only in the playoff chase because the American League Central is brutal*. None of this is Miggy Cabrera’s fault nor does it detract from his amazing season … but come on. He’s the reason they’re in it now? Really, Gardy?
*The Angels are 2½ games better at 84-69. And Mike Trout isn’t the only reason for that, either.
Here’s the second thing: I don’t think Gardy, deep down, even believes what he is saying. Those words seem to go against every baseball vibe that he has given off since becoming a big league manager. Let’s not SABER this thing to death. No talk of WAR. No talk of UZR. No talk of BABIP. We’ll throw a few stats into italics if you want to know them, but we’re going to keep this thing simple, Gardy-style. And before we get into it, let’s say this: If Miguel Cabrera wins the Triple Crown, he will win the MVP award. I’m pretty sure about that. Nobody has won the Triple Crown since the year I was born, which my daughter will tell you is about 59 years before time began. Voters are more thoughtful now, they consider advanced stats more now, but the Triple Crown still carries all sorts of prestige and magic -- not without reason -- and I suspect that if Cabrera wins the Triple Crown he will also win the MVP award comfortably.
But remember: We are not talking about who WILL win the MVP award … but who should. And for this, we’re not going to talk SABER. We are going to talk Gardy.
Let’s start with those Triple Crown numbers.
Miggy: .332, 42 homers, 132 RBIs
Trout: .325, 28 homers, 78 RBIs
OK, that’s a pretty sizable difference there, especially in homers and RBIs. There are a few reasons you could cite for at least part of the difference -- Trout has played 20 fewer games than Cabrera (he wasn’t called up until April 28), he played his home games in a markedly tougher hitting ballpark, and he hits leadoff, so he’s not in a good RBI position* -- but let’s not get into such matters. Just call this a sizable difference. Cabrera also leads in doubles, 38-25, and he has a significantly higher slugging percentage. But, alas, we are getting into those geeky “numbers” again. Let’s just say that Miggy, by the Triple Crown stats, has a sizable lead on Trout.
*We will throw a few numbers into the asterisks … but if you would prefer to keep numbers out of it, please just skip these. Cabrera is third in the American League with 424 runners on base when he has batted. Trout has only had 284 runners on base in front of him. Cabrera’s percentage of driving in other runners is better than Trout’s – 21 percent to 18 percent -- but the RBI difference is largely because of circumstance, as RBI differences often are.
But we’re talking about RON GARDENHIRE here, right? The Twins manager? I’ve kind of followed his career a bit. This is the guy who gave Nick Punto 2,274 plate appearances because the guy’s a “gamer.” This is the guy who stuck with Lew Ford and Luis Rivas and Alexi Casilla through bad times and worse, for various reasons that certainly had nothing to do with their Triple Crown numbers. I’m pretty sure that Ron Gardenhire does not believe that baseball is won by the Triple Crown numbers. He’s had six teams make the playoffs. Let’s look at those six teams:
2002: Fifth in average, eighth in homers, ninth in RBIs
2003: Third in average, ninth in homers, eighth in RBIs
2004: 10th in average, sixth in homers, 10th in RBIs
2006: First in average (yay!), 13th in homers (boo!), seventh in RBIs
2009: Third in average, ninth in homers, fourth in RBIs
2010: Third in average, ninth in homers, fourth in RBIs
Hmm. It doesn’t seem like those Triple Crown numbers were the key to the Gardy Twins. It seems as if Gardy counted on other things besides batting average, home runs and RBIs. But what? What else could matter in baseball beside those three things? And don’t give me any of those jumbled abbreviation stats. What else matters that a guy like Gardy can sink his teeth into?
Well, I guess base running could be involved … you know, stretching for extra bases, stealing bases, going first to third, avoiding double plays, that sort of stuff. I think Gardy likes those kinds of things.
Miggy: Zero triples, four stolen bases, one caught stealing, league-leading 28 double plays, first to third on 12 of 41 singles.
Trout: Six triples, 46 stolen bases, four caught stealing, seven double plays, first to third on 25 of 40 singles.
Yeah, those numbers seem to lean pretty heavily toward Trout. He leads the league in runs scored and has outscored Cabrera 121-105. Trout is obviously much faster that Cabrera, a much better base runner, a much better base stealer and much less likely to kill a rally with a double play. What is all that worth? Well, that’s the kind of stuff that advanced statistics measure*, so we don’t want to get into it. But I imagine that Gardy can probably make an estimate there.
*RBaser -- the Baseball Reference base running stat -- has Trout’s base running worth 10 more runs than Cabrera’s. FanGraphs’ base running statistic, which is different, also has Trout’s about 10 runs ahead. So, that seems to be the advanced stats estimate. But I imagine that an old-school guy like Gardy might have old-fashioned base running worth even more.
What else is involved in judging the value of a player? Oh yeah. There’s defense, too. Doesn’t Ron Gardenhire worship at the church of defense? I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard him talk about how important is to do the little things, and by little things he meant make the plays, close out the innings, get the sure outs and then some.
Again, you can look at those advanced stats if you’re one of those crazy SABER-tooth tigers. But I don’t think anyone -- anyone -- would deny that Mike Trout is a much, much, much, much, much more valuable defensive player than Cabrera. Trout is a dazzling center fielder who has played all three outfield spots, can run like the wind, can chase
down everything. The most positive thing you will hear scouts say about Cabrera’s third base defense is, “He’s been a lot better there than I expected,” which is nice except that they expected Cabrera to basically be about as effective at third base as a Barcalounger. The Tigers were so
worried about Cabrera’s defense at third that they played him at first the last four years and were forced into moving him back after signing Prince Fielder. That Cabrera has played the position to something close to a draw is a big win.
But he’s clearly not Mike Trout. And I actually think that if you’re wired like Ron Gardenhire, you would think that the advanced stats don’t give ENOUGH credit for defense.*
*According to Fielding Bible’s Runs Saved, which compares players to the league average, Trout has saved 26 more runs this year than Cabrera (plus-21 for Trout; minus-5 for Miggy). FanGraphs UZR has it a little bit less stark, but still has the difference between 22 and 23 runs.
OK, so you have these two guys. They’re both having amazing years. MVP years. They get on base at almost exactly the same rate … a minuscule advantage to Miggy (.397 to .394). There’s a batting average, home runs and RBI advantage for Miggy. But there’s a run scoring, base running, base stealing and defensive advantage for Trout.
The advanced numbers add all these up and compute, pretty unequivocally, that Trout has been the better overall player this year. Yes, the anti-stats guy Ron Gardenhire, the “You can SABER all you want to, you can leave your friends behind” guy will talk up Miguel Cabrera and the Triple Crown. I just wonder what Ron Gardenhire, the man who has attempted to manage baseball for more than a decade around speed, defense, hustle and all-around play, really thinks.
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The big news: There’s probably not going to be a lot of big news in the NL the last week. The races are all but over. Washington is fading a bit and Atlanta is coming on -- but it doesn’t seem like there’s enough time for the Braves to catch the Nationals in the East. The Cardinals won again and maintained their 2½-game lead over Milwaukee for the second wild card.
The little news: Arizona has been playing some nice baseball lately. It probably won’t be enough, but the Diamondbacks won their third in a row -- another big day for Aaron Hill, who’s having an excellent year -- and are 4½ games back in the wild card. Considering that Arizona lost 11 of 13 going into early September, this is a nice turnaround.
Talk Like a Pirate Day: The Pirates unleashed some frustration with 18 hits and beat Houston 8-1. They’re two games under .500, and that magical winning season is still close enough taste.
Who is in: Washington, Atlanta, Cincinnati and San Francisco are essentially in – the Nationals have not quite put away the Braves in the NL East race. The Cardinals are getting closer to securing the second wild card.
Quirky statistic: Do you know what third baseman has the most RBIs over the last five seasons? Alex Rodriguez? No. Evan Longoria? No. David Wright? Adrian Beltre? Ryan Zimmerman? Chipper Jones?
Well, I wouldn’t have asked if it was any of them. It’s Aramis Ramirez. Of course, RBIs -- as referenced above -- do not tell much of the story, but it’s still a great trivia question to get your friends with. Ramirez, now with the Brewers, leads the National League in doubles with an astonishing 49, he has 25 homers, he’s about to pass 100 RBIs, and he has an outside shot of scoring 100 runs. He might be having his best season at age 34. But at any age, few outside of his hometown are noticing.
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Cliff Lee lost again on Sunday. His performance? Eight innings. One earned run. Eleven strikeouts. No walks. Now, to be fair, a second run scored, and while it was an unearned run, it was Lee’s error that sparked it. Still,
Lee has now lost three games in which he has allowed two or fewer earned runs, and he has received no-decisions on another seven games like that.
And even more amazing -- Lee’s strikeout-to walk ratio is now 195-to-28. That’s 6.96-to-1 … Lee has a chance this year to become only the fourth pitcher in baseball history to have TWO seasons in which he struck out seven times as many hitters as he walked. The other three?
Greg Maddux: 1995 (7.87) and 1997 (8.85)
Curt Schilling: 2001 (7.51) and 2002 (9.58)
Pedro Martinez: 1999 (8.46) and 2000 (8.88)
Lee in 2010 struck out 185 and walked 18, a ridiculous 10.28 ratio. It’s the highest ever for a pitcher who threw 200 innings. Since the beginning of July, he has struck out 106 and walked nine … an absolutely ludicrous 11.77 strikeout-to-walk ratio.