Unlike in the National League, the MVP question in the American League is not only rather simple, it's a reprise: The same two men as last year dominate the picture, and the same two basic arguments regarding their performance and strengths as candidates still apply.
Miguel Cabrera won't win the Triple Crown again this year, unless he hits eight home runs in the last week, but he will end 2013 with an even better season than he had last year, blocked from one of the most prestigious and arbitrary awards in sports for a second straight season only by the emergence of Chris Davis of the Baltimore Orioles as a massive home run hitting threat. Unlike last year, however, Cabrera will have a sort of "sabermetric Triple Crown" argument, for lack of a better term -- he'll very likely end the season leading the majors in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
Cabrera so far has a batting average almost 20 points higher than in 2012 (.330 vs. .349 as of Sunday night), an OBP an astounding 50 points higher than in 2012 (.393 vs. .445), and a slugging percentage that's some 30 points higher so far (.606 vs. .647). It's arguable, in fact, that Cabrera's Triple Crown season last year is his personal worst season at the plate since 2010. It's certainly the worst by OPS and OPS+. This year's 1.092 OPS (192 OPS+), on the other hand, would mark a career high in both categories, as well as lead all of baseball. It will also be the second-worst defensive season of his career by Defensive Runs Saved, as Cabrera has been worth -17 runs compared to an average defender -- tying his worst season, 2007 with Florida -- and there's still time for him to earn more negative runs.
That's important, because defense and baserunning are important, even if they don't show up in the box score the way doubles and home runs do. Which brings us to Mike Trout, of course, who has a convincing case for the best first two full seasons in a career by any position player in the history of the game. Trout will not win the AL MVP award in 2013, that much is about certain. Cabrera has dominated while also being a visible, prominent leader on a playoff-bound division winner, while Trout is merely the best player on one of the game's most disappointing teams. The Angels have spent most of the past couple years flailing about the free-agent market because their owner, Arte Moreno, thought that the only way to compete with the Dodgers was to pay the biggest hitter on the market the most money; Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols have not worked out as they'd hoped.
Meanwhile, the pitching they've ignored has become a severe problem, and as a result, the Angels will finish the season in distant third place in the American League West, despite a very strong September. So the fact that Trout leads the AL in walks and has an OPS less than 100 points lower than Cabrera's (.999 going into Sunday's games, the same as Cabrera's last year) -- while actually contributing value on the base paths (+6 runs there, to Cabrera's 0) and being far less terrible in the field (-8 runs to Cabrera's -17) -- likely will not matter all that much. The Angels' standing dooms his candidacy before it even begins. There's a strong case to be made that two full seasons into his professional career, Trout will have missed out on two MVP awards due to the other miscellaneous failures of the team that drafted him -- though in fairness, it's unlikely anyone could have outpolled the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.
Another pair of hitters are competing for the third and fourth spots -- the well-known candidate, Baltimore's aforementioned first baseman Chris Davis, and the guy who should actually place third in voting, third baseman Josh Donaldson of the Oakland Athletics. Donaldson's A's will be playing postseason baseball, while Davis' Orioles in all likelihood will not be, so that should tip the scales in Donaldson's favor among voters (though despite Oakland fans' recent chants, Donaldson has almost no chance of finishing higher than second).
Donaldson, of course, is the former Oakland catcher who went down to the minors in the middle of last year to convert to third base full-time, then came back to the big leagues like a Crusader returning with the Holy Grail. Since his return, he's been the best-hitting third baseman in the American League not named "Cabrera." Donaldson has a .899 OPS on the year (153 OPS+), but unlike Trout or Cabrera, he also has a positive fielding value, +12 runs per Baseball Reference. (For what it's worth, the eye test supports the metric's valuation of both Donaldson and Cabrera, but Trout has continued to look like a plus defensive player in left and center this year for the Angels. It's a bit confusing why the metric, or the scorers whose grades affect the metric, think Trout is a negative value player on defense).
Then there's Davis, whose chase of Roger Maris' "record" came up short but who is the first hitter to break the 50-home run barrier since Jose Bautista back in 2010, something that got Bautista fourth place in MVP voting on a non-playoff team -- a decent enough barometer for where Davis should end up in this race. Probably more valuable than Davis, but much less likely to accrue votes, is Robinson Cano of the Yankees, who is currently being overshadowed by the retirements of Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, along with his team ownership's focus on getting below the luxury tax threshold this year rather than actually winning ballgames.
All in all, though, like last year, this remains Miguel Cabrera's race to lose -- and with so little time left in the season, I don't think there's much else Mike Trout or Josh Donaldson can do to change that narrative.