“It’s not about the best player, it’s about the one most valuable to his team.”
This is the constant reminder we hear from the MVP voters as the ballots are tallied up every November. It is, at least on its face, an idea that doesn’t hold up to any real thought.
But I don’t think the “best player” argument is an accurate accurately represents what the MVP award is meant to be. It’s an award about whose spectacular performance was most influential; whose spectacular performance most represents what we’ll remember (or, at least, what we think we’ll remember) about the season.
Often, the most influential player also is the best player. Josh Hamilton didn’t just have the best results in 2011 — he hit a ridiculous .359/.411/.633 — but to come from where he did in his life to get there and the Rangers’ run to the AL West title both served to make the story even bigger. As much as Hamilton was the American League’s best player in 2011, he defined its overarching story as well.
Matt Kemp, by most objective measures, had a better 2011 than Ryan Braun. Both were similarly fantastic with the bat, but Kemp did it as a better center fielder than Braun was a left fielder. But Kemp was not so much better his story was able to push Braun’s lead of the Brewers’ playoff charge out of the spotlight. Obviously it was easy for those around the Brewers to get the idea Braun had the most influential 2011 season, but it was an idea shared by many in the national media and national fans.
Buster Posey won the 2012 National League MVP award, and as much as Braun deserved it again for his performance, Posey was an easy pick. His performance was indistinguishable from Braun’s on a whole — Braun’s power advantage is closed by Posey’s defensive contributions as a catcher, at the least. His second-half dominance (.385/.456/.646, 17 HR) and spot at the Giants’ helm sealed the deal.
It certainly takes nothing away from Ryan Braun’s accopmlishments. Braun hit for power otherwise unseen in the National League behind his 41 home runs (seven more than second-place Jay Bruce) and his .276 ISO led the NL as well. He stole 30 bases again. He won a Silver Slugger. And he’s starting to translate his athleticism into results in the field as well.
Sometimes a player will be so good he transcends his team’s badness. Alex Rodriguez did it 2003. He hit .298/.396/.600 at shortstop. His 71-win Rangers weren’t an anchor. When somebody does that as a shortstop, it starts to take over the baseball world.
What’s the point where performance trumps story — or, perhaps more accurately, performance becomes its own more compelling story? Difficult to say, and it likely differs for every observer. More than a few believe the difference between Kemp and Braun last season is enough, and I don’t begrudge them that.
All of which brings me to the American League MVP debate, the Trout-Cabrera decision. I find the “who was better?” debate wholly boring (it’s Trout). Beyond it lies a far more interesting dynamic of two competing stories. There was Cabrera, chasing the triple crown for the first time in 62 years, establishing himself as the best right-handed hitter in the game and leading the Tigers into the playoffs. And there was Trout, a 20-year-old sensation, giving the game a kind of talent it hasn’t seen since probably Ken Griffey, Jr., and he may have had a better year than anything even The Kid offered in his prime.
For the majority of the Baseball Writer’s Association of America, Cabrera’s season was seen as more compelling. I personally disagree — Trout is the single most fascinating baseball player I’ve seen since Griffey, and he was simply too mesmerizing with his performance to overlook, even for a Triple Crown (admittedly, something I may value less simply because of my age).
But the MVP is certainly not disgraced in showcasing the Miguel Cabrera story instead. The triple crown race was the talk of September, and Cabrera’s power in the vast Tiger Stadium was unique.
The MVP is, after all, an honorific voted on by writers. Their job on a daily basis is to tell us stories. There’s no reason to expect them to morph into talent evaluators for the sake of an awards ballot. They remain storytellers at heart, and I don’t think we should interpret the MVP award any differently.