AL MVP debate: Chris Davis vs. Miguel Cabrera


Composite of two images of MVP candidates Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis at the plate.
It’s Miggy vs. Crash in the AL MVP debate.

MVP Award talk is heating up in the American League right now. Two sluggers are teasing at a historic home-run chase, and they are the two early favorites for MVP. Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis are putting up some silly stat lines right now, so let’s examine the claim each has for the crown.

Miguel Cabrera is a rare power/average combination hitter. Typically, you get one or the other, but Cabrera has an elite bat, and he provides both at a premium level. This year, he’s solidifying his status as “living legend” with some eye-popping stats.

As good as Cabrera was when he captured the Triple Crown last year, he’s even better this year. His slash line is straight out of the offense-happy ’30s: .368/.458/.678. It looks like a Jimmie Foxx year, and it’s clear Miguel Cabrera is in the middle of a Hall of Fame career.

Once again, Cabrera is chasing down a Triple Crown and is only trailing Chris Davis in the home-run category. We’ll get to that later. For now, let’s look below the surface stats and peek at advanced metrics. Cabrera is boasting a .474 wOBA (weighted On Base Average) entering July 3. I don’t like “do it all” metrics, but wOBA is one of the two I’m comfortable using in isolation to an extent. It doesn’t tell you everything, but it gives you a broad picture of a player’s individual value. You can use wOBA as you would use on-base percentage, where anything above .400 is elite. Cabrera is near .500.

Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is a fairly controversial metric around baseball. Like wOBA, I don’t typically use it on its own. I usually save it for the 140-character limitations of Twitter. In the context of Cabrera’s other numbers, however, it’s important to note he has accumulated a 5.4 fWAR (Fangraphs WAR — there three different types) already and is on pace to have a 10+ WAR season. WAR takes into account baserunning and fielding, two skills that Cabrera is deficient in, so it is incredibly impressive that he is on pace to post a historic fWAR number. It’s a testament to how big his bat has been so far in 2013.

I mentioned earlier that Cabrera is chasing down a Triple Crown and trails Chris Davis in the home-run category; it’s entirely likely Cabrera will have a better year than he did when he won the Triple Crown but lose out on the achievement because Davis is having a monster home-run year.

Chris Davis has a typical slugger physical and statistical profile. He looks the part and plays the part as well. “On pace” is a funny thing, because the deviation from the pace is small relative to the end result, but Davis is on pace to threaten the “clean” home run record of 61 as he has 31 home runs as of July 3.

Davis has a lot of swing-and-miss in his game; he’s currently sporting a 91-36 K-BB ratio which isn’t criminal, but it’s bordering on the dangerous side. It hasn’t hurt his slash line much, however, it’s a healthy .329/.405/.721. This season is seemingly coming out of nowhere for Davis who, before 2012, had never hit more than 21 homers in a season.

Davis’ claim to the MVP award is married to his home-run total. His wOBA is sitting pretty at .463 and his fWAR is a pretty 4.6. Those are impressive totals and worthy of an MVP candidate, but given Cabrera’s Hall of Fame-caliber year at the plate, Davis will have to keep mashing dingers and stay in front of Cabrera to win the MVP.

There’s a valid case to be made for both of these candidates this year. Miguel Cabrera is absolutely crushing at the plate. He’s having a year that the baseball community will remember for years. Chris Davis isn’t slouching in any of the triple-slash categories either, and he’s destroying balls at a historic pace. If it wasn’t for Miggy, Chris Davis would be the clear MVP candidate.

I have to go with Miguel Cabrera as my early pick for MVP. I think the traditional numbers and the advanced metrics are melding together nicely, and they trump Chris Davis’ home-run total. The season is still too young to say who will definitively win the MVP. Cabrera recently left a game with a sore back. If either player gets seriously injured, that will obviously destroy their MVP chances.

Still, health being a qualifier, I like Cabrera to win the MVP award. His season is the stuff of legends, and assuming health, it’ll be one we’ll all remember for years to come.

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