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Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera a proxy battle in a larger cold war

Nov 15, 2013, 8:33 AM EST

Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera

Miguel Cabrera has beaten out Mike Trout for the AL MVP award for the second straight year. It’s not a surprise.

Cabrera dominated offensively for most of 2013 and a consensus about him being the MVP front-runner was firmly in place by mid-summer. By the time he was injured at the end of August, there was no going back in the minds of most voters. Trout only had one bad month too. The difference? His came in April, when he stumbled out of the gate. While his dominating May-September ended up putting him right back to the top of the leader boards by the end of the year, in the minds of MVP voters, Trout was swimming against the current for most of the season.

But, at least on the surface, it shouldn’t have been as hard as a swim in 2013 as it was in 2012, should it have? After all, last year Cabrera did something pretty rare and extraordinary: he won the Triple Crown. And last year Trout, in the minds of some at least, came out of nowhere — he wasn’t in the big leagues until the end of April after all — and had not burst into the public consciousness as an MVP candidate until the season was well underway. Give Trout a full season of overall dominance, take away Miguel Cabrera’s triple crown and add in a dash of people’s general preference for new faces and new stories and, at the very least, the 2013 MVP vote should have been a lot closer than the 2012 vote, yes?

Apparently not. This year Cabrera was listed first on 23 of 30 ballots cast by and second on the other seven ballots. Trout received five first-place votes. The rest of his support was spread out: he got 19 second place votes, three third place votes, and single votes for fourth, fifth and seventh place. In 2012 it was around the same. The numbers were a tad different because, by virtue of the Astros moving to the American league, there were 30 voters in 2013 and only 28 in 2012, but Cabrera nabbed 22 of 28 first place votes and Trout got six. He received more second place votes, however, and none of that crazy down-ballot support he got this year.

In short: Cabrera didn’t miss much of a beat with voters, while Trout’s support, if anything, weakened and became more diffuse. What the heck is going on?

A short and simple answer is mere variance. A different group of voters were pulled out of the pool in 2013 than in 2012. Stuff happens. But I think there is more than mere variance going on. I think that that MVP award voting, at least in the American league, has taken on political and philosophical overtones, and that this year’s result was a function of that.

The philosophical differences are pretty clear. The Cabrera people have come to believe that the MVP award should go to baseball’s best hitter on a contending team. The Trout people believe that the MVP is the best all-around player regardless of where his team finishes. I say “come to believe” in the case of Cabrera, because one look at the history of MVP award provides plenty of examples of people other than the best hitter on a contending team winning. Pitchers, like Justin Verlander in 2011. Big sluggers on last place teams like Andre Dawson in 1987. singles-hitting speedsters like Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. Relievers like Rollie Fingers in 1981 or Dennis Eckersley in 1992. Players who had good seasons but whose primary argument was couched in terms of his emotional or inspirational impact like Kirk Gibson in 1988 and Terry Pendelton in 1991. Historically, anything has gone for the MVP award, but in the past two years the notion that the MVP award must go to the best hitter on a contending team has been the primary argument for Cabrera and the primary disqualifier for Trout in the minds of the voters.

This philosophical divide is not unprecedented, of course. We’ve seen tastes and dispositions in awards change over time. Sometimes Cy Young winners are guys who win a lot of games, sometimes they’re ERA/strikeout-first candidates. Occasionally Rookie of the Year awards will go to late-bloomers who finally got called up and did well and sometimes they’ll go to hot prospects. Manager of the Year has always been all over the map. The prevalent thought on the MVP award just happens now to strongly favor hitting over defense and base running and strongly favors contenders over players on bad teams.

But I think the political overtones of all of this are far more interesting and far more decisive. More than just a preference for certain stats over others, the Trout vs. Cabrera debate has come to serve as a proxy war between baseball’s old guard, represented by established baseball writers with BBWAA credentials and attendant awards votes on the one hand and a newer guard, consisting of baseball fans and, increasingly, writers, whose voice and opinion has come to flourish on the Internet. There is some crossover here, of course. Many Cabrera backers can be found on Twitter and in online message boards and some of baseball writing’s most recognizable and established names such as Ken Rosenthal and Joe Posnanski cast first place votes for Trout this year. But, those exceptions notwithstanding, the contours of this battle are pretty familiar by now.

And it’s clearly about more than baseball. If one, as I do, reads just about everything written on the Trout vs. Cabrera debate, one quickly realizes that baseball has become secondary to the discourse. There’s more written about the very debate itself than these two players’ baseball bonafides, which are usually assumed. There’s talk about the allegedly strident tone of the Trout backers, who are claimed to be dogmatic in their adherence to sabermetrics (never mind that one can and many do make great cases for Trout without a single reference to a stat less than 100 years old).  There’s talk about the hidebound and luddite disposition of the Cabrera backers, who are claimed to be stuck in the past and unable to follow basic logic (never mind that the intelligence and baseball acumen of the overwhelming number of Cabrera voters is beyond question).

In my view it’s a debate about a debate. And it’s an argument an altogether different thing than which player is most valuable. It’s about the future of media and baseball coverage. The evidence for this is the tone the debate has taken.

It’s not, as many say, nasty. Others who talk about it say it is, but really, I’ve not seen too many examples of actual hateful rhetoric from Trout or Cabrera backers. To the extent that exists it has been on the margins or from people who don’t actually write about baseball as either their profession or as a significant avocation. People who do are generally civil about this stuff if, for no other reason, most of the discourse takes place on Twitter, and people who are hostile and rude on Twitter get blocked by other users, and people don’t want to get blocked.

No, it’s not about hostility. It’s about defensiveness and insecurity. And there is plenty of that to go around.

Cabrera backers among the baseball writer establishment are defensive and insecure about their place as authorities on the game. Their newspapers have cut back or gone under, their competition for the eyes of readers and viewers has grown intense and the most basic facts and assumptions underlying the enterprise of sports journalism have undergone a sea change in the past decade. It’s a pretty rough world, and even if their position is secure, they’ve seen dozens of friends and colleagues lose their jobs.

There is defensiveness and insecurity on the side of the Trout backers too. These people — and I speak from personal experience — are defensive and insecure about being taken seriously as baseball authorities. About wading into a world that, a few short years ago, would have barred the door and which now only allows them in begrudgingly. To the extent they are allowed in its with caveats and, in some cases, as second-class citizens. Some are rejected for the BBWAA. Some are let in the BBWAA, but their status is lesser. Some are let into the press box, but not the main part of it. And, even if they get a good gig in the new world of baseball media there’s always someone telling them, usually implicitly but not always, that they didn’t earn their way there.

While, 25 years ago, the Old Guard/Cabrera people may have been more accepting of a differing view about who should be the MVP, when the source of that differing view are people seen to be threatening their very livelihoods — people from the Internet — there is far less consideration and far more reaction. Yelling, or something close to it, directed at the threat and borne of a fear that their position on the matter is more than just an opinion — it’s the very thing separating me, the authority, from them, the threat. By the same token, while, if just talking among friends, New Guard/Trout people would never call someone a luddite or question their reason and intelligence, when putting forth their arguments in baseball media, there is far less congeniality and far more yelling. A concern that, if their arguments aren’t made painfully loud and exceedingly clear, they will be lost in the noise of the Internet and their desire — to actually be an authority — will be thwarted.

This is why we are where we are. This is why the rhetoric from some on the Trout side has turned, frankly, silly, what with references to “the intelligentsia” and “enlightened” people. They’re compensating. This is also why you see silly things like seventh place votes for Trout from the Old Guard/Cabrera folks. They’re compensating too.  Everyone is so damn worried about their place in the world that they’ll say and do the silliest things in order to justify it. And, for the moment anyway, the Cabrera folks have a greater hold on the BBWAA, so their reaction — and Cabrera’s attendant solidification as MVP despite no triple crown and a full season from Trout — is worth more in the voting.

This dynamic won’t last forever, of course. For one thing, the people involved in it are generally pretty smart and reasonable people and, if they haven’t already figured out that these skirmishes are dumb, they will eventually. This happens with all proxy wars. They are mere footnotes to and offshots of the larger cold wars which encompass far greater and far more fundamental political and philosophical differences.

But those end too and a new way of organizing the world is eventually agreed upon. It happens with things as large and as important as nation-states. It’ll happen with something as small and relatively unimportant as the world of baseball journalism too.

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