by Ben Findlay
Last night in the 2014 MLB All-Star Game, Mike Trout finally won an MVP trophy over Miguel Cabrera. You might have missed it. The moment was overshadowed by Joe Buck giddily preparing Derek Jeter for his new position as baseball’s Brett Favre, by which I mean that one retired guy sportscasters bring up every game. Trout went 2 for 3 with a double and a triple and two RBIs–a fine performance, and I’m not here to diminish Trout’s baseball ability. I’m here to make the point that Miguel Cabrera is a scarier hitter than Mike Trout, and I think there’s something in their first-inning All-Star Game performances that illuminates why.
So maybe Adam Wainwright intentionally grooved one to Derek Jeter for a lead-off double (and maybe Chien-Ming Wang grooved one to Cal Ripken Jr. too, but who cares?) He certainly wasn’t playing tee ball the rest of the inning. Here’s the Pitchf/x of Wainwright’s inning (from http://www.brooksbaseball.net/).
Jeter hit a double on a beach ball right down the middle, and Trout hit a triple on a cutter on the outer third of the plate. Cabrera took a 2-seam fastball that was an inch or two off the plate inside and put it into the left field flower garden for a home run. It’s a helpless feeling as a pitcher to know that you’re going to get tagged regardless of where you throw the ball. It’s the equivalent of a hitter facing Mariano Rivera: You know what’s coming and that you’re going to strike out anyway.
There’s some old pitching wisdom that says pitchers don’t lose games by giving up solo home runs; they lose games by walking guys and turning those solo home runs into three-run home runs. Nobody wants to give up a run of any kind, but games can quickly turn sour when your opponent starts putting crooked numbers up on the scoreboard. Trout and Cabrera contribute to those crooked innings in different ways. While Trout has plenty of power (he’s slugging .606 right now), stat-heads, sabermetricians, Bill James fan-boys-and-girls, and people who have seen Moneyball once will all go bonkers over his gaudy on-base-percentage numbers (.400 right now). Those people will use those stats to argue that Mike Trout is the most valuable player in baseball, and they’ll have a compelling case. At his current pace, he will probably win the AL MVP this year and that’s fine. Miguel Cabrera will still be the scariest hitter in baseball.
There’s another old baseball adage that says two-out hits are the key to heaven, and it’s no coincidence that all baseball fantasies happen with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. When Miguel Cabrera comes to the plate with two outs and runners on base, he transforms into the most terrifying creature in recorded history: an old, white man. Over the last three years, Cabrera has hit .356/.461/.724 with two outs and runners on base. Those are Babe Ruth numbers. (Ruth hit .342/.474/.690 over his career.) When those runners have been in scoring position, Cabrera has transformed into 1941 Ted Williams (.406/.551/.735)–basically a category 5 Kaiju–and has hit .412/.519/.765. Miguel Cabrera becomes a more dangerous hitter in high-stakes situations, even when pitchers don’t throw him strikes. That makes pitchers poop their pants.
Over the last three seasons with two outs and runners on base, Mike Trout has also transformed into a different hitter; however, his transformation has been strange and unique. He has transformed into Jason Kendall, who is best known for terrifyingly destroying all of the bones in his ankle on national television in 1999. Kendall is less well-known for finishing six major league seasons with an on-base percentage higher than his slugging percentage (2004-2006, and 2008-2010). Since 2012, Trout has hit .259/.410/.384 with two outs and runners on base. When those runners have been in scoring position, his numbers have improved to .278/.436/.420. The thing is, as much as I want Jason Kendall to be relevant again for something other than his ankle, the closest Kendall ever got to Trout’s numbers was his 2004 season when he hit .319/.399/.390, which is still a huge difference in batting average. I could only find one player in the last 10 years with similar numbers to Trout: 2009 Nick Johnson, who started the season with Washington before being traded to Florida. Johnson’s combined numbers were .291/.426/.405, and he walked in a league-leading 17.8% of his plate appearances that year. I couldn’t find a single player who, over their career, had as wide of a split as Trout’s numbers with two outs and runners on. Sure, there have been plenty of guys with lack-luster batting averages and good on-base percentages, but none of them have been that uninspiring at hitting for power while simultaneously being that good at getting on base. That leads me to believe that with two outs and runners on base, Mike Trout actually transforms into an entirely different organism: a walking stick.
Little kids who imagine themselves being Miguel Cabrera get to imagine hitting the game-winning 2-run home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Little kids who imagine themselves being Mike Trout get to imagine walking to first and waiting for the kids who are pretending to be Albert Pujols to drive them in.