The Tigers pack as much punch at the plate as Glass Joe . They have averaged just over four runs per game since the All-Star break. They are near the bottom of the AL in just about every meaningful offensive statistic. They’re 10th in runs per game, 13th in hits, 13th in stolen bases, 11th in walks, 10th in strikeouts, 11th in batting average, 11th in OBP, 10TH in slugging percentage, 11th in OPS+, 12th in Total Bases, and 13th in sacrifice flies. I would go on but I need to wake up early. The Yankees have eight players in their starting lineup with an OPS+ better than 120. The Tigers have one. The top three offensive teams in the AL in order are the Yankees, Angels, and Red Sox. Not coincidentally, they are the three best teams in the AL. So, how is it that the Tigers are line to make the playoffs? There are a few suitable answers but I think they all involve Miguel Cabrera in one way or another. Without his 148 OPS+ in the middle of the lineup, the offense would be so miserable that any mention of the word “playoffs” would surely send everyone from Jim Leyland to Jim Mora over the edge. I think that probably makes Miggy the most important player to his team in the American League. Unfortunately, that doesn’t automatically mean he’s the most valuable player in the league.
This is really just a matter of semantics. I’ve never been a big fan of the vagueness of “most valuable player.” Everyone has their own take on what that means. In my opinion, “MVP” should be defined as, “the best player in the league”; not “most important player” or “best player on a playoff contender.” So, while I think Cabrera is the most important player in the American League, we’ve got to take it a little further to conclude if he is the most valuable. In my opinion, there are seven candidates that seem to have separated themselves from an otherwise underwhelming cast of players in the American League including Joe Mauer, Miguel Cabrera, Mark Teixeira, Justin Morneau, Kevin Youkilis, Chone Figgins, and Kendry Morales. All are having spectacular seasons but this debate really ends before it starts. OPS+, OBP, Slugging Percentage, and Runs Created are four of the most telling statistics in baseball. Joe Mauer leads the league in all four. He even leads the league in batting average. He also plays the most difficult defensive position in baseball.
If you remember back to the beginning of the season, Mauer missed the first 22 games. He has missed 25 games all together. While not enough to entirely dismiss someone from MVP contention, 25 games is 15% of the season which is a significant amount of time. To be fair to Cabrera, Teixeira, and the others, Mauer’s numbers should stand up under the scrutiny of a raw number comparison before being handed the MVP. Take Cabrera, for example. He has missed just three games. The fact that the Tigers have had his services for 22 games more than the Twins have had Mauer should be a boost to Cabrera’s case. As it turns out, though, Mauer has been so superior to his AL counterparts that even with the games played disadvantage, his raw stats stack up just fine. He has nearly the same number of home runs and RBIs as Cabrera. He has more walks and fewer strike outs. He not only beats Cabrera in runs created, but he leads the whole league.
As much as I’d like Miggy to take home some hardware, I’m kind of glad that Mauer has distinguished himself as the best player in the AL because if he is removed from the equation, what’s left is a giant messy mass of ambiguity. The result would likely be Mark Teixeira winning for being the best player on the best team and because of the draw of the New York market. As good as Cabrera has been this year, I’d be shocked if he finishes higher than either Mauer or Teixeira in the voting. The AL Cy Young race might be a little kinder to the Tigers. Zack Greinke leads the AL in ERA and WHIP but he only has 13 wins. If he doesn’t get that above 15, then all bets are off. Only one player (Fernando Valenzuela in ’81) has won the Cy Young with fewer than 16 wins. If Greinke fails to get there, then Justin Verlander would have as good a chance as anyone. His next six starts will make or break his case. And if you absolutely need some Tigers hardware, Rick Porcello should easily win the Rookie of the Year after a brilliant August.