You don't need any kind of advanced numbers to know who the best player in the American League in 2012 was. You don't need a calculator or a spreadsheet. The numbers on the back of a baseball card, combined with a pair of eyes, do the trick plenty well.
So if you believe that the American League Most Valuable Player Award, as voted on by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, should go to the best player, you needn't think long or hard. That player is Mike Trout. There are other definitions of "most valuable," that might lead a reasonable person to other conclusions. But if the MVP is the best player, Trout is the MVP.
In the batter's box this season, Trout was very nearly the equal of the great -- the truly great -- Miguel Cabrera. In every other facet of the game, Trout was clearly superior. He was a Gold Glove-caliber defender in center field and quite possibly the best baserunner in the American League. Cabrera was somewhere between adequate and poor in the field, and would never be mistaken for a plus baserunner, never mind an elite one.
The argument for Trout doesn't require WAR or UZR or any other advanced metric. There is no reason it needs to come down to some kind of clichéd "stats versus scouts" dispute. To frame it like that is to do a disservice to both players, as well as to common sense. The idea that Trout's case is some sort of sabermetric eggheadery is nothing more than a straw man.
No heavy statistical lifting is required, just simple logic. Trout may have had a small disadvantage at the plate -- and frankly, he may not have. But he clearly had an enormous advantage in every other aspect of the game. The difference between the two men as hitters was dwarfed by the difference between them in all the other areas that a ballplayer can contribute to his team.
"He is playing to his potential," said manager Mike Scioscia. "And when a player does that at such a young age, you want to come out there and just continue to play baseball and let the numbers fall where they will. I think that's what Mike's challenge is going to be, is... consistency, the test of time.
Yes, Cabrera won the Triple Crown. That's historic, difficult, and deserves to be recognized. There's no reason to denigrate Cabrera in praising Trout. The Tigers' third baseman is a great player, almost certainly en route to the Hall of Fame, and he posted a signature season. His performance was worthy of the award.
The thing is, Cabrera already was recognized for the Triple Crown. He was presented with a trophy during the World Series. His name now appears on an even more exclusive list than the list of MVP winners. Ask yourself: Which is better known about the 1947 season: that Ted Williams won the Triple Crown, or that Joe DiMaggio was the MVP?
Cabrera doesn't need the MVP to validate his season. He will be remembered, and revered, for what he did. Trout was a better player, and deserves to be recognized as such.
If you're trying to establish who had a better season -- which, it would seem, is pretty much analogous with "most valuable" -- you need to look beyond those three categories. Cabrera outhit Trout by a little, if at all. Trout out-fielded and outran Cabrera by a lot. He's the definition of a complete player.
"Coming into the year, getting the callup and playing every day, I had confidence in myself and I knew what my potential was," Trout said. "Playing every day and getting the opportunity to lead off and do what I've been doing my whole career in the Minors, going out there playing center field, playing left field, and being able to get into a rhythm to help the team win, it just started clicking."
Playing in a tougher place to hit, Trout finished with a slight edge on Cabrera in on-base percentage, and a notable but not enormous deficit in slugging percentage. Cabrera had an enormous edge in RBIs, but then again he was batting third in a lineup that had Austin Jackson leading off. Trout had a significant edge in runs scored, but then again he was leading off for a lineup that had Albert Pujols and Mark Trumbo driving in runs.
In OPS+, which adjusts for a player's home ballpark, Trout actually led Cabrera. Cabrera had 58 more plate appearances, which isn't nothing. He also grounded into 21 more double plays.
If you want to claim that Cabrera had the better year at the plate, you certainly have a leg to stand on. But the numbers make it clear the advantage was small. As for the rest of the game, well, it wasn't close.
Trout didn't win a Gold Glove, but by both the eye test and every noteworthy defensive metric he was an absolutely elite defensive center fielder. Cabrera wasn't the disaster at third base that some predicted, but by both the eye test and metrics he was at best an adequate defender and at worst a poor one.
As for baserunning, Trout led the league in steals while being caught only five times. It was another historic achievement in a season full of them. Since caught stealing became a statistic, only four other players had as many steals as Trout's 49 while being caught five or fewer times. Cabrera, meanwhile, is many things on a baseball field, but a plus baserunner isn't one of them.
Cabrera had a magnificent, historic, transcendent season worthy of all of the praise he has received. But Trout was even better, and that means he should win the MVP.
Matthew Leach is an editor and reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach.