For a time this year, the 2012 American League Most Valuable Player Award was the subject of what could be described as a generational conflict.
On one side was a sabermetric-based group, taking the side of talented rookie outfielder Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels. On the other side was a generally older, more traditionally based group espousing the cause of third baseman Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers.
When the shouting stopped and the AL MVP Award was decided, Cabrera was a landslide winner. He received 22 of the 28 first-place votes from the Baseball Writers' Association of America, compared to six for Trout.
Cabrera, of course, won the AL Triple Crown, the first time it had been accomplished in 45 years. Was this a sensational feat, or were the old-timers mistakenly hanging on to antiquated stats? Ah, let's not do that again.
It may be that the new school vs. old school debate was overemphasized, but it's over now, thank goodness. There was also the annual discussion about the underlying meaning of the award.
Trout's advocates kept using the word "best" in their arguments, as in "Mike Trout is the best player in the American League." That could be. But the award isn't BP, for Best Player. The Award is MVP, for Most Valuable Player. There can be a difference. There was this year.
The Trout-Cabrera debate crystallized the very nature of what the MVP is all about. Or what it ought to be about, if your side of the argument prevailed. Or, if you were on the Trout side of the debate, what is wrong with those baseball writers.
Perhaps the best player in the AL, this season and for years to come, is Mike Trout. Certainly he is a player of more diverse skills than Cabrera. He is a better defensive player and a far superior baserunner. It has been intriguing to see his speed touted by people who a few years ago viewed the stolen base as, at best, insignificant, and at worst, subversive. But we all live and learn.
However, all five tools that might make Trout the best player didn't necessarily make him the Most Valuable Player over the six months of the regular season. This distinction seems semi-obvious, and yet, it is often a source of contention.
The MVP voting has evolved. There was a time when the writers voted for the best season. For instance, that happened when Ernie Banks won the NL MVP in 1958 and '59. These were two indisputably magnificent seasons put up by Mr. Cub, and no one should say otherwise.
But looked a through the lenses of today's voting process, the 1958 Cubs finished tied for fifth, the 1959 Cubs finished tied for fifth. Contemporary voters, in the absence of overwhelming statistics, appear to be more interested in a combination of personal performance and team achievement.
In the AL MVP balloting for the past nine seasons, the winner has played for a team that qualified for the postseason. The sample size is large enough to preclude the possibility of coincidence.
The National League MVP voters faced a similar decision this year. Ryan Braun had the better overall numbers, but the MVP voters went decisively with Buster Posey. Posey's Giants won a division title, and their performance over the past three seasons seemed to be tied directly to Posey's presence or absence.
And that was the turf upon which the Cabrera-Trout race was run. The Tigers won the AL Central. The Angels finished third in the AL West. Yes, there was tougher competition in the West, but there the Tigers were, in the postseason, unlike the Angels. The Tigers couldn't have finished first without Cabrera. The Angels could have finished third without Trout.
And there was this: Down the stretch, when the Tigers had to catch and pass the White Sox, September was Cabrera's most productive month. With the Angels in a three-way race in the West, and a Wild Card chase, Trout had his least productive month.
In the end, "most valuable" has to be grasped in a literal translation. The voters were not asked to decide on "best."
Looking at Trout's magnificent abilities, there could yet be a season or three in which he is both the best and the Most Valuable Player. But in 2012, the voters reasonably determined that a terrific season by Miguel Cabrera, a historic season that carried his team into the postseason, meant that Cabrera was the Most Valuable Player in all of the American League. On the basis that the English language offers a difference between "best" and "most valuable," they weren't wrong.