Pictured: Back-to-back AL MVP? Photo courtesy of Kelly O’Connor.

Last year’s AL MVP race may have been the most memorable in recent memory.

In one corner, you had Miguel Cabrera: the league’s top slugger, freshly minted as the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski. In the other, 20-year-old Mike Trout, who compiled a ridiculous 10 WAR season while batting .326, stealing 49 bases, and routinely providing jaw-dropping defensive highlights in centerfield.

(It also featured a 10th place vote for Raul Ibanez, but we won’t talk about that. I already covered it here.)

As we all remember, the race provided a watershed moment for baseball analytics, as the young, saber-friendly Trout upset Cabrera, favored by most traditional metrics and narratives.

Except, wait, that’s not what happened at all.

No, Miguel Cabrera and his 6.9 WAR picked up 22 first place votes to Trout’s six, running away with what was supposed to be one of the closest MVP races in recent memory. I could go on all day about the myriad reasons that award should have gone to Trout (it’s not often a player ends up on this list), but instead, there’s a more interesting discussion to be had here.

To sum it up with brevity: it’s about to happen again.

As we progress further into August, we can start to get an idea of what the end of season award races will look like. Keeping in mind that there is still plenty of time remaining this season, let’s take a look at the players who currently look to make up the top three:

Miguel Cabrera:

.360/.454/.670, 14.1 BB%, 15.1 K%, .310 ISO, .471 wOBA, 203 wRC+, 6.7 WAR

The biggest difference between the 2012 and 2013 MVP races is that, while 2012 Trout largely outpaced 2012 Cabrera by most advanced measures, 2013 Cabrera is most certainly not so disadvantaged, both through improvement on his part and some regressions on Trout’s end.

Miguel Cabrera has improved his game in almost every possible respect this season compared to last. He’s walking more, leading to an ungodly .454 OBP. He’s tearing the cover off of almost every ball he hits; his .670 SLG sits just behind Chris Davis’s despite seven fewer home runs on the season. Through 106 games as of this writing, his WAR is already only 0.2 behind his career high (set last year). Barring injury, he will likely have shattered that mark by season’s end.

To lend some more perspective to the kind of offensive season Cabrera is having: if his
.471 wOBA (54 points higher than 2012) lasts the rest of the season, it will be higher than any season of Albert Pujols’ career.

Detractors of Cabrera’s 2013 MVP candidacy can use many of the same criticisms 2012 Cabrera faced. His fielding at third is, at best, terrible, and unfortunately, “taking one for the team” doesn’t save the Tigers any runs. His fielding rating is an atrocious -11.1, per Fangraphs, and that likely won’t change much any time soon.

As for baserunning, Fangraphs actually has Cabrera in the positive in that regard (0.7 rating) for only the third time in his career. If you’re making an argument for or against Miguel Cabrera by pointing at his play on the basepaths, however, you’re probably doing it wrong.

In summary, Miguel Cabrera’s MVP candidacy is entirely built upon his proficiency at the plate, as opposed to any other contributions. Cabrera has done the same things as always this season, but he’s been so much more proficient at them, it’s actually kind of terrifying. Whether or not this merits the MVP award depends on how you feel about the next guy on our list.

Mike Trout:

.331/.425/.578, 13.3 BB%, 16.9 K%, 26 SB, .247 ISO, .426 wOBA, 178 wRC+, 7.4 WAR

The interesting thing about Mike Trout’s 2013 season is how he’s gotten better, gotten worse, and stayed the same all simultaneously.

At the plate, he’s improved: he’s walking almost 3% more often while striking out almost 5% less and he’s upped all three components of his triple-slash even while his BABIP has dropped 10 points from last season.

As staggering as it may seem, Trout could quite possibly break the 10 WAR threshold for the second straight season, a feat last accomplished by Barry Bonds, who did it from 2001 to 2004.

One of the questions regarding Trout heading into this season was whether his bat was sustainable; many suggested he’d regress down to a .270/.280 batting average level. Well… nope. As a matter of fact, the areas Trout HAS regressed are the ones nobody really believed he would: in the field and on the basepaths. He’s stolen 26 bases on the year and ZiPS projects him for 39 on the season, down from 49 in 2012 a modest difference, to be sure, but a damaging one for a candidate whose argument is partially built upon difference-making speed.

Trout’s 2013 is a good example case for the inconsistency of fielding metrics; Fangraphs lists him at a -0.5 on the year, a large drop from 2012’s 13.3. Nobody’s doubting Trout’s ability to play the field, but a partial shift to left has dampened his statistical impact in that regard. Trout’s season in the field has also lacked some of the flair his 2012 had; basically, he’s had fewer Web Gems. Maybe that shouldn’t matter, but it does.

Critics of Trout will have a much easier time than those of Cabrera this season due to one notable factor: the Angels suck. Currently dwelling in fourth place, 10 games below .500, this is not a team that will be even sniffing the playoffs this season. One need only point to the Tigers’ success – owners of the third-best record in baseball – to make an argument that Cabrera has been more “valuable.”

Should that be factored into an individual award? That’s a much longer conversation for a different time. What I can say, though, is that it will play a role in the voting.

Chris Davis

.302/.378/.676, 9.7 BB%, 29.3 K%, .374 ISO, .437 wOBA, 179 wRC+, 5.3 WAR

Let me preface this by saying the following: Chris Davis should not win this award.

His traditional stats are flashy – he’ll more than likely lead the league in home runs (and push 60, although I consider it highly unlikely he actually breaks that plateau), and he and Cabrera are neck-and-neck for the RBI lead. He’s also (for the time being) a .300 hitter. If 2012 is anything to go by, these things count for quite a bit with the voters, so despite being a clear step below Cabrera and Trout, I’m forced to assume he’ll get consideration.

That said, there’s just a clear separation statistically between Davis and our other two candidates, and it would take a finish for the ages for him to jump either, in my mind. ZiPS is not optimistic of such a finish, projecting him as a .271/.333/.534 hitter from now until the end of the season. That may even be generous, considering Davis hit .211/.294/.500 in July and has hit .239/.309/.479 in the second half.

Davis is a nice story and has had a remarkable season, but that shouldn’t make him the MVP.

So what have we learned here today?

Well, it would seem Cabrera and Trout are about as close as it gets. I’m curious to see if one or both can reach 10 WAR this year; ZiPS has Cabrera finishing with 9.0 and Trout finishing at 9.9.

As for the voting, well, I would wager Cabrera runs away with it once again. His tremendous offensive numbers combined with the Tigers’ success will probably prove too much for the voters to resist, and what should be a close race will likely not be. Again.

In an ideal universe, though, the winner should be… well, I don’t actually know, to be honest. If this were 2012, this column would conclude with an emphatic “IT SHOULD BE TROUT!” but this year, I’m genuinely not so certain. It’s such a close race, even the process of writing this column wasn’t enough to sway me one way or another.

For now, only time will tell.

The mission for you commenters out there: who should win the AL MVP award and why? Tell me in the comment section.