Baseball's Greatest Player (right?)

Rick Yeatts

Sunday night, the Tigers lost to the Rangers. But that almost seemed secondary, and probably did seem secondary to anybody who's not a fan of the Tigers, the Rangers, or the first-place Indians. Because Miguel Cabrera hit three home runs. A few hours after this display (video here) -- which I missed live, because I was seeing a mediocre Star Trek movie at my neighborhood, but watched later because DVR is awesome -- this popped into my Twitter machine:

During the event, one of my co-hosts didn't ask me if Cabrera's the best player in baseball; he stated that proposition as a fact, and then asked me if I might compare Cabrera to someone like Hank Aaron. Before allowing that yes, barring some catastrophic injury or unlikely decline, Cabrera will someday join Aaron in the Hall of Fame, I felt compelled to backtrack and mention that while Cabrera probably belongs in the conversation about baseball's greatest player, it's far from clear that he's the obvious winner of that contest.

Yes, it's pretty clear that Cabrera's the best hitter on the planet right now. Since Opening Day of 2012, only six players have a wOBA higher than .400: Cabrera, Joey Votto, Ryan Braun, Buster Posey, Mike Trout, and Prince Fielder. Four of them, of course, are hitters and not much else.

And it's worth remembering from time to time that there's more to baseball than just hitting. Fielding matters quite a lot, and baserunning matters a little too. As it happens, there are only six players with more than 9 Wins Above Replacement (Wins+): Trout, Cabrera, David Wright, Braun, Posey, and Robinson Cano.

On the first list, Cabrera's basically even with Votto. On the second, Trout's got a big edge over the next five, who essentially are tied.

The differences between those lists -- Wright and Cano replacing Votto and Fielder -- are due to defense (and defensive positions) and baserunning. I do think it's difficult to be the greatest player in baseball if you're a first baseman who doesn't help much on the bases, which (not coincidentally) is probably what keeps Joey Votto or Prince Fielder from being baseball's greatest players.

By the way, is any of this sounding familiar yet? Because we were having THIS EXACT DISCUSSION last fall, when there was some disagreement about the identity of the American League's most valuable player. Of course that wound up being not much of a contest, officially speaking, and so it wouldn't be much of a contest if the 2013 balloting were conducted today. But you know, I haven't seen enough baseball in 2013 to make me think differently than I did in 2012: Mike Trout, Buster Posey, and Robinson Cano are the three best players, with Cabrera maybe just a smidgen behind those three with all their defensive value. And I don't mind throwing David Wright in there, too.

The American League's still the stronger league, though. Which is why maybe a young and healthy Evan Longoria belongs instead of Wright (or Braun, for that matter, or Andrew McCutchen). But you know that nobody's really going to want to hear any of this, just as nobody wanted to hear it last fall. If Miguel Cabrera wins another Triple Crown -- and I'm not saying he will, but a lot of people believe he will -- he's going to win another MVP Award in another walk. But even that will disappear someday, like tears in rain.

Metaphysical labels like greatest live forever, though. I remain unconvinced that Cabrera was the greatest player in the American League (or in baseball generally) last year, and I remain unconvinced that Cabrera is the greatest player this year. I'm nearly certain that the greatest player is someone who hits like the dickens and saves a bunch of runs with his glove, too. Which probably means Mike Trout, again.

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