Miguel Cabrera has a shot at the Triple Crown, the first in the majors since 1967, when Carl Yastrzemski led the American League in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. This, in addition to a strong September as the Tigers attempt to stay alive in the AL playoff race, has launched Cabrera into the Most Valuable Player discussion. In the end, if Cabrera doesn't win the Triple Crown, he has no case: it's not that he's been bad, but as excellent as he has been, Mike Trout has been better. Even if he does win the Triple Crown -- Ted Williams says hi, from both 1942 and 1947 -- it's no sure thing he would win.
That's a normal thing for Cabrera, though: to be excellent, and not be rewarded with hardware. He has received MVP votes in every season of his career, and has finished anywhere from second to 27th, with five top-five finishes in nine seasons. After nearly 10 seasons and more than 6,400 plate appearances, Cabrera has a career line of .318/.395/.562, good for an OPS+ of 151. Only one player has bettered that since Cabrera entered the league in 2003 (minimum 5,000 plate appearances); that man, Albert Pujols, has won three MVP Awards.
The closest Cabrera came was in 2010, when he finished second despite hitting .328/.420/.622 in a park that favored pitchers. Josh Hamilton won the award, with a similar line -- aided by hitter-friendly Arlington -- in just 133 games. Defense was considered the major difference, much as it is this year. Oddly enough, defense is also why Cabrera might have been overrated in second place, given the performances of players like Robinson Canó and Evan Longoria, who finished behind him.
He's not the first player in major-league history who has suffered in this way, and he won't be the last. Of the top 25 career OPS+ in history (min. 5,000 PA) since 1931, the year the modern MVP Award was established, eight have never won an MVP award. Cabrera is one of those eight -- his career 151 mark currently ranks 19th.
Manny Ramirez earned his first MVP votes at age 23, back in 1995. His last came in 2008, when he finished fourth in the NL MVP race, despite playing just two months with the Dodgers. In between those seasons, Ramirez hit a combined .317/.414/.598, good for a 157 OPS+. He finished in the top 10 in the MVP results eight straight years, and nine of 10 overall, but his highest rank was third (twice). Ramirez led the AL in OPS+ from 1995 through 2008, when he left the league, but it was never enough. His defense hurt him, but so too did excellent campaigns from players who, in career terms, were lesser ones than Manny. Mo Vaughn, Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada ... you won't find any of those hitters in all-time rankings alongside Ramirez.
Jim Thome and Edgar Martinez rank second and third in that same span of time in OPS+, as well as 22nd and 23rd respectively in the OPS+ rankings since 1931. Like Ramirez, they were overshadowed by players in the midst of career years that barely edged out what was the norm for these two offensive giants. The worst offender from this era, though, has to be Mark McGwire, who managed to set the single-season home-run record in 1998 and still not win the MVP. McGwire ranks seventh in OPS+ since 1931, wedged between titans Jimmie Foxx and Stan Musial, yet he never finished better than second in his league's MVP balloting.
The rest of those with Cabrera's current plight were more old-school. Mel Ott was 22 years old in 1931 when the MVP began, and he received votes in all but three seasons between then and 1945, posting a 159 OPS+ along the way. That was second-best in the National League, yet he never won an MVP. More astoundingly is that the only player in front of him, Johnny Mize, never won an MVP either. Despite hitting .341/.424/.618 over a four-year stretch, Mize finished 10th, 12th, and 2nd (twice). He was runner-up to Bucky Walters and Frank McCormick in those latter two years, neither of whom is an all-time great.
Last up is Ralph Kiner, who played just 10 seasons in his career. He finished before real decline could set in thanks to a back injury, and because of it, his overall numbers stand up historically on a rate basis. Kiner's career began after the end of World War II, and he received MVP votes in his first seven seasons, never finishing higher than fourth, in part thanks to sharing the league with Musial. Kiner was known for his power, and, at the time of his retirement, ranked sixth all-time in homers, and second in N.L. history.
Cabrera might still win an MVP. He's in his age-29 season, and has been one of baseball's premier hitters his entire career, but especially the last three. So this doesn't figure to be his last year as a candidate.