Personally, I would have voted for Trout. But I think I can come up with a better defense of the sportswriters voting for Cabrera than they can.
Ironically, Trout is a classic Five Tool Player that the pre-Moneyball old school scouts would have drooled over because he Looks Good in a Uniform. Cabrera is the kind of pudgy Ken Phelps-like power hitter who whom Bill James drooled over.
But, leave that aside because here's something that I've never really grasped before in all the years I've been thinking about baseball statistics (since 1965 when I was six).
Think of it as the difference between scientists and historians. The former are obsessed with replicability, the latter with narrative.
Cabrera actually had a higher WAR in 2011 (7.3) than in 2012 (6.9), but he only finished fifth in the MVP voting a year ago. Why? Because his RBI total in 2011 was only 105, compared to 139 in 2012.
In the 20th Century, the RBI championship notoriously correlated with winning the MVP award, although that connection has faded in this century as the sabermetricians have increasingly had their say.
Moreover, past clutch hitting performance seldom accurately predicts future clutch hitting performance. The whole notion of clutch hitting in baseball seems pretty dubious: trying hard in four at bats per day just isn't all that physically or mentally debilitating, so it seems likely that major league baseball players try pretty hard most times they come up to bat. Moreover, the typical major leaguer has come up to bat in clutch situations thousands of times since he was a small boy and if he were inclined to choke when the pressure is on, he probably wouldn't have made it to the majors.
So, maybe Cabrera's relatively low RBI total in 2011 was just bad luck, and regression toward the mean would suggest it was likely to go up in 2012, which it did.
One of Cabrera's sabermetric critics Keith Law of ESPN raised the question of alternative universes, Twittering:
No. #narrative RT @theknapsackkid: do you think in an alternate universe where Hamilton hits 2 more homers, Cabrera still wins mvp?
Indeed, much of what sabermetricians do is try to estimate what would happen in alternative universes.
But, here's the thing: Cabrera really did drive in 139 runs in 2012. That is what happened in this universe That doesn't mean he was the best player of 2012, or that he would have been the most valuable player if you could average across infinite alternative universes, but it does suggest that he was a really valuable player in this universe.
So, Cabrera lost weight over the offseason and worked hard on fielding and throwing so he could move back to third base to open up first for the poor-fielding Fielder.
And this strategy worked well. Free to swing away, Cabrera upped his homers from 30 to 44 and his RBIs from 105 to 139. His On Base Percentage dropped from .448 to .393 and his Runs scored from 111 to 109. But, all told, Cabrera delivered exactly what the Tigers had been hoping for.
Now, you could say that if you used your computer to randomly assign Cabrera to a different team, on average in your alternative universe simulations, his 2011 season would be more valuable than his 2012 season. But we don't live in infinite alternative universes, we live in this highly continent single universe.
P.S., Also, there's the Career Achievement aspect: Cabrera is 29 and has come close to the MVP before, finishing in the top 5 five times. He's headed toward the decline phase of a highly respectable career, the kind that usually wins an MVP award.
Trout is only 20 and if he's really as good as he appeared to be in 2012 (i.e, like a mid-career Mickey Mantle), he ought to win several when he's older and even better.
Career Achievement isn't supposed to play a role in MVP voting, but it's reasonable that it does to some extent, especially since the advent of steroids.
In short, 29-year-old Miguel Cabrera has passed more PED tests than 20-year-old Mike Trout has.
That doesn't mean he's clean, but Cabrera's career arc looks reasonable. And that may well be unfair to Trout, but that's the world we live in.