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Monday, September 24, 2012

Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, the Triple Crown, and Other Early AL MVP Thoughts

I wanted to write something about the AL MVP race. As you probably know, Miguel Cabrera hit his 42nd home run of the year yesterday, tying him with Josh Hamilton. With his .331 average (8 points above Mike Trout) and 133 RBI (10 ahead of Hamilton), he now stands with a very realistic shot at the Triple Crown with 10 games left.

Because of that, some people have begun advocating for him to win the MVP Awards based on the Triple Crown instant-win clause which was apparently secretly added to the voting criterion after Ted Williams’ 1947 season (his second time losing the MVP in a Triple Crown season, actually).

Let’s just start by saying that the Triple Crown, while interesting, doesn’t necessarily do the best job at determining the best player. It obviously doesn’t account for defense or base running. But on top of that, it’s just not good at determining who’s the better hitter. Home runs are pretty solid, but RBI should not be used to directly compare players, thanks to the slew of context issues present with them. And batting average, while not as bad, is still prone to huge luck-based fluctuations year-to-year (for example, look at Ichiro’s 2004-2005-2006-2007 seasons, where his average went .372-.303-.322-.351, thanks to batting averages on balls in play of .399-.316-.348-389).

This isn’t to say the Triple Crown is bad. It’s interesting, and usually the person who wins is the best hitter that year. But it isn’t a given, and it should not guarantee that a player is the MVP.

With that, some Cabrera-supporters have decided to rail against anyone that says the he shouldn’t win the MVP. Which is where we wind up with articles like Tony Paul’s from the Detroit News. It’s been a while since I’ve taken an article and looked at it piece-by-piece, and this one looks like a good place to restart with that tradition.

“WAR is no way to settle Miguel Cabrera vs. Mike Trout MVP debate”

That would be the title. It’s an interesting way to start, with such a broad claim that many people (myself included) would disagree with. It also looks dangerously close to a pet peeve I have with sports statistics writing, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

“You wanna talk about WAR, fine. Let's chat.

Personally, Wins Above Replacement, an advanced stat that attempts to measure how many more victories a player is worth than if he were replaced on the team by a minor league or bench-level player, is far from perfect. It's simply not the end-all.

If it was, Alan Trammell, not Ozzie Smith, would've been the first-ballot Hall of Famer.”

As an aside, interesting use of the word “Personally”. I didn’t realize WAR was defined differently to different people, but I can live with it. He also says it’s not perfect. This is true. What stat is better suited to determining the best players? Home runs generally leaves out contact hitters. Hits favors players with longevity above all else. Neither accounts for fielding. If you want to say WAR isn’t perfect, fine, but then acknowledge the shortcomings of other stats. Don’t just say “It’s not perfect, so don’t use it”. That’s one thing that annoys me (although not the first pet peeve that I mentioned).

Also, I think it’s hilarious he picked out Smith and Trammell as his examples. Both should definitely be Hall of Famers, but Smith actually leads Trammell regardless of whether you use Baseball-Reference or Fangraphs as a source. I really don’t understand that example.

“Now tell me, is Miguel Cabrera seriously worth fewer than seven victories compared to if a Mud Hens-caliber player had been playing instead of him for the Tigers this season?

Because, folks, that's what WAR suggests.

And to me, that's ludicrous, regardless of how limited Cabrera's range is at third base.”

When criticizing something, it generally helps to know more about it. For example, a good rule of thumb is that the 1962 Mets was a team of replacement level players. That is to say, a team of replacement-level players would win 40 games just through dumb luck and the law of averages.

The Tigers this year have won 80 games, so a back-of-the-napkin calculation, they are at the moment 40 Wins Above Replacement better than a team of replacement players. So Cabrera’s 7 WAR comprises over a sixth of their team’s value. This is a team, mind you, that is having great years from Prince Fielder, Austin Jackson, and Justin Verlander. Those four players are at about 23 WAR between them, or well over half the team’s value.

That means the other 21 roster-spots have accounted for less than a win each. And the part of this that seems too unrealistic is that is how low Cabrera’s WAR is?

“WAR also tells us Angels center fielder Mike Trout, 21, the sexy pick for AL Most Valuable Player by most in the national media, is worth at least two more wins to his team than Cabrera is worth to his Tigers. Never mind that Trout didn't even join the Angels until an April 28 promotion from the minor leagues.

WAR gives the edge to Trout, of course, because of his league-leading 46 stolen bases and 118 runs, and his Gold Glove-caliber defense. In turn, WAR doesn't seem to care much that Cabrera is making a historic pursuit for a Triple Crown, leading the league with a .333 batting average and 130 RBIs, while running second, by one, with 41 home runs.

I've had folks tell me lately that even if Cabrera wins baseball's first Triple Crown since 1967, Trout remains the MVP pick. My apologies. I simply cannot comprehend that.”

Well, he acknowledges that Trout has been a better fielder and base runner at least. I’m not sure you can argue against that. Also, their positions (third base and center fielder) are about equally challenging. So that’s two big wins for Trout and a push, right? Cabrera has to make up the difference between the two entirely in his hitting. Does he?

Well, strictly on a rate basis, Cabrera is batting .332/.398/.616 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage), while Trout is hitting .325/.395/.558. Average is close, OBP is more or less a push, but Cabrera has a big edge in slugging.

Except that Cabrera plays in a better hitters’ park. When you look at their park adjusted OPS+? Cabrera leads the league at 170, while Trout is right behind him at 168. They’ve actually been more or less equally good hitters. Cabrera definitely has the playing time advantage, but everything else is either even or wildly in Trout’s favor.

And why should WAR care whether or not Cabrera is making a Triple Crown push? Let’s say Jose Bautista was healthy all year and was making a push at 55 home runs on the year. Would that suddenly invalidate Cabrera’s worth? It shouldn’t.

“But fans of Sabermetrics, these new-age stats that attempt to give you an all-around worth of a player, actually will tell you — and with a straight face! — that batting average and RBIs are irrelevant today.”

This is the big pet peeve I mentioned. The idea that “I disagree with WAR, therefore, all new sports stats are irrelevant”. For example, I just made a solid argument for Trout without using anything more radical than OPS accounting for home park. But no, because WAR says it, and WAR is always wrong, there is no other stat that could possibly be backing up its conclusions.

“There might — might — be the case with batting average, because that doesn't necessarily tell you how clutch or how much of a run producer a player is. There were some in Seattle who thought Ichiro Suzuki could have hit many more home runs, but didn't because he wanted his batting average to stay sky high.

But RBIs? Really? Irrelevant? The critics like to say that's only a measurement of how often guys get on ahead of you. Well, to that I have a two-word response: Delmon Young.”

This is interesting. His criticisms of batting average are a little strange to start with, but then he goes on to defend RBI? Also, I can understand if you want to point out that he bats behind Delmon Young (why is someone with a .301 OBP batting second? Or being the designated hitter in the first place?), but shouldn’t you then also acknowledge that right in front of him is Austin Jackson, who’s seventh in the AL in OBP (.381)?

Or what about the fact that Trout, as a lead-off hitter, doesn’t bat behind anyone many times? And that when he does, it’s behind the 7-8-9 hitters. To be fair, Paul acknowledges that later, but dismisses it for some reason.

“Here's what I came up with. Cabrera drives in a run 37.8 percent of the time with runners on, and 50.6 percent with runners in scoring position. Trout, by comparison, is at 35.5 percent and 48.1 percent.”

That’s...not a huge difference, to be honest. Certainly not enough to make up for Trout’s lead in essentially everything that isn’t games played or counting numbers.

“And let's talk about what the player means to his team. For starters, the Angels are more likely to miss the playoffs than the Tigers. That matters.”

Why should it matter? Does a player’s teammates determine how valuable they are? Even if you believe that MVPs should come from playoff teams, you should also acknowledge that the Angels actually have a better record this year (84-69 to 80-72).

“But let's look past that. In terms of runs and RBIs, Cabrera has accounted for 28.2 percent of all Detroit's runs; Trout, meanwhile, is at 23.5 percent. And even had Trout been up on Opening Day, it would've taken an historic April to be beating Cabrera there.”

Again, why should we be rewarding Cabrera for how poorly his teammates have done in relation to him?

“Then there's what a player's meant to his team when it matters — in crunch time.

In August and September, with the Tigers clawing to stay in the American League Central race, Cabrera is batting .360 with 16 homers and 45 RBIs in 44 games. Trout had an OK August (.284, seven homers and 19 RBIs), but he's darn near disappeared in September (.257, two homers, three RBIs).

What does that mean? If the Tigers make the playoffs — and it's very possible, considering the White Sox tough closing schedule — it'll be because of Cabrera.

And if the Angels miss the playoffs — a very likely scenario — it'll be, in part, because of Trout.”

Of course, there’s the converse argument: Why didn’t Cabrera hit like that all year? If he had, the Tigers would have been running away with the division rather than “clawing to stay in” the race. You can turn almost any scenario into a narrative to suit your case.

“Now, I ask you, is that an MVP? That's for 28 of my peers to decide; I don't have an MVP vote this year.

But if that is an MVP, then let me say this: Voters better be consistent and make Tigers ace Justin Verlander the Cy Young winner for a second straight year, because he leads the major leagues in WAR, too, not contenders Felix Hernandez or David Price.”

That’s fair. But, at the same time, Verlander’s lead isn’t anywhere as large as Trout’s. Fangraphs gives Justin a 0.6 WAR lead among pitchers (compared to 2.6 for Trout among hitters), while Baseball-Reference is at a 0.9 lead for Verlander (compared to 3.8 for Trout). Something like half a win is much easier to explain as within the margin of error than over two and a half.

And again, you don't really even need WAR to defend picking Trout over Cabrera. Even more basic stats get the point across.

“By the way, here's another thing FanGraphs' WAR tells us, folks: Anibal Sanchez (3.1) and Rick Porcello (2.9) are worth more to their team than Angels ace Jered Weaver (2.7) is to his. Never mind that Weaver is 18-4 with a 2.79 ERA. What do those stats matter anymore?”

You can find weird stuff with almost any stat. For example, Kyle Lohse is third in the NL in ERA at 2.71. Do you really expect to convince me that Kyle Lohse is a better pitcher than Stephen Strasburg, or Gio Gonzalez, or Cliff Lee? Clearly this means that ERA just isn’t a good stat, and we should ignore it in every scenario.

That did sound ridiculous, right? Or did I not go far enough over the top?

“FanGraphs, interestingly, comes up with different WARs than Baseball-Reference.com. They arrive at the same numbers for home runs, RBIs and average, however.”

Again, they’re more or less different stats entirely. It would be kind of like me dismissing Runs and Runs (Batted In) by saying that they’re supposed to measure the same thing, and they can’t, so therefore, both are awful. It doesn’t change that they’re fundamentally different things that just happen to be named similarly.

“Look, I'm not saying WAR and wRC+ and other Saber stats are rubbish. Not at all, actually. We're in the greatest technology era, with number crunching made easier. So there absolutely is a place in baseball for evolution of statistics.

But at the expense of completely disregarding telling stats that have been around for 100-plus years?

Let's please not go there.”

Well, voters in the past didn’t think the Triple Crown was worthy of an MVP. Should we honor that part of the 100-plus years of history too?

Really, I struggle to see one logically-consistent argument for Cabrera over Trout over MVP. Everything requires ignoring large factors, from random hitting stats that don’t benefit Cabrera to defense. That’s just not something you can do, no matter what your “definition” of Most Valuable Player is.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks. I had to scroll through all your BS to get down here. Take a look at the standings. If Miggy doesn't carry the load, Detroit goes home, especially with his September stats. That is most valuable to me.

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    1. Except that the Angels are a better team than the Tigers, and in a harder division. And conversely, why didn't Cabrera hit like he did in September earlier in the year? The Tigers would have clinched much sooner if he had.

      Wins in May count just as much as those in September. And saying Cabrera "carried" the Tigers is a disservice to Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder, Austin Jackson, and the rest of the good players on the Tigers. In fact, I would argue Cabrera has had to do less "carrying"-Justin Verlander (the reigning AL MVP, mind you) makes for a much better second-in-command than anyone else on the Angels.

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