Congratulations this morning to Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who was awarded the 2012 American League MVP tropy by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA). The main reason he won the award was his capturing of the first Triple Crown (leading the league in average, home runs, and runs batted in) since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. (Yeah, Miggy also helped lead the Tigers to the World Series, which helps the argument for MVPness but, historically, hasn’t been required.) Such an amazing offensive output, one that hasn’t been seen in nearly five decades, was too hard for 22 of the 28 voting writers to ignore.
Unfortunately, they’re wrong.
This argument has been made elsewhere, more elegantly than I will. However, it’s yet another example of a large group of (mostly old) people saying logic and basic math should be discounted simply because a) they don’t like who’s delivering the message, and b) “it’s always been this way.” I saw enough of this in the past Presidential election.
(I’ll keep this brief, for those of you out there who have lives and don’t dissect this stuff to an unhealthy level like I might.)
Using the three Triple Crown categories to derive a league’s MVP is wrong in two ways. First, let’s look at why these are mostly imperfect statistics:
Batting Average: Not intrinsically bad, but it ignores the complete picture of the value of getting on base, which is the primary goal of any batter. Cabrera batted .330 this year, meaning he got a hit one out of every three at bats he had. Impressive. However, his on-base percentage (times he reached base regardless of a hit or a walk) was an even superior .390. Why a distinction is made as to whether a batter reaches base by a hit or a walk confounds me, but that bias is out there. In 2009, Adam Dunn’s average was a really pedestrian .267, but his on-base percentage was .398. If Dunn gets on base four out of every ten times he comes up, do you really care how he got there? Mike Trout, who came in second behind Cabrera for this year’s MVP, had an on-base percentage of .390. (Remember that name.)
Home Runs: Yeah, this one is pretty hard to argue with. Chicks dig the long ball, and all that. That said, I do believe valuing a home run above all other things a batter can do is misguided. (Cabrera hit 44 home runs this year, Trout hit 30.)
Runs Batted In: Oy. Yes, a player’s RBI total can indicate his proclivity as a hitter; but this is not a leading indicator of his ability to hit. Yes, Cabrera knocked in an astounding 139 runs this year, and, yes, part of why he hit so many in is because he got so many hits. However, just as important is that there were RUNNERS ON BASE FOR HIM TO HIT IN, which has nothing to do with his abilities. Jim Leyland’s most common Tigers lineup in 2012 featured Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks hitting in front of Miggy. Jackson’s OBP was .377, and Dirks’s was .370, both well above league average. To contend that a player’s RBI total has anything more than a causal relationship to his proclivity is, well, stupid. (And I’m looking at you, @1500ESPN_Reusse.) Trout? 83 RBI.
So, awarding a player the MVP trophy based solely on the Triple Crown categories (which happens all the time, not just this season) is misguided, because one is incomplete, one is overrated, and one is misguided. Along with this bad reasoning, though, most writers completely ignored the following aspect of a player:
Speed: Is speed on the basepaths as important as on-base percentage and home-run hitting? Probably not and no. Is it more indicative of a player’s value than RBI? Indeed. Steals efficiently turn singles into doubles and doubles into triples, and get runs on the board, well, faster. In 2012, Trout had 49 stolen bases. Miggy? Uh, 4.
Defense: Defense has historically been largely ignored in determining a player’s eligibility for MVP, which is probably fine in that– until recently– defensive value was gauged by fielding percentage (meh) and errors made.
An aside, while an error is sorta defined in MLB’s rulebook, the issuance or non-issuance of one is largely up to the discretion of the official scorer. As in, did Derek Jeter make an ordinary effort to get to that grounder and failed (error) or make an extraordinary effort to get to that grounder and failed (not an error). Oh, did I mention that the official scorers are employees of the home team? Great stat. Okay, I’m done.
Because of new technology, a player’s defense can now be more accurately judged. Specifically, Mitchel Listman created a formula to measure a fielder’s abilities called Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). If you’re desperate to understand, Fangraphs has a great primer, but in essence UZR compares the amount of defensive plays a fielder “should” have made to the number he actually did make. A value of 0 is completely average, +15 is Gold Glove-caliber, and -15 is Delmon Young. There are arguments about UZR’s methodology, but it’s still seen as the leading statistic to determine a player’s value in the field, not just at the plate or on the bases. In 2012, Mike Trout’s UZR was 11.4. Cabrera’s was -6.4.
If you go further, a couple of places have congealed many of the above stats (plus more) into formulae determining a player’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) value. As in, how many more of his team’s wins did this specific player account for if you compare his stats to a completely average (fictional) player. Again, a bit controversial, but WAR is largely accepted as the single sum-total data point for assessing a players value. (Excluding the people who actually vote for the MVP award, of course.) In 2012, baseballreference.com has Trout’s WAR calculated at 10.7. (As in, if you had a total average player in center for the Angels this season instead of Trout, their win total should have been 78 instead of 89.) Cabrera’s WAR came out at 6.9.
Despite all this bloviating, it’s truly not about Cabrera or Trout or Verlander or Price or King Felix. It’s about ignoring logic and research out-of-hand because you don’t like what it says or who is saying it. (Nate Silver, meet Karl Rove.) (Nate Silver got his start as a baseball stat geek, by the by.) Disagreeing with something like WAR or UZR or VORP because you understand it but question the logic used is completely fine by me. Disagreeing with it because it’s newfangled or because it’s a blogger that is telling you? Not acceptable.
The mentality of (most of) the BBWAA members is crystallized below, from Dallas Morning News columnist Evan Grant:
–For those misunderstanding “OUR” awards, let me add: The BBWAA created the award.
— Evan Grant (@Evan_P_Grant) November 16, 2012
That’s the progressive thinking we all like to see, right?