It’s not often I get to say I’m right while also playing the role of devil’s advocate. Heck…who am I trying to kid? It’s not often I get to say I was right period, especially about something as subjective as AL MVP voting. I did however say a few weeks, maybe months, ago that this Year’s AL MVP vote would be an even bigger case of traditional stats vs. advanced metrics than the Cy Young candidacy of Felix Hernandez in 2010. To that end, and likely that end alone, I’m right.
The AL MVP race has boiled down to two vastly distinctive candidates and two incredibly different camps. In one corner there’s Miguel Cabrera, baseball’s most prolific hitter and potentially the winner of baseball’s first Triple Crown in 45 years. The old school “eye test” camp is touting his candidacy. In the other corner we have Mike Trout, baseball’s newest phenom and most complete player. Trout has rewritten the sabermetric standard and not surprisingly has the advanced stats guys singing his praises.
If there’s anything unfortunate about the historical pursuits of these two gentlemen and their two-man race for MVP it’s that it’s become a partisan debate. The Saber community and the Old Guard have long been at odds and much like Democrats and Republicans in a political debate, this year’s vote likely rides with which community you already subscribe to rather than which candidate you actually prefer.
Welcome to the “T” party; the Thyrl Party. I subscribe to neither camp wholeheartedly, but am suddenly becoming enamored with both, and the odds that they seem to be at currently.
For most of the summer I was on “Team Trout”. The kid emerged from the shadow of Bryce Harper to do things that we not only couldn’t have expected of him, Trout has done things that we couldn’t have expected from anyone. But suddenly, and maybe simply in the interest of being a contrarian, I find myself in “Camp Cabrera”. And as I’m not seeing many good arguments made on Cabrera’s behalf outside of the anomaly of a Triple Crown, I’ll try here to make one.
First, it seems the saber folks have pointed to a Triple Crown as nothing more than a statistical novelty and I don’t disagree. Even old school writers have seen through the statistical novelty seasons of the past. Baseball has seen multiple Triple Crown winners, 40/40 and even 50/50 club members and some have walked away with the hardware while others haven’t. The 56-game hitting streak did win Joe DiMaggio an MVP in a 1941 season that I’m convinced if we recast the ballot would go to Ted Williams in a landslide. So before going any further I’ll state for the record that my case for Cabrera has nothing to do with, and is in no way vested in his winning the Triple Crown. If Josh Hamilton were to hit 10 home runs over the season’s final series, my endorsement of Cabrera would not change.
Next, I will neither embrace nor reject the use of advanced metrics in deciding the award. I like most advanced metrics and the conclusions that they can help to lead us to. I’ll also acknowledge however that the MVP is a subjective award. That’s why it’s put to a vote. Sabermetrics aren’t and shouldn’t be the entirety of the MVP debate, or there’d be no debate at all. In fact the inclusion of “valuable” in the title instead of “outstanding” for example, invites a further level of subjectivity. What is the definition of valuable? We could simply rename the award the “Warlord Award” and hand it to Trout. Heck, we could just call it the aWARd. While embracing the wave of new age data however, I’ll also suggest that I’m not convinced that the formulas are perfect, and that not all metrics are created equally.
Defensive metrics are a part of everyone’s WAR calculations, but seem to differ (sometimes greatly) depending on which saber community you subscribe to. There’s no question that Mike Trout is a batter defender than Miguel Cabrera, but by how much is largely debatable. It’s also somewhat debatable whether defensive metrics are being given the right amount of weight in the WAR calculation.
Comparing a center fielder to a third baseman should be seen as an apples-to-oranges type of proposition. Not only are the numbers of typical opportunities at those positions widely divergent, but so are the types of opportunities. Balls hit to a third baseman are basically his alone to get. He’ll either make a play on them or he won’t and the stats will reflect the runs above or below average that he’s allowing as a result of those efforts. By contrast, balls hit to a centerfielder aren’t always his alone to get. A particularly rangy centerfielder will have the opportunity to get to a number of balls that could be fielded by other players. Calling players off and increasing his own zone ratings as a result are impressive, but not necessarily run saving. In other words, some of the balls that Mike Trout gets to wouldn’t be caught by other centerfielders, but would still be caught on other teams by fielders at different positions. This seems to give a CF like Trout an inordinate advantage in padding his “runs saved” stats.
More importantly, if we’re going to penalize Cabrera for being a bad 3rd baseman, we also have to understand the circumstances that landed him there. Cabrera wasn’t a “plus defensive” first baseman either, but he was at least better playing first than he is at third, and also would have gotten the benefit of first base being a less important defensive position. Still, to penalize him for embracing third base for the good of the team and in order to facilitate the Tigers working Prince Fielder into the lineup seems at least moderately unfair. Instead of comparing these players run-for-run and since we’re only looking at two guys, let’s instead consider their specific circumstances.