By: J. Scott Smith
The 2012 AL MVP race pitted “old school” traditional statistics against “new school” sabermetric analytics in a battle resembling the 2003 ALCS with a young Pedro Martinez palming Don Zimmer’s old, yet aesthetically pleasing, round head and tossing him to the ground. For this exercise, let’s replace Pedro with New York Times 538 blog statistical wizard Nate Silver and replace Zimmer with Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan who Tony Kornheiser describes as the “quintessential American sports writer.” The debate represents a fascinating intersection of advanced quantitative measures, basic quantitative measures, and qualitative assessment. As the Read Zone’s Brian Mangan explains: “Those who supported Cabrera tended to look to traditional stats and to narrative, while those who supported Trout tended to point at the most advanced statistics, like WAR, to explain their case.” Now I’m not sure we have a justification presented from the 28 AL MVP voters as to why 22 of them gave their first-place votes to Cabrera, but I’ll present my case for Miggy. I think the first place to start with such a process is to start with the criteria the Baseball Writers Association of America provides its voters for determining the MVP award:
There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.
The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:
1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.
2. Number of games played.
3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.
4. Former winners are eligible.
5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.
Let’s get this out of the way to begin: Mike Trout was a better player than Miguel Cabrera in 2012. Such was a similar beginning to Bob Ryan’s Boston Globe article before tossing WAR under the bus in Ryan’s grandiose parting shot: “WAR is nonsense. I urge General [Bill] James to get control of his troops.” I disagree with Ryan that WAR is nonsense. WAR appears to be the best assessment tool to answer the first question of the BBWAA MVP criteria. Fan Graphs (10.0 to 7.1), Baseball Prospectus (9.1 to 6.1), and Baseball Reference (10.7 to 6.9) all suggest, quite convincingly, that Trout was better than Cabrera. If the voter interprets the first criterion to be the greatest determining factor for the MVP award, then Nate Silver’s article, “The Statistical Case Against Cabrera for M.V.P.” lays out very plainly how in a Triple Crown vs. WAR race, Trout wins easily. And to be clear, I would have been perfectly happy if Trout won based on this criterion, much the way I was satisfied when Felix Hernandez won the 2010 Cy Young award with only a 13-12 record. Had Trout won the MVP over Cabrera, I would not have channeled my inner Archer and called for Zeppelins and mustard gas to protect Woodhouse.
Yet, the voter still has questions 2 and 3 to grapple with before casting the ballot. Question 2 (i.e., the number of games played) is the easiest and clearest criterion, and Cabrera has a sizeable advantage over Trout playing 22 more games. That clearly makes Trout’s numbers more impressive, but there are no instructions for how much emphasis the voter should place on games played. It certainly can’t be weighed as heavily as performance, but how much more valuable was Cabrera playing 22 more games? Missing 13% of the season is noteworthy to me.
Question 3 (i.e. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort) is the most ambiguous criterion and the one I wish to further examine for the rest of this article. This marks a good time to return to Mangan’s assertion that Cabrera voters utilized traditional statistics and narrative, while Trout voters relied on advanced statistics to determine their first place vote. Here is where I diverge from that dichotomy because I rely on advanced statistics and qualitative assessment to determine my first place vote. My assessment of question 3 begins with the last sentence of the preface from the BBWAA voting instructions:
The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.
This clause was added to the voting instructions to make sure that worthy candidates were not automatically discarded from the MVP vote because they played for lousy teams. Without this clause, Cal Ripken Jr. doesn’t win the MVP in 1991 with an astounding 11.3 WAR . Yet, the clause also illustrates that making the postseason matters for MVP voting (even if it is not to be considered determinative). I can almost guarantee that if Boston made the playoffs in 2011 Jacoby Ellsbury would have won the MVP award over Justin Verlander. Voters wanted to cast their ballot for a position player, but Boston had a meltdown of epic proportions while Detroit made the playoffs. Is it fair to evaluate individual players based on their team’s performance? In a minor way, I say yes, “You play to win the game…Hello!” Let’s take a look at the standings and a comparison of Trout and Cabrera’s splits.
All Star Break Standings
August 1st Standings
September 1st Standings
Detroit clearly benefited from playing in the weakest division in baseball, but their winning percentage improved every month and they tracked down an overachieving White Sox team to win the AL Central. The major issue with the Angels isn’t that they lost the AL West; they had a better record than Detroit. The issue is they were 5 games ahead of Oakland at the All-Star break and finished 5 games behind Oakland at the end of the season. Two teams in the AL West went to the playoffs in the only division with 4 teams, so the Angels had plenty of opportunities to gain ground in the West or in the Wild Card. They did neither. Additionally, a look at Mike Trout’s splits over the season reveals that his worst two months were the Angels’ two most important months. The A’s and Rangers had clinched playoff spots by October 1st.
During the two most important months for the Tigers, Cabrera had two of his most productive months of the season.
Cabrera outperformed Trout during these crucial months down the stretch, which I believe is a compelling argument for Cabrera when viewed in conjunction with the Tigers chasing down the White Sox for the division title.
Moving to Third Base
The off-season signing of Prince Fielder meant Miguel Cabrera was going to have to vacate first base for Fielder. The move immediately drew ire of baseball experts arguing Cabrera was a defensive liability at third base. They weren’t kidding either, Cabrera has Paul Walker acting range. Both UZR and Total Zone ratings rate Cabrera as one of the worst third baseman in baseball. You want to know who also knows that? Miguel Cabrera. Major league clubs can’t wait to move real deal power hitters away from third base because they know how demanding the position is. Albert Pujols, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Jim Thome, Mark Teixeira, and Miguel Cabrera were all moved away from third. Although anecdotal, Edwin Encarnacion’s 2011 splits illustrate how poor defensive play can ruin a player’s offensive focus.
To be fair, Encarnacion’s 2011 defense at third base makes Cabrera look like Brooks Robinson. Encarnacion’s UZR was –6.9, but his UZR/150 (Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games) was –37. Cabrera’s UZR was –10, but his UZR/150 was only -11.2. Still, that places Cabrera as one of the worst everyday third baseman in baseball and yet he just kept on hitting. The Tigers asked Cabrera to move to a premium defensive position, make the routine plays, and not let his defense hurt his offense. He accomplished those goals.
Miggy is the Guy
I remember listening to an illuminating interview with Gary Sheffield after the Atlanta Braves acquired him from the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2002. Sheffield explicitly stated that one of the most exciting things about coming to the Braves was that he no longer had to be “the Guy.” The Braves had a franchise player in Chipper Jones and other stars that took the pressure off of Sheffield. When Miguel Cabrera signed an eight-year, 153.3 million dollar contract in 2008, he became “the Guy” that Sheffield was referring to for the Detroit Tigers. While being a rookie has its own set of pressures, I believe being the franchise player of a team is much harder. A nine-figure contract like this is accompanied by great expectations and adds pressure that can impact one’s performance. Take Jayson Werth’s first year in Washington D.C. after signing a seven-year, 126 million dollar contract in 2010 with the Nationals:
Even Albert Pujols had difficultly transitioning to the American League accompanying his new 10-year, 240 million dollar contract with the Angels. His first two months of the 2012 season were very alarming:
Being “the Guy” isn’t easy in any sport, but in baseball it’s particularly hard because trying harder generally doesn’t improve results. You have to relax in baseball and not press the issue to be successful. That’s easier said than done when you’re given a contract worth more than $150 million. Neither the pressure of the contract nor the new position stopped Miggy from raking.
If you left your 2012 AL MVP vote just to what occurred on the baseball field, WAR illustrates that Mike Trout was indeed the best player. But I believe the contextual elements surrounding Miguel Cabrera’s performance provide him the edge over Trout, which is why I would have voted for him. I’m still somewhat amiss as to why advanced metrics are not embraced more, but I’m equally confused as to how important contextual elements are also tossed aside as if they don’t matter. So let’s not go crazy about WAR like Jim Caple’s “Let’s Corral the WAR Horse,” or Bob Ryan’s “War on WAR,” or Mark Saxon’s “Mike Trout is Your AL MVP (WAR says so),” or even Keith Law’s “Trout the Rational Choice for AL MVP.” There’s plenty of room in baseball debates for advanced metrics along with the qualitative assessments that provide the context that fill in the gaps to further evaluate statistics. Like all good research, I want to see the whole story, and the only way to do that is with numbers and words.
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J. Scott Smith is a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri. He is a co-editor of Repairing the Athlete’s Image: Studies in Sports Image Restoration.