AL MVP debate: Has sabremetrics truly won?

Twitter is currently all over the AL MVP debate that has heated up over the last few weeks. The question, of course, is what team are you on? Team Trout or Team Cabrera? The Angels’ Mike Trout and the Tigers Miguel Cabrera are the top candidates and it is abundantly clear that the MVP will come down to a choice between the two of them. It is also obvious that the choice will hinge on whether or not voters have accepted the key precepts of the sabremetrics revolution.

Take Jon Paul Morosi’s take from today.  Morosi’s take can best be summarized as “Cabrera could win the Triple Crown, so how can he not be the MVP?” Well, that and the fact that Trout didn’t play a game until April 28th. The later point can be dismissed more easily I believe since Trout has been great ever since he came up–in limited time he’s done historically amazing things (as I’ll get to). And in the games missed, Cabrera has had time to create 54 more outs in 60 more plate appearances. Additionally, Morosi’s suggestion that Cabrera is having a hot September and should win should be easily tossed aside. The MVP is for the full season. So he wants to give credit for extra games in April while also counting September games as more important? Too bad Trout’s OBP is only .375 this month.

What about the Triple Crown?  One interesting note is that, if Cabrera wins it, it would be the second time, going back to 1878, that a winner was not the leader in refWAR. In other words, Triple Crown winners do tend to be great players and almost always invariably deserve the MVP. As Keith Law noted in a chat today, here are the following things not included in the Triple Crown: Walks, HBP, the outs created in sac flies, the extra-base value of doubles or triples, stolen bases, other baserunning value, defense, positional value, park effects. The issue is that they are great players not necessarily because of the Triple Crown they won, but their overall play. RBI is probably the statistic that stands out among the three as the poorest representative of a player’s offensive value.

For instance, Morosi wants to take into account Cabrera playing in 21 more games. That has meant more RBI chances–415 in total–for Cabrera. He’s driven in 31% of his total baserunners, while Trout has driven in 28%–both above by a good margin the average of 15%. Trout, of course, has had only 274 such chances, so his RBI total sits at only 77. Cabrera’s RBI opportunities as a result of batting order and playing time has also allowed him to rack up a AL-worst 28 GIDPs, though yes, he’s had 138 chances to Trout’s 75. But as Dave Cameron mentions at Fangraphs, writers like Morosi can’t have it both ways. If you want to give Cabrera a advantage for his counting stats like RBI as a result of his place in the batting order and games played, he has to also be hurt by the negative impact of grounding into 28 double-plays.

By refWAR, Trout is having a season that puts him in the pantheon of baseball’s elite. 20 hitters have had seasons by refWAR of 10 or greater. 16 are in the Hall of Fame. The others are Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Alex Rodriguez. Trout is number 20. His 10.3 refWAR equals him, for instance, with Willy Mays in 1954. Noting that he’s just turned 21 is merely icing on the cake. Cabrera, by refWAR, has had a very good season with 5.6, but nothing close. By fWAR, Trout sits at 9.4, with a .420 wOBA, 6.1 baserunning runs, and 13.0 UZR. Cabrera has 6.6 fWAR, with a .420 wOBA, -2.9 baserunning runs and -9.4 UZR. By Baseball Prospectus’ numbers, Trout has 8.0 WARP, a .355 TA, 71.0 VORP, 4.5 FRAA and 10.3 BRR while Cabrera has 5.6 WARP, a .334 TAv, 55.6 VORP, -3.0 FRAA and -5.2 BRR. By BP’s numbers, Trout has every advantage.

WAR, of course, is always worth breaking down into it’s component parts. Just how good of a baserunner has Trout been, for instance? Take this stat on: the average play scores 31% of the time when he is on-base. Trout does that 45% of the time. For reference, Cabrera does it just 28% of the time. Or break it down another way. There are the raw statistics–Trout has 46 stolen bases in 50 attempts and 118 runs scored in 125 games. Runs scored is a problematic statistic in and of itself, but it’s fair to say that when a player scores nearly a run a game, it’s representative of their talent. As Cameron mentions, with less chances, Trout has gone first to third on plays 13 more times than Cabrera and has scored from second to home 5 more times.

That doesn’t even mention the defensive aspect. This is the most debatable aspect of all WAR statistics and that’s fair. Many writers don’t buy into them and they are right to be skeptical. However, when the aggregate of defensive stats show Trout to be a great center fielder defensively and he more than passes the “eye test” (or, perhaps, the “highlight” test) and Cabrera is the opposite at third base, it should remain a advantage for Trout. You don’t need to cite UZR here. I think it’s fair to simply note that Trout is a superb defensive player by most accounts at a key defensive position whereas Cabrera should be a first baseman or DH. As Cameron notes, the response that Cabrera “helped” his team unselfishly by moving to third is silly, since it has meant that the awful Delmon Young has gotten more DH starts and a cadre of terrible players have gotten starts in the outfield replacing Young. It’s a negative for his team. Anyways, didn’t Trout’s arrival mean the rightful banishing of Vernon Wells to the bench?

The MVP shouldn’t be the “best WAR” award. Trout shouldn’t win just because of his incredible WAR totals. He should win, instead, because of why those totals are so high and what we’ve learned since 1967, when Carl Yazstremski was the last player to win the Triple Crown (and he rightfully won the MVP). We know that OBP is a better representative of offensive value than batting average, that slugging percentage accounts better for power than the raw statistic of home runs and that RBI totals reflect opportunity as much as anything else But it’s more than that, since Cabrera actually has a advantage in slugging and is equal in OBP. We’ve also learned to incorporate baserunning and defense into our analysis of player value and that has been reflected by efforts like WAR to create single stats to represent player value. When considering all those things one by one, Trout seems to be the obvious candidate. Too bad that writers like that think that the opposite is still true.

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2 Responses to AL MVP debate: Has sabremetrics truly won?

  1. I think the best way to look at the triple crown is with amusement. It’s a neat little thing we haven’t seen happen in a long time, and it makes for fun discussions and friendly (hopefully at least) arguments. It might be kind of cool to look back in 15 years and say, “hey, remember when Miguel Cabrera won that triple crown like a thousand years after the last guy did it?” So it basically boils down to this: there are better ways to encapsulate a player’s value than three old-timey stats full of flaws, but if someone did happen to win a triple crown I think I’d smile a little or something. The triple crown is a nifty little novelty, and it signifies an impressive season, but it would be pretty easy to look at a broader scope and point out that Mike Trout is on his way to at least a quintuple crown using more comprehensive metrics.

  2. Nick says:

    I think that’s a great way of putting it–at least, my feelings towards it. There is something I still feel about the Triple Crown that makes it a neat statistical feat and I’ll note that in my mind–I won’t forget it in the least. But such a thing should not overshadow just how amazing Mike Trout has been and that’s really the essence of it. You don’t really even need WAR or other more comprehensive metrics to prove it, but they do help.

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