Thursday, November 15, 2012

The AL MVP Debate: Trout vs. Cabrera

We are in the midst of baseball's award season in which Major League Baseball recognizes the standout players from the preceding season. 

Yesterday, they announced the winners of the Cy Young Award.  This criteria for this award used to seem rather simple: Give it to the best pitcher in the league regardless of his team's position in the standings.  After all, a pitcher could only affect the games that he himself pitched, so why should he be penalized for poor performance by his teammates?

With the rise of sabermetrics, the situation has become more complicated.  A pitcher's win total used to go a long way towards determining the winner, but since the sabermetric devaluation of that statistic, wins have been less influential.  For an example, look at recent winners Felix Hernandez in 2010 (13 wins) and Tim Lincecum in 2009.  Ten years earlier, they probably don't win due to their relatively low win totals.

If the Cy Young Award has become difficult to decide, then the MVP award has become a complete quagmire.

This award has always given people some difficulty based on its name.  There are differing opinions as to what makes a player "valuable."  Some believe that the best player is automatically the most valuable and he should receive the award.  Others feel like the winner should come from a playoff team, or at the very least, a contender.  Because if a player couldn't get his team into contention, just how valuable could he be?

With that kind of inconsistency as the benchmark, it is no wonder that sabermetrics has only muddied the waters of the debate.

The 2012 American League MVP award has become a key battleground in the battle between traditionalists and sabermetrics advocates.  The traditionalists favor Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera while the saber fans favor Angels outfielder Mike Trout.

Miguel Cabrera is the MVP choice of most traditionalists

Both players are having excellent seasons, and chances are, no matter which one wins the award, nobody is going to look back a few years from now and wonder, "How did that guy win MVP?"  But one of them is going to win, and one of the groups is going to claim the decision as a grand victory for their philosophy. 

Here's a breakdown of the typical arguments for both camps:

Traditionalist: Cabrera won the Triple Crown!  That means he's the MVP.

Sabermetrics: The Triple Crown is an arbitrary grouping of three offensive statistics, two of which are vastly overrated.  Trout led the league in WAR which is a much better indication of his value.

Traditionalist: WAR?  WAR is just some trendy statistic that even you people can't agree on.

Sabermetrics: Whichever version you use, it's still the best statistic we have for measuring a player's overall value.  Shouldn't we look at all facets of a player's game rather than just three offensive categories?  Even if you think that Cabrera was the better offensive player, Trout was far superior on defense and on the base paths.

Do Trout's defense and baserunning give him an edge?

Traditionalist: Defense is overrated.  And I don't know how you even measure the effect that a player's baserunning has on a game.

Besides, Cabrera's team made the playoffs.  Trout's team did not.

Sabermetrics: Yes, but the Angels had a better record!  They were just unfortunate to have played in a stronger division.  Why are we giving Cabrera credit for things out of his control?

That's the whole basis for using WAR.  Eliminate all peripheral factors and judge the player's performance on its own merits.

Traditionalist: Except that's not how baseball works.  Baseball is a team game, and a player's value has to take into account how well he helped his team perform.  Just look at how well Cabrera performed down the stretch while his team was fighting for a playoff spot.  That was an MVP performance.  Meanwhile, Trout's numbers slipped a bit in the late going.

Sabermetrics: That is irrelevant.  Games in June count just as much as games in September.

Traditionalist: In theory that is true.  But the MVP is really just a measure of baseball history.  And baseball history goes beyond just statistics.  For example, Bobby Thomson hit 32 home runs in 1951, but only one of them is known by just about every baseball fan.

"The Shot Heard Round the World."

Take a home run that is hit in the 9th inning of a 10-2 game in April. Compare that to a home run hit in the 9th inning of a 4-3 game in September. Do you really feel that the same value should be placed on both?

Sabermetrics: Yes, because in the long run, those types of things tend to even out.  That's exactly why we need to use WAR.  It eliminates personal bias and emotion from the decision. 

Trout had the highest WAR.  That means he supplied the most value to his team.  Hence, he is the MVP.

Traditionalist: If you eliminate emotion from baseball, then you might as well just play the game on a computer.  Cabrera won the Triple Crown and led his team to a playoff spot with a strong stretch run.  That makes him the MVP.

If someone wants to look at Trout's WAR and decide that he is the hands down MVP, I understand.  Personally, (and this should come as no surprise based on the name of this blog) I think that you do need to factor in stretch run performance and even RBIs, since they measure success in a team setting.

Both men are worthy candidates, but I feel that Cabrera deserves the MVP.