Monday, October 8, 2012

A (non-sabermetric) Look at the Arguments for Miguel Cabrera to Win MVP

Miguel Cabrera had a fantastic season, one of the best hitting seasons in the last 10-12 years. Not quite Barry Bonds level, but it certainly is on the same general level as the best from Alex Rodriquez, Manny Ramirez, Albert Pujols, Carlos Delgado, David Ortiz, Vladimir Guerrero and probably a few others. As a result, Cabrera has a lot of support to win the MVP, based largely on his winning the “triple crown” and the Tigers making the playoffs.

Mike Trout also had an amazing season. I’m not really going to make the case for Trout, because it’s made very well here and here (warning, stat-heavy) and plenty of other places (here). The purpose here is to provide a simple discussion around the arguments that Cabrera’s supporters typically make in his support.

Argument 1: TRIPLE CROWN!

I understand that simultaneously leading the league in Batting Average, Home Runs and Runs Batted In is not a common occurrence and is not easy to do. I am not making an attempt to frame it as something that is easy to do, or something that is not indicative of a great season. Let’s look at the triple-crown categories and the role they play into Cabrera’s MVP case:

Batting Average: Cabrera had a higher batting average than Mike Trout by 4 points. I’m not sure if people truly understand the differences in batting average actually. But, just so we’re clear here, 4 points is not a difference of 4 hits per 100 at-bats. It’s a difference of 4 hits for every 1,000 at-bats. That’s 1 hit every 250 at bats (roughly 50 games), or 3 hits over the course of a season. It means that the odds of Mike Trout getting a hit and the odds that Miguel Cabrera getting a hit are both 33%.

Mike Trout had a higher OBP than Cabrera by a slightly greater margin. If the goal of baseball is to not make outs, so that you can hopefully create runs – do you think that getting a hit a slightly higher percentage of the time is more important if it means you make outs a slightly higher percentage of the time? Should one hit every 50 or so games make a player more valuable if they actually made 1 or 2 more outs in those games? If Trout had won the Batting title, and Cabrera beat Trout in OBP, would that have made Cabrera less valuable than Trout? If you think it wouldn’t have, then you’ve just negated the argument that Cabrera winning the triple crown makes him the MVP.

Congratulations Miguel Cabrera, for that 1/250 lead in batting average, but you’re pretty lucky that whoever came up with the triple crown decided that batting average was more important than on-base percentage.

To further my point about rewarding batting average versus outs made, while Cabrera did get those extra 3 hits to win batting average, he also created an additional 28 outs that are not tallied by BA/OBP/SLG by hitting into double plays (Trout had 7).

Home Runs: Cabrera hit 1 more home run than Josh Hamilton. Hey, I think that’s awesome. But let me ask you this – suppose he didn’t. Suppose Hamilton didn’t miss a bunch of games and hit 2 more homeruns. Would that have changed Miguel Cabrera’s season? Or, more importantly, his “value”? WHY? Why is the performance of a player that is not Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera at all relevant to the argument of who, between Trout and Cabrera, should be MVP? If you can’t answer that question, sorry, but the entire “triple crown” argument is moot. Think about it – Mike Trout could miss out on winning an MVP because Josh Hamilton missed too many games. The only person Josh Hamilton missing games should impact in the MVP voting is Josh Hamilton.

Runs Batted In: Cabrera had 139 RBI. That’s great. Trout scored 129 Runs. Can we agree not to discuss this again? RBI and Runs are situational and talking about RBI is just like talking about Batting Average and Home Runs again with the added context of “opportunity”. If you think RBI are an “important” statistic in measuring value – you don’t understand context. Is a hit with no one on in the 8th inning of a tie game of less “value” than the same hit that knocks in 2 runs in the 5th inning extending a lead to 9-1? Do you see why it’s not? These are not actual game scenarios or an indictment on the nature of Cabrera’s RBI, but instead just an example to show that context matters.

Also, Cabrera is pretty lucky that whoever came up with the triple crown decided that RBI should be a triple crown category instead of runs.

You could craft a narrowly focused position that Cabrera was more valuable because he capitalized on his relative RBI opportunity better than Trout. I’ve seen that done. It doesn’t amount to many runs, but you could do that. But then I’d say – what about runs Trout saved with his glove versus runs Cabrera cost his team with his glove? What about runs created with Trout’s legs that Cabrera cost his team with his? What about runs Cabrera cost his team by creating a league leading 28 double plays? See, if you do this across all of the ways that these players impact the game, those “added” runs disappear extremely quickly. That’s the danger of taking such a narrow focus. You ignore too much.

If you think that the Triple Crown makes Cabrera’s season “one for the ages” or more “special”, I’ll just say this: There have been far more seasons like Miguel Cabrera’s in the history of baseball than seasons like Mike Trout’s. There’s been many seasons like Cabrera’s, or better, since 2000.

Argument 2: The Tigers Made the Playoffs

This one is awesome. The Tigers made the playoffs, and Cabrera played great. If Trout was so valuable, how come his team didn’t make the playoffs? Arguing this with someone is like when you say “we should spend less on our military; we spend more than the next 17 or so countries combined” and they respond with “you hate America and Freedom and our troops!” It’s hard to bring that person into a logical, rational debate.

Sadly, I’ve seen this argument a lot – perhaps more than the triple crown argument. Here are some counterpoints to think about:

- They are in different divisions. The Tigers are in an easier division.

- The Angels actually won one more game.

- They are only 1 of 25 guys on the roster. The rest of their rosters played, oh, we’ll just say….more than an incidental role in the performance of the team.

- In my HR example above, if you think it’s kind of silly to let Josh Hamilton’s inability to hit 2 more homeruns factor into the Trout versus Cabrera vote, well now you’re letting like 100 other player’s performance factor in.

- Let’s say the White Sox play great down the stretch and don’t puke up the division lead – would that have made Cabrera less valuable then Mike Trout? Why? If you think it doesn’t, then you’ve just negated this argument.

- Let’s say Justin Verlander was injured on May 1 and the Tigers finish 5 games back - would that have made Cabrera less valuable than Mike Trout? WHY? If you think it doesn’t, then you’ve just negated this argument.

I get that this can be hard if you're wired to think like your local talk radio hosts or beat writer, because the MVP award is really about overall contributions to the team, but you need to look at those contributions in a vacuum. If you’re unsure what I mean, stick your head up a vacuum and you’ll see. See how there’s no other baseball players up that vacuum? See how Justin Verlander is nowhere in that vaccum? A baseball player gets 4-6 plate appearances per game and a handful of chances in the field. To vote for Cabrera as MVP because the Tigers made the playoffs is, to be blunt, dumb. Prince Fielder, Justin Verlander and a host of other players (on the Tigers and on other teams) all combined to make that (barely) happen.

Argument 3: He Moved to Third to “Make Room” for Prince Fielder

Prince Fielder joining the Tigers was happening whether Miguel Cabrera moved to third or not. I’m actually not sure any other point should be made. He’s “more valuable” because Prince Fielder is really good? What if Fielder had been terrible, would that have made Cabrera less valuable? Why?  If this is your argument, you've just decided that Cabrera should be the MVP and you're grasping at anything to support it. 

Barely related side note – Derek Jeter refused to move to third base in 2004 when the better fielding Alex Rodriguez joined the Yankees. A-Rod outplayed Derek Jeter that year and Jeter STILL received more MVP votes.

Argument 4: He Was “Clutch” Down “the Stretch” and Trout SUCKED Down “the Stretch”

Cabrera’s performance was great in August and September, which is timely. But the extremes I’ve seen presented here are not accurate. Note that I’m going to honor this argument on its face and not enter into a debate of the value of games in May versus games in September.

This argument really isn’t about Miguel Cabrera, it’s about Mike Trout. Cabrera’s best month was August (.357/.429/.663), but he was consistently great all year, particularly after the all-star break. Mike Trout’s best month was July (.392/.455/.804), and then he was progressively worse after that. The first point I’ll make is that, short of being 2001-2004 Barry Bonds, it’s virtually impossible to not play worse than Mike Trout in July. Miguel Cabrera played worse in August and September than Mike Trout did in July, too.

So what did Mike Trout do in August and September that was so bad? He didn’t hit as well as Miguel Cabrera, but no one is saying Trout deserves the MVP for out-slugging Cabrera. The problem here is that it assumes we’re comparing two #3 hitting sluggers that can’t run and are non-factors (or negative factors) on defense. We’re not comparing Miguel Cabrera to David Ortiz here. We’re comparing him to a guy who is playing one of the two most valuable defensive positions (excluding pitcher), batting first, stealing lots of bases and taking many more that lesser runners would not AND hitting extremely well.

Trout was still that much better at every other phase of the game. Those difficult to measure parts of the game that involve preventing runs and causing runs to occur where lesser players would not have.

(There is a stat for this, but I’ve promised to make this non-sabermetric. But according to that stat, Trout was actually more valuable than Cabrera every month of the season, once he started playing. But let’s just pretend that stat doesn’t exist, because it seems to inspire what its acronym is pronounced as.)

So Trout had an amazing July, and Cabrera had an amazing August.  Then, in Sept/Oct, the difference between Cabrera (.333/.402/.675) and Trout (.289/.396/.500) works out to about 3 hits for 6 more bases. Trout walked 6 more times and stole an additional 6 more net bases, if that helps you bridge those differences. Cabrera hit into 5 double plays in September, if that helps as well. That’s the problem with focusing on a short time period with selective endpoints and why you need to focus on the entire season.

(You may do the math and notice that Trout needed an additional 5 hits to catch Cabrera in BA, but at 3 hits Cabrera’s lead in BA is actually the same as Trout’s lead in OBP, because Trout walks more – so I’m calling it even there.  Also, BA is like 1/20th of any story in comparing two players).

The biggest knock against Trout, honestly, has nothing to do with September. It is that he came up too late to impact his team in April.

Argument 5: No, You Don't Understand - He Made the Playoffs AND Won the Triple Crown

Taking multiple bad arguments and twisting them together doesn’t work either.


However you want to evaluate the merits of their performances; please let it focus on THEIR PERFORMANCES. Don’t let what Josh Hamilton didn’t do, or Justin Verlander did do, or the White Sox didn’t do, etc. allow you to feel differently about what Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout did do.

I know someone may read this and say “ha! But your argument is based on hypotheticals, because Hamilton did miss those games and didn’t hit those home runs and Verlander did play all year, so etc etc”. My point is only that if your MVP ballot hinged on what those guys did/did not do, you’re not answering the question of “who was the most valuable player”, you’re answering the question of “who had a great year and also had a number of extraneous, non-controllable circumstances go their way?”

Don’t do that.

No comments: