The AL MVP Race

November 15, 2012

Miguel Cabrera just won the American League MVP.  Cabrera won the triple crown and by any measure had a spectacular season.  In most years he would be a very deserving winner.  This year however he was not the best player in the league.  That distinction goes to Angels rookie Mike Trout.  Trout had one of the best seasons in baseball history but did not win the MVP because people are fucking stupid.

I do not want to get too bogged down in each players statistics and respective merits.  These have been extensively written about all over the internet. (Two of the best are Jonah Keri and Joe Posnanski.)  Mike Trout has had a better year by every possible metric except for batting average, runs batted in and home runs.  He stole more bases, scored more runs, was a massively better defensive player, and was actually a stronger offensive player if you go by advanced statistics.  No one on either side of the argument debates any of these points.  And yet somehow Miguel Cabrera won the award.

Cabrera won for a number of completely inane reasons.  The first of which is that he is the first triple crown winner since Carl Yazstremsky in 1967.  The Triple Crown is a very difficult feat that has a lot of history behind it.  MVP voters, and pretty much everyone over 30, seem to automatically tie this accomplishment with the MVP award.  There are a ton of problems with this logic.  The first of which is that the Triple Crown stats are not a very good way to evaluate a baseball player.  They only consider offense, and they do a poor job properly judging that even.  RBI’s for example are an essentially worthless measure for judging an individual player’s performance.  Far too many factors outside of a player’s control factor into RBI’s.  (Quality of teammates, position in the batting order, teammates baserunning abilities, etc.)  RBI’s have essentially been discredited as a valid metric and batting average is nearly as worthless. (On Base Percentage is now used instead) Leading the league in either RBI’s or batting average is not the least bit significant anymore, but since Cabrera was able to combine all three categories these outdated statistics have suddenly become relevant again.  The fact that Cabrera led the league in the only three stats available in 1930 is impressive but it shouldn’t mean that we have to evaluate players the same way we did during the depression.

(One last problem with the Triple Crown.  It is completely dependent on the performance of the rest of the league.  if Josh Hamilton had stayed healthy and hit 3 more home runs then he would have led the league and Cabrera would have fallen just short of the triple Crown.  He would have provided the exact same value to his team but would have had no chance at the MVP.)

The other big reason that Cabrera won the MVP is because many people feel that since his team, the Tigers, made the playoffs and Trout’s did not that he provided more value.  This logic completely ignores the individual nature of baseball.  Baseball is unique among team sports in that an individual’s impact is pretty much limited to their own performance.  A great quarterback can make the entire offense better, and someone like Lebron or Jordan can almost single-handedly win games in basketball.  A historically great baseball player can’t make his teammates hit better, or his pitcher stop serving up meatballs.  I think the argument that an MVP can only come from a playoff team is flawed in pretty much any sport but it is just downright wrong in baseball.

More importantly, the Angels won more games than the Tigers.  The only reason Cabrera was able to “lead” his team to the playoffs was because the AL central was a historically bad division. (This also means that Trout’s numbers were produced against tougher competition.)  Arguing that Cabrera deserves the MVP over Trout because his team made the playoffs is both illogical and unfair.  What would people have Trout do?  He can’t magically put the Royals in the AL West.

It is pretty clear that there really aren’t any good arguments to be made for Cabrera to win the MVP.  In addition to the ones listed above people often bring up nebulous qualities such as “clutchness” or leadership that range from difficult to impossible to quantify.  (For the record the best current metric of clutchness favors Trout.)  People arguing for Cabrera are really doing so because they do not believe in the more advanced statistics.  Baseball is easily quantifiable because each plate appearance is it’s own specific event.  As such hitting stats are the most accurate in sports.  Things like Wins Above Replacement, runs created, and OPS+ help us very accurately evaluate baseball players and even serve as effective predictors of future performance.  Writers, pundits, and old people hate this. (Obviously not all people in these categories, but enough to create a travesty out of the MVP vote.)  They do not want to believe these numbers are accurate or effective because evaluating and predicting baseball players is their job.  The older generation of baseball media in particular feels threatened by the statistical advances and is choosing to bury their heads in the sand and ignore all the evidence.  (I propose a mandatory viewing of Moneyball for anyone who voted for Cabrera)

If you can’t tell by now I feel very strongly about this issue.  Not because I truly give a shit who won the MVP.  Mike Trout got screwed, but he is a 20 year old future millionaire who plays baseball for a living.  I shed no tears for Mike Trout.  He can do things like this.

The world is his fucking oyster.
The real reason that this whole situation bothers me is that a lot of people, many of them very influential, still use such flawed logic to make big decisions.  I watched a debate about this on MLB TV today and had to listen to a grown ass man (radio host Chris Russo for the record) argue that a win counts more in September than it does in May.  This is classic sports narrative logic that has been repeatedly disproven by things like numbers and math.  And yet we hear things like it on TV all the time.  And not just in sports.  Nate Silver, and pretty much everyone else doing statistical modeling, was very certain that President Obama would win the election.  Rather than accept this information as the science that it was, many talking heads ignored it and attacked Silver personally to discredit him.  The information did not fit with the narrative they preferred so they pretended it didn’t exist.  This is a very dangerous way to make decisions.

Since this is America, ignorant people will always be allowed to twist the facts to suit their beliefs.  My hope is that someday these people won’t be the ones who get paid to speak on television.  We don’t let our doctors use techniques form the 1940’s.  Why do we let our newscasters?

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