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On WAR, Trout, Cabrera, Leyland, sabermetrics, and the MVP

MVP o no? That question goes way beyond statistics.
MVP o no? That question goes way beyond statistics.

"I will not use the player's name, but according to the sabermetrics there is a player that is better than Miguel Cabrera. So when the guy that gave me the sabermetrics told me that, I said, 'Well, should we trade Miguel Cabrera for the player you're talking about?' He said, 'Oh, no, you can't do that.'

"And I said, 'Well, then you don't believe in sabermetrics. And neither do I.' "

-- Tigers manager Jim Leyland, as quoted by MLive's Chris Iott


I believe in sabermetrics.

And so does Jim Leyland, whether or not he wants to admit it. And so does his front office, whether they want to admit it or not.

And so do managers and front offices executives around the sport, whether fans or scouts or shouting voices on the radio or grizzled newspaper columnists or sports commentators or anyone else wants to admit it or not.

Sabermetrics is at its heart using statistics when making decisions. Statistics have been a part of baseball since the sport began.

They weren't kept for giggles. Numbers were used in making a baseball decisions, and they still are.


The debate -- the only debate -- is what set of numbers should we be looking at when making these decisions.

Jim Leyland doesn't like WAR, and that's OK.

But let's not pretend his side of the argument is really all that different than his mythical opponent's.

Credit Bill James or credit Billy Beane or credit Michael Lewis and Moneyball or credit Tango Tiger or Fangraphs or Baseball Prospectus or whatever else you want. Sabermetrics is part of our daily baseball conversation.

Fans who grew up with the holy trinity of BA, RBI and HR might not like it, and they definitely don't like being marginalized. But they're makers of buggy whips. Conversation about the sport will be driven by a new wave of stats. When ESPN is flashing WAR on the screen, when your local newspaper is talking about BABIP, it's part of the mainstream now. You can fight it, but only for so long. You're going to lose. You already have.

Yet there are those who have made idols of WAR, or FIP, or UZR. They know the statistics of old are being run over by history, so they've leapt to the new, grabbing hold with white knuckles. Hey, man, get your RBI out of my way. Don't you know that stat is driven by lineup and luck? Look at this fancy stat I have here, it strips it all that away away. Tune in and drop out, man, I don't want to hear about your batting average any more.

Look, those were obviously caricatures of the debates. But sometimes, when you're listening to people on either side, when you're reading the columnists or the purveyors of advanced stats, ... well, they don't feel like they're caricatures that far from the truth.

Leyland, with his quotes, played right into it. So did David Schoenfield with his generalizations.

I'm not going to get into an explanation of every statistic available for your perusal. I will simply say this: both "traditional" statistics and "sabermetric" statistics serve a purpose. There's no bad stats out there. There's simply misapplied ones.

Simply put: If you ask a specific question, there's a stat that can give you a specific answer. That doesn't make a stat good or bad; it simply makes it the right stat for the job.

Front offices, and all who like to think about baseball, are tasked with finding the questions that lead to the most success on the field.

And I hope that front offices and managers would both agree, success on the field is the ultimate goal.

The other interesting thing about the "new" stats, or "advanced stats" -- or sabermetrics, if you like -- is that they really are intuitive.

Like WAR. A lot of people act like it's confusing gobbledygook. Is it? Well ... our friend Lee Panas explained it recently. You can go over there for the entire explanation.

I will try to explain it a different way.

A scout grades position players on five tools based on what he sees:

- hitting for average
- hitting for power
- baserunning
- fielding
- throwing

WAR grades players on five tools based on what occurred in games:

- getting on base
- hitting for power
- baserunning
- fielding
- throwing (these two are rolled into one, but those are separate components typically included).

Scouts use an ages-old, subjective 20-80 scale. WAR attempts to assign value, based on the number of runs a player creates by using each of those tools.

Are the sides really all the much different?

I have to say, no.

Each has issues. What is a particular scout looking for when grading out a player? How do we, as fans or as media members, know which scouts to believe? How come one sees 60 when another sees 70?

What stats does a particular version of WAR find to be most telling? Which version of defense do they like? Which version of base running? (Can we even measure base running or fielding accurately?)

Angels rookie Mike Trout has more tools than Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera; the tools Cabrera does have are better than Trout's.

When it comes to choosing an MVP, you don't need to use statistics at all, beyond a rudimentary level. What really matters is what you believe makes a player an MVP.

The rules don't really help you much there, either. As reported in The Hardball Times:

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; and (5) members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

They vaguely say to measure the actual value of a player to his team. This does inherently mean you attempt to take a player out of the lineup and play out in your head what happens. It does not mean you find a golden stat that measures offense and defense and declare it the one that best captures the story, either.

The rules mean whatever you want them to mean.

Miguel Cabrera does more to help his team than Mike Trout does -- or he doesn't.

Really, it's up to you to decide.

Stats -- traditional, sabermetric, or ones made up in your head -- might be a tool you can use, but they can't answer the question of what "most valuable" actually means.

Once you figure that part out for yourself, there's a stat to help you decide who should sit atop your virtual leaderboard.

As for me, I will continue to say this: There's no right or wrong answers when it comes to traditional stats vs. sabermetrics, or when it comes to Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera.

There are only wrong ways to frame your argument.

That, I fear, has been going on too much and for far too long.