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A case for Cabrera’s MVP bid, sabermetrics included

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May 26, 2012; Minneapolis, MN, USA: Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera (24) hits a RBI double in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE
May 26, 2012; Minneapolis, MN, USA: Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera (24) hits a RBI double in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE

In one sense, supporters of sabermetrics should be delighted to see that advanced statistics, such as WAR, are being tossed about in the main stream media in the MVP conversation. On the other hand, fans of saber stats may find the over simplification of the discussion somewhat troubling.

If Miguel Cabrera should win baseball’s triple crown by leading the league in Home Runs, RBI, and Batting Average, and somehow not be named the league’s most valuable player, that would surely spell the death knell for traditional statistics and shine the light on a new way of measuring a player’s performance using advanced statistics. Or so one might think.

We’ve read Jim Leyland’s comments, when presented with the fact that Mike Trout has a higher WAR than Miguel Cabrera, saying that he does not believe in sabermetrics. How could any player, in Leyland's mind, win the triple crown, but not be the most valuable player?

When you read the mainstream media’s version of what sabermetricians think, you might be led to believe that the case for the Angels' Mike Trout to be the MVP, rather than Cabrera, is based strictly on a higher Wins Above Replacement, or WAR. In truth, that is part of the case for Trout, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, and it certainly doesn’t even approximately represent what all supporters of saber stats are thinking. It’s a gross over simplification to suggest that sabermetrics is all about WAR.

I like saber stats. I don’t like WAR nearly so much. WAR is an effort to combine offense, pitching, stolen bases, and defense into one grand number, one size fits all, that puts a value on a player’s combined productivity. You can compare pitchers to hitters and offense to defense using runs created and runs saved.

In my view, accuracy is lost in the translation from hits to runs and runs to wins. Moreover, the defensive metrics are fundamentally flawed, at least partially subjective, and they make up an integral part of WAR. Further, there are various versions of WAR and they seldom put the same value on a player’s performance.

In short, while I appreciate the effort by members of the mainstream media to explain the basis for a position that they do not agree with, I think they are selling sabermetrics short in the process. Just as sabermetrics are not based on on base percentage, neither is WAR the holy grail of statistics to all sabermetricians.

While I would not adopt WAR as the ultimate measure of a player’s value, neither would I dismiss the numbers, nor do I dismiss defensive metrics such as defensive runs saved (DRS) or Ultimate Zone rating (UZR) to measure a player’s defensive value. I believe that these calculations are a work in progress, and that brilliant minds have given us all these calculations to play with and analyze.

There are saber oriented statistics that I believe in very strongly, but those are mainly on the offensive side of the ledger. At the top of the list are weighted on base average (wOBA), and weighted runs created (wRC). These numbers are the brainchild of Tom Tango (aka Tangotiger), who literally wrote the book Playing the Percentages in Baseball.

When you go to Fangraphs and sort players according to advanced stats, the default ranking for batters is wOBA. HERE. Next to that, there is wRC+, and you will generally find that the players will be sorted in roughly the same order. That is because wOBA measures the value of each hit, whether a single, double, triple, home run, walk, or out, and calculates a value based on over 185,000 plate appearances in the previous baseball season. That value is a number that correlates to run creation. In fact, you will find that the players at the top of the list sorted by wOBA or wRC+ are generally the consensus best hitters in the game at a given time.

Now, you can close your mind to saber stats, and stick with the old fashioned numbers such as batting average and RBI, but you can not make the case that batting average or RBI are an accurate measure of a player’s overall offensive productivity. Batting average gives as much credit for a single as it does for a triple or a home run. RBI are a function of opportunities to drive in runs, and require other players to get on base to be driven in most of the time.

What we do know from the triple crown stats is that any one player that leads his league in all three of them is hitting for average, hitting for power, and driving in runs. Those are not factors to be ignored in the MVP conversation, by any means.

You can play it half way and go with on base percentage, or slugging percentage, but those numbers are equally flawed. OPS (on base plus slugging) simply adds those two flawed percentages together. There is nothing in those numbers that was ever intended to weigh the actual value of each event according to it’s impact on creating runs.

I am not suggesting that one should merely look at wOBA or wRC+ and give the MVP award to the player with the highest number. Not at all. Likewise, simply looking at WAR doesn’t cut it, and I don’t like to see all "sabermetricians" branded as WAR mongers. Sabermetrics is a world of statistics to be used for calculation and analysis. One should not be used to the exclusion of others.

What Miguel Cabrera is doing this season is historic, and I value that fact as much as anyone. A player wins the triple crown in baseball, on average, about once every decade in MLB history, and no player has done it in 45 years. It has happened only twice since the Detroit Lions last won an NFL championship, and that’s a long time.

I would now like to take a look at how Cabrera and Trout stack up when using other sabermetric statistics as well as some traditional criteria.

Using wOBA, Cabrera leads the league with a .422 wOBA while Trout is a close second at .420. Looking at runs created, Cabrera leads 132 to 118. Using runs created +, which is park adjusted, Trout has a narrow lead, 173 to 170. These numbers have been trending in Cabrera’s favor over the past several weeks, just as Cabrera has over taken Trout for the lead in batting average.

Using on base percentage, which was so strongly emphasized in "Moneyball" and taken by many members of the media as the original statistic most closely associated with sabermetrics before they went to WAR, Cabrera leads Trout by .398 to .395.

Looking at batting average on balls in play (BABIP) Trout leads the league at .378, while Cabrera’s .332 is below his career average of .345. This would suggest to many saber statisticians that Trout has had a great deal of good fortune, while Cabrera has been unlucky and his numbers could be even better if balls would only fall in for him at the same rate that they have been falling in his eight year career.

Not to ignore defense, Trout leads the AL in defensive runs saved with 25, and is among the leaders in UZR with 13. Cabrera is below average by 5 runs to 9.4 runs, respectively at third base. I don’t think anyone would argue that Trout is the better defender, but how to place a value on that is another matter. As stated above, defensive metrics are very difficult and the calculations are changing and being perfected on an ongoing basis.

There are other traditional measures of a player’s value to his team. Not the least of these criteria is how much success the player’s team has had, aided by his contribution. Should one player’s team make the playoffs while the other falls short, that traditionally has been a huge factor in choosing a most valuable player. Ask Matt Kemp about 2011, or Miguel Cabrera about 2010.

But what if one player's team makes the playoffs as a wild card, and the other wins their division outright? With the new playoff format, there is certainly more value in winning the division than having to play a one game play in to stay alive.

There is also a trend that is running strongly in Cabrera’s favor. Over the past 30 days, with everything on the line for both teams, Cabrera has a wOBA of .488 while Trout is way down the list at just .322. Use triple crown stats, or saber stats, and that trend is the same.

Taken all together, Cabrera leads Trout in batting average, home runs, RBI, on base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and wOBA. Trout leads in defense and WAR.

The founding fathers of baseball left the criteria for the MVP award intentionally vague. Value is in the eyes of the beholder. I believe this race is very close. If Cabrera wins the hallowed triple crown, I believe that voters will value that historic achievement enough to award Cabrera the MVP. After all, the vast majority of the voters are the same mainstream media members that are just tuning into sabermetrics, with some reluctance.

That the media is paying attention to saber stats, even WAR, is progress. That they have recently given the MVP to a starting pitcher, and given a couple of Cy Young awards to players without huge win totals, is progress. Baseball is evolving, as surely as instant replay is coming to the game. We will thankfully never get to a point where one grand statistic will determine the league’s most valuable player.

Without a triple crown winner, we could see a repeat of the 2011 National league MVP vote, where Matt Kemp almost won a triple crown, but Ryan Braun led the Brewers to the playoffs and was awarded the MVP. Should one team reach the playoffs and the other not get there, that probably will tip the balance in the MVP vote.

Should neither the Tigers nor the Angels make the playoffs, then the voters have the perfect excuse to resort to tradition, and award the MVP to the player with the most pinstripes on his uniform- Robinson Cano.