When Miguel Cabrera won the triple crown in 2012, leading the American League in batting average, home runs, and RBI for the first time in 45 years, there were some who claimed that the Angels’ Mike Trout still deserved to win the league’s Most Valuable player award. They were wrong then, and they’re wrong to make the same claim again this season.
Much of the support for Trout comes from the sabermetric community, where Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is a highly regarded statistic that is meant to measure the overall value of a player, including offense, defense, and base running. I hasten to add that Trout’s supporters pointed to much more than just WAR to support their case, but it is WAR that drew most of the attention, and much criticism, from those in the mainstream media who were just becoming familiar with some of the advanced metrics that are available.
Sabermetrics refers to statistics created and used by members of the Society for the Advancement of Baseball Research (SABR). WAR is a combination of weighted on base average (wOBA), ultimate zone rating (UZR) and base running. The argument goes that, while Cabrera was marginally better than Trout in hitting, according to WAR, the fact that Trout played a more difficult position with superior defense and was a speed demon on the bases added up to greater value.
The criticism of using certain traditional statistics, such as RBI, is that they are very much dependent on the work of team mates. The same can be said for pitcher wins, another measure that is disdained by sabermetricians.
In my view, WAR is just one barometer of performance that is particularly useful in comparing pitchers vs. hitters, or players over the span of their careers, as the flaws tend to even out. But I don’t believe that there is a "one size fits all" number that accurately measures a player’s full value, and certainly not a single stat to determine the MVP.
We’ve covered wOBA on this site a number of times. Basically, it is a weighted value given to each single, double, triple, home run, or walk, taken as a percentage of plate appearances. It’s sort of like on base plus slugging percentage (OPS), except that the weighted value given to each hit is equal to the value that it would have if taken out of the context in which it occurred, and placed into a context neutral setting. That is, they take over 15,000 plate appearances each season and assign the value of each hit or walk in terms of it's value creating runs. There is little fluctuation in the weight given to each hit from year to year, which is an indication of it's consistency and reliability.
OBP is flawed in that it gives the same value to a walk or a single as to a home run. Slugging percentage and OPS give more weight to extra base hits than their actual value in terms of run production. To weight the value of each hit, wOBA has it just right. So, if you want to isolate a player’s individual performance, removed from the setting which his team mates created, then wOBA is the single best measure of a player’s hitting value.
But therein lies the problem, to myself and others critical of using such stats to determine the MVP award. Baseball is not a context neutral game. Value is measured by what happens on the field, in real life. Hits count for more when they drive in runs than when they don’t. RBI’s have value to a team, and the guy that drives them in will get a disproportionate share of the glory. As Ernie Harwell would say, "that's baseball".
Of course, this discussion is relevant once again, because a look at the rankings for WAR at Fangraphs shows Mike Trout right back on top, just ahead of Miguel Cabrera. Meanwhile, a look at the standings shows the Tigers with a seven game lead in their division, and the Angels in fourth place, 14 games out of first place and well out of the pennant race with seven weeks left in the season.
As the MVP race stands today in the American League, Cabrera leads for the batting title by 33 points with a .363 average. Trout is third at .328. Cabrera also leads the league in on base percentage and OPS and is tied with the Orioles’ Chris Davis at 109 RBI’s. Davis leads in home runs with 42, and Cabrera is second with 35. Trout has 20 homers (14th), 71 RBI (10th), is second to Cabrera in on base percentage, and fourth in slugging.
Sabermetrically speaking, Cabrera leads the league again with a wOBA of .474. Davis is second at .437, and Trout third at .424. Those would be the sabermetric rankings for batting.
When you add in defense and base running, Trout leads with a combined WAR of 7.4 to Cabrera’s 7.0, and Davis is a distant third at 5.4. The main factor here is that Trout gets credit for 6.7 base running (aka Ultimate Base Running or BsR) while Cabrera scores 0.7, and Trout gets -0.5 for his defense while Cabrera is -11.1 runs. Defense is measured by UZR (a good primer is here).
It’s worth noting that Trout was a plus 13.3 in 2012. That seems to be a huge fluctuation from one season to the next, and a cause for suspicion about the accuracy of the defensive metrics. Fangraphs warns in the primer that you really need two years of UZR to get a sufficient sample size. Andy Dirks leads the AL with a 16.6 UZR/ 150 so far this season. We wrote about that here as well.
The Most Valuable Player award is given to the player who provides the "greatest value to his team". I recall an episode of Clubhouse Confidential last summer on the MLB Network where Brian Kenny, making his case for Trout, declared "the MVP is an individual award". Only it’s not. The proper measure is the value provided to the player’s team. If the team does not receive value, then the player didn't provide value.
So, if one player provides X amount of production and that helps to put his team into the playoffs, while another provides the same production and his team finishes in third place, the former has provided more value to his team. Some of this is out of the player’s control, to be sure. One might argue, and they did, that the collapse of the White Sox, which was completely outside of Cabrera’s doing, propelled the Tigers to the division title in 2012. Okay, so what? The value is still there, in the standings, which is what matters "to his team".
The MVP is not like the Cy Young award, which is given to the league’s best pitcher. The MVP is not a "best hitter" or a "best offensive player" or a "best position player" award. It’s certainly not a "best player in a context neutral setting" award. It’s an award for the player who provides the most value to his team. Value to a team is measured by team accomplishments.
Awarding the MVP to a player on a team who wins their league or division is not a new concept. Even triple crown winners have not always won the MVP award when their teams did not win the Pennant. The Yankees’ Lou Gehrig won the triple crown in 1934, but lost the MVP award to the pennant winning Tigers’ Mickey Cochrane. The Red Sox’s Ted Williams won the Triple crown in 1942, but the first place Yankees’ Joe "Flash" Gordon was voted MVP. Williams won his second triple crown in 1947, but the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio won the MVP.
But let’s say, just for argument’s sake that Cabrera actually is worth 7.0 Wins above the replacement level to his team and Trout was worth 7.4 WAR. You still can’t get around the idea that not all wins are created equal. A win that puts a team in the playoffs unquestionably has greater value than one that puts a team into third place. Arguably, a win that gives a team the division title is greater than one that merely puts a team into the playoffs in a wild card spot, given the new playoff format.
I love sabermetrics. I preach them and extol their virtues to whomever will listen. In particular, I love wOBA. But in the context of the MVP award, I think that certain stats can be taken out of context. I am happy to see older concepts being challenged by the use of advanced metrics. I’m glad to see the mainstream media being forced to learn these concepts, and soon they will be experts their usage and the way that performance is valued will evolve.
In 2013, we have three great performances by three great players. One or two of them might be headed to the playoffs, but Mike Trout will not. Therefore, I submit that, once again, Mike Trout is not the most valuable player to his team in the American League. That honor, so far this season, goes to Miguel Cabrera.