The Trout vs Cabrera debate. Who's your winner. Please credit original photos Jim Cowsert-US PRESSWIRE and Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Your Most Valuable Player Choice Depends How You Define It

What Does Most Valuable Mean?

Value is a relative term but it essentially is a measure of worth. That can be monetary worth or  worth based talent, leadership, need; any number of things. How valuable something is can be measured by how important it is the the possessor.  A sports car has more value on the market than the average boring hatchback but if you’re most frequent and demanding need is hauling two kids and a dog – and the wife, mustn’t forget her – on a daily basis the hatchback is more valuable. So it is in this case. Mike Trout had an amazing rookie year. He put up numbers no rookie has ever matched and included eye-popping defense and exciting speed on the bases and ability to hit. Miguel Cabrera wasn’t particularly spectacular on a day to day basis. He hit some big home runs and was particularly hard to get out this year but the talk – at least until September – was all about others including Trout. In the end of course Cabrera won the triple crown, a series of bests that rarely come to one player and one many thought would never be achieved again because of the way pitchers are used today. It includes however the much maligned RBI title, something modern sabremetric types say means little. I’m not going to join that debate here, that’s for another time.

Essentially those who believe Mike Trout should have been AL MVP are voting on the leagues best player while the Cabrera clan voted for the man who led his team to the World Series although they didn’t know that at the time of voting.  The Trout camp essentially says context is unimportant, look at the numbers. The Cabrera side say numbers are nice but what did he mean to his team? Or at least that’s what I hear then saying through all the noise each side is making.  The majority of discussions have been amicable.  What’s sad is the way the a segment of the sabremetirc side of the argument are whining like babies who had their candy stolen. They demand you acknowledge their intellectual and mathematical superiority and will call you all sorts of names if you don’t convert.  Another segment is what I refer to as in the sabremetric intelligencia.  They are more aloof from the fray, looking down on everyone who doesn’t agree as uninformed, old fashioned or downright stupid. The whole thing reminds me of a presidential campaign, both sides have valid points but those who try to reconcile them are drowned out or ignored.  Without getting into obscure numbers – there are numbers, every baseball discussion has them but not many I promise -  let me see if I can get attacked by both sides by taking a quick look at context.

The Angels and Mike Trout

In 2011 the Angels finished second in the AL West behind the Rangers. In center field they had Peter Bourjos ;.271/.327/.438, 4.8 rWAR, UZR 7.5, UZR/150 8.1.  An above average player by most accounts in 2011, a fact supported by those numbers. They went into the post season looking for both offense and pitching and succeeded in adding Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson to answer those needs. They also needed a closer but having thrown the GNP of a small country at a couple of players chose not to go after one. They also chose not to start 2012 with Mike Trout in center because they felt that Bourjos was good enough and Trout was young – perhaps not wanting to make him a super two was part of it but I’ve not seen anyone who admits that.

The Angels and Bourjos started slowly as did new signings Pujols and Wilson. As a result the team played below 500 ball in April (8-15.) They brought up Trout in May, Pujols began to hit and the Angels took off playing .621 ball in May and .654 in June. July saw them slip to .538 ball and August was worse at .464. The slump was so deep that not even .667 ball in September could get them to a playoff spot. They once again the finished in third behind the As and collapsing Rangers.

While the Angels played in a tougher division on paper they looked to be one of the season powerhouses. In their division however the Angels were only three games over 500. Against the statistically weaker central they were five games over 500 (they played 500 ball against the Tigers) and against the East two games over. Though season saw them were shut out 13 times,  nine of those were before the All Star break. Still they finished the first half 10 games over 500.  The second half saw them end seven games over 500 even though they scored 11 more runs in 10 fewer games.  The Angels scored plenty of runs – they were third in the AL behind Texas and  New York and 50 runs ahead of Oakland – and they had led in enough games to offer their bullpen 60 save opportunities.  The Angel bullpen tied with Boston’s as the AL’s worst, blowing 22 of 60 save opportunities and losing 20 games as a group. They could easily have won their division by up to 10 games and been a 100 win team if their bullpen could have held a lead.

The Tigers and Miguel Cabrera

The Tigers had a different season, they were supposed to run away with the Central but they didn’t. They added Prince Fielder’s bat  after Victor Martinez went down with a season ending injury and made the questionable defensive move of sending Cabrera back to his old stomping ground at third base. Their starting pitching – thought to be solid – was inconsistent at best and their bullpen wasn’t much better than the Angels’ blowing 16 saves in 56 opportunities. They spent the first half trailing the Indians and most of the second looking up at the White Sox. What kept them in with a chance was their bats.

The Tigers were never more than six games back and  they were in with a chance in most games as the bats were rarely quiet in 2012; they were shut out only twice all season. The bat making the most noise for the Tigers and in baseball in general was the one belonging to Miguel Cabrera. The triple Crown is not something I’m discussing in this because the title isn’t really why he got the votes he got. One under publicized stat of Miggy’s year – at least I never heard it mentioned in so many words- was his 205 hits. To win a batting title you usually need 200 + hits but when most think of Cabrera they think homer.   Many of his hits – homers included of course – were in critical situations and changed the game.

Tigers Cabrera Fielder
Game tying hits 49 10 4
Go ahead hits 140 31 27

Those are pretty good numbers. In fact the closest an American League player got to Miggy’s 41 was Josh Willingham and Adam Jones who both had 34 tying or go ahead hits. Willingham was also second to Cabrera in go ahead hits with 28. I included Prince Fielder in the table because some say he was just as important as Cabrera. It’s pretty clear that without Fielder the Tigers don’t reach the post season and it’s true he had a superb year and was extremely valuable.  However, Cabrera’s year was better in every category except OBP where he trailed Fielder by .019 and we are talking about most valuable.

WAR: What Is It Good For

Edwin Starr was wrong, the WAR we discuss is good for something. It helps quantify what a player has done and gives a basis for projecting what the future might hold for that player.  It compares all players to a replacement player who does the job but adds nothing above that to the team. That makes sense because to compare players in similar but different environments you have to establish common ground; a baseline. Does WAR – whatever flavor you choose – define the best player in the game? It comes very close to doing so at worst. Does it determine what is lost if a player has to be replaced by a bench player? No, not directly.

My WAR is bigger than your WAR

Mike Trout had the highest  WAR in the league and was theoretically ~ 3 wins better than Miggy this year. So what?  So nothing until you figure who had the largest relative value for their team. Here’s one logical way of doing that.

1) Would losing Trout have cost the Angels 10 victories and if so does it matter? No, not if you believe the numbers. Their replacement for Trout  is not a 0 WAR  minor league player, it’s Peter Bourjos. Bourjos played to a 4.8 or 4.5 -depending on your favorite flavor again- WAR in 2011. The theoretical difference between the two is roughly 5.5 so that’s the theoretical difference in games won. Someone argued that Bourjos WAR numbers were heavily defensively skewed. First of all that isn’t correct and secondly so what? WAR is a composite that produces a result. In short WAR is WAR in matching positions. You can’t pick and choose how you interpret it to suit your belief. In any event the difference in oWAR between the two men is 5.5 so there’s no change in the result for the team. The next argument was that Bourjos couldn’t be expected to reproduce 2011 numbers. Sorry, Bill James projected him at .267/.317/.420, that’s very close to his 2011.  So the difference is theoretically 5 or 6 games and those 5 or 6 games make no difference to the end result. The Angels still finish third.

2) Would losing Cabrera have cost the Tigers 7 victories and if so would it matter? Yes at least 7 and the post season would vanish as well. Replacing Cabrera with anyone on the Tigers roster, within their organization, available for trade or that might logically have been available at a price they could have paid costs the Tigers production that could not replace with any single player.  They would have needed someone like David Wright on their bench to come close. The best player actually available during the season at that spot, Kevin Youkilis,  played to a 1.3 WAR on both scales, a loss of 6 games. Even if the cost is just three games they end up tied with the White Sox at best.

The missing link for the Angels wasn’t offense, it was a closer. Replacing the back of the Angels disastrous bullpen with a good closer cuts those 22 blown saves in half and even with Bourjos theoretical five game negative difference, the Angels win the West without Trout.

That’s A Wrap

At least for me in the long form of a post.  I’ll certainly discuss anything with anyone but beware of bending a stat to your personal interpretation of it. As Tyler Kepner pointed out during the discussion over that year’s MVP, the letter sent to BBWA members seeking their vote starts off by saying;

“There is no clear-cut definition of what most valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the most valuable player in each league to his team.”

He goes on to explain that:

“The letter specifies that the winner need not come from a playoff team. It says that pitchers and designated hitters are eligible, and that voters should consider offense, defense, number of games played, character, disposition, loyalty and effort.”

In other words you are entitled to believe that the MVP is secretly a ballot on the best player in the league and vote that way based on the highest WAR for an everyday player.

Others – including myself – are entitled to believe that individual words have meaning that should be taken in context with events.  To me  “Most Valuable” isn’t the most expensive or the player,  the player with the most talent or wow value, though those things do often coincide. The most valuable player is the man who is most important to a team’s success in a successful year. Simply putting up big numbers in a metaphorical vacuum isn’t enough; Ted Williams won the triple crown in 1942 but wasn’t the MVP.

All of the if’s and buts about who plays where and against whom (if the Angels were in the Central etc.) are moot. Context here shows that the AL West race would most probably have ended the same way if Mike Trout was golfing while no one disputes that the Tigers would not have made the playoffs without Cabrera’s superb season. While I hope Trout has a long and success filled career ahead, Miguel Cabrera was the MVP this year.

I hope as well that the shrill voices that scream abuse at those they disagree with moderate their tone.  One of the things I learned early on was that as the volume of your voice goes up the volume of the listeners ears goes down. Eventually you’re screaming but no one hears you because you’re too obnoxious to listen to even when you are correct.  A spirited debate can be fun and educational.  Personal attacks and name calling have no business in such a debate, nor do accusations of hate. Those are all distractions thrown out by people who have no facts to offer for their side of the debate/discussion/chat. Believe what you wish, vote as you see fit but,  please keep things in perspective. This is baseball, it’s supposed to be fun.

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  • Lee Trocinski

    I’ll start with the Angels’ record vs. the AL Central. The Angels were 2-5 against the AL Central before Trout was called up during a series with the Indians. If you adjust the record against the Central with Trout, it looks more dominating at 23-15, closer to showing the weakness of the Central.

    Next, you seem to undervaluing the Tigers’ starting rotation. The “inconsistent” bunch finished with a 3.76 ERA and 3.46 FIP, tops in the majors in fWAR and top 5 in rWAR. Verlander was again the best pitcher in the game this year, while Scherzer and Fister were tremendous in the 2-3 spots. Smyly and Sanchez comined for around 3 WAR, while Porcello was about average, with his high BABIP partially due to having such a poor infield defense.

    Game-tying and game-winning hits are very deceiving, as they can happen in the first inning or the ninth. Also, batting order position makes a lot of difference, as Trout most likely had at least 25% less chances to deliver in that situation. Also, part of the reason Prince had less than Cabrera was due to IBBs, since almost any sane person would rather face Delmon Young instead of Prince. I would still say Cabrera was more valuable than Fielder though. Trout’s WPA lead over Cabrera should also dispell any context argument.

    Bourjos does provide a sticky issue in this evaluation. Bill James is known as the most optimistic projection system, so you have to knock that down a bit. ZiPS had Bourjos at .261/.309/.412 for last year, a bit below average. He was worth +10.7 runs at the plate in ’11, so you could cut at least a win off his projected WAR. I’d also argue that Bourjos shouldn’t have been the one Trout replaced, as near-replacement level Vernon Wells still got more than enough time in LF. You can’t fault Trout for Scioscia not knowing who to bench.

    If you want to use that argument, Cano would have been just as valuable as Cabrera. He was also a 7 WAR player with no one in the organization close to being able to fill that role. If you’re going to use roster construction as criteria, you may as well start using salary. Trout only cost the minimum, while Cabrera cost over $20M for similar or worse production. I don’t think either one should be used, so I would disregard that section.

    Your bullpen argument goes both ways. You’re right about the Angels winning the division without Trout if the bullpen secures half the blown saves. The Tigers would have also won 6 more games if their bullpen secures 82% of save opportunities, so Cabrera’s 7 wins wouldn’t cost them the divison. The problem is a blown save doesn’t necessarily mean a loss, so we would have to dig deeper to see the results of those games before making such an inference.

    I don’t call this an egregious vote (Juan Gonzalez in ’96 and ’98, for example), but I see the margin being large enough to say it is incorrect. The playoff stipulation confuses me. Saying the Angels would have been in 3rd without Trout sounds like people imply he had no value at all, and every good player on a playoff team is more valuable than him. I don’t mind it as a tiebreaker (Braun vs. Kemp last year), but not when the difference in production is significant.

    • fireboss

      I think you miss my point. Getting down in the weeds with individual stats blurs muddy’s the waters that’s why I used so few and the ones I used were designed to show how the teams would have fared without the two players. The whole post was designed to point out that the superb play of Trout, and no one denies it was outstanding and at times remarkable, did not change the final result. The Angels still finish where they finished. The only argument may be that he kept them from finishing behind the Mariners and even with 10 additional losses they end up ahead of the Ms in third. The same cannot be said for the Tigers. Whatever you think of their competition the Tigers won their division and that doesn’t happen without Cabrera. The only result that matters for a team is where they finish at the end of the season. I’d argue that getting to the post season is more significant that not finishing in fourth. The real value was provided to the team that wasn’t watching the post season at home with the kids. Of course as I said if you’re voting for the man with the best stats and his value to his team is irrelevant that’s fine too just declare it the best player award.

      Tiger pitching. I didn’t want to get into individual records thus the generalization but i will address some of that. FIP and xFIP didn’t happen what happened and thus didn’t affect wins and losses. Porcello’s ERA was 6.45 , 4.41, 3.0, 5.40, 4.58, 4.74. Fister wasn’t as rocky, he missed April but was 3.52, 5.51, 3.60 and kept dropping in August and Sept so I guess one up then down. Scherzer started at 7.77 but got it under control by the end of May. Smyly was 1.23, 4.96, 8.56, 4.09, 2.84 1.98. Only Verlander was predictable and consistent his numbers and the final months of Smyly and Fister helped them overcome the awful months early on where they we struggling to play 500 ball. They went out and got Anibal Sanchez to strengthen it at the break and after one start he did. But Aside from the big V and only Scherzer was dependable month to month. The bullpen was pretty bad too Leyland left Verlander in games because he knew the bridge to Papa Grande was shaky and so was papa. But again the point is not that you can prove statistically that they pitched well the point is that they weren’t what they were supposed to be and the Tigers without Cabrera are out of the race in July.
      The go ahead hit because he gets more chances red herring is a basic philosophical disconnect between stats guys and those that play. Cabrera gets more chances because the lineup is built so he gets more chances than other because he thrives in that spot and delivers more often than others. Trout will eventually be in the same spot if he continues as he started out. So I agree he gets more chances but he also delivered more often.
      Bourjos isn’t sticky unless you want him to be. Saying one of the most successful managers in the majors doesn’t know who to play and who to bench is a little over the top. I expect Scoscia has his reasons for playing Wells instead of Bourjos but it makes no difference to the position of post. We can only look at what did happen not what might have been. If he had they might have won as you said but he didn’t and they didn’t. Bill James projections were the ones on Fangraphs and he is a recognized expert. You of course get tot choose your expert but the premise is the same. Five games, six games or ten more games lost, the Angels finish in third.

      Cano was a candidate as I recall and would have had more support if the Tigers hadn’t been so bad and Cabrera so good. I could support Cano. Salary has no part deciding who was MV in any given year. While the best players usually get paid more players like Heyward or Stanton could easily be MVP while earning the minimum. The BBWA letter doesn’t mention salary as a factor but voters can do whatever they want. I don’t consider it a factor.
      The blown saves are an indicator of a bad bullpen than lost 20 games. If it’s a better pen and loses 15 the Angels win. But they didn’t.
      The playoff situation isn’t a factor as such. But as I said earlier when I discussed the potential argument that Trout kept them out of last place. It may be true but getting a team to first place was in the case harder and the only folks that care that you stayed out of last place are the two teams and their fans.
      I think the voters did a pretty good job/. The folks who are screaming and whining about it harden the resolve of those they slander and reduce their future influence in such votes.
      The answer is longer than the post and as I said I respect your position if that Trout was the best player in the league but his play p- as good as it was – added little value to the teams end result.

      • Lee Trocinski

        As you said, I think two separate awards should probably be given, due to the vague nature of the description. Clearly state that the MVP “has the most impact on a team that made the playoffs” or something like that. Also have a player of the year for overall production, no matter the team result. Right now, the MVP is thought of as the best player in retrospect, but voted with the team-dependent context. That divergence makes the award deceiving, and hopefully some clear language will help solve that problem.

        • fireboss

          I guess you only saw half the post. I expect there will be changes but the BBWA is resistant to such things. I could support a Willie Mays NL best player and A Mickey Mantle AL best player. Now all we need is someone who cares what I support :)