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.
|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.