Friday, October 12, 2012

Criteria Carousel

The AL MVP race is one of the closest of all-time.  But before deciding who should win, shouldn’t we decide what it really means to be the MVP?  The problem I have with this race is the same problem I have with any MVP race: arbitrary criteria.  The reasoning for why someone's a MVP changes.  Sometimes it's the "best player on the best team" scenario.  Sometimes it's the "he's the best player" reasoning. And sometimes it's the "he carried his team to the playoffs" rationale.  The reasoning for a given player, in a given year, is completely arbitrary.  In 2002, Miguel Tejada appeared to win the MVP as "the best player on the best team."  By regular or advanced stats, A-Rod was the better player.  He had more HRs, more RBIs, better OBP, better fielding percentage, a greater range factor, and more Wins Above Replacement (8-10 for A-Rod compared to 4-5 for Tejada).  A-Rod was a Silver Slugger and a Gold Glove.  It appears the only thing Tejada had on him was that his team won 103 games (compared to 72 for A-Rod).  In 2003, A-Rod won the MVP.  His numbers were slightly down from the year before, but he still got a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove.  But how did his team do?  Not better.  They only won 71 games that year.  So apparently he was the MVP as "the best player."  In 2010, Joey Votto and Albert Pujols had very similar stats.  Advanced stats gave Pujols the slight edge, and he also beat out Votto for the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove.  Who won MVP?  Votto, because he "carried his team to the playoffs."  Pujols was a better hitter and defender, just not more valuable?  How are we supposed to accurately judge who's the MVP, when the reasoning is not even consistent?

This is precisely the problem with this year's AL MVP debate.  People touting Cabrera as the MVP as "the player that carried his team," while others are saying that Trout is "the best player."  So who's the MVP?  Is it "player that carried his team," like in 2010?  Or is it "best player," like it was in 2003?  Who knows which side will win out this year, so let's examine both.

Best player:
Both players have strong cases.  There are, however, two words that shouldn't matter: Triple Crown.  Now I'm not saying that Cabrera winning the Triple Crown isn't impressive.  Of course it is.  But this is about value.  If Josh Hamilton would've hit two more HRs this year, would that have affected Cabrera's value to the Tigers in any way?  No.  The production Cabrera provided for the Tigers is the value he brought.  Hamilton hitting two more HRs wouldn't have taken away from Cabrera's production.  He wouldn't have helped the Tigers less, because Hamilton hit two more HRs.  In other words, the value Cabrera brought to the team is independent from the award.

Not to mention that Triple Crown is an achievement of relatively superficial stats, in terms of value.  Batting average isn't as important as On-base percentage and RBIs are circumstantial.  Trout may have hit slightly less, but he got on-base more frequently (.399 compared to .393).  And when I say RBIs are circumstantial, I mean that they're influenced by your teammates and where you hit in the lineup.  You don't control how frequently your teammates get on-base ahead of you.  Cabrera had more RBIs, but that's to be expected.  Trout hits leadoff, while Cabrera hits third.  Check the splits for both guys and you'll see that Cabrera had more at-bats with runners on, as well as runners in scoring position.  Cabrera had 174 at-bats with RISP.  Trout had 111.  In those 111, Trout had 53 RBIs.  At that rate, Trout would've had 83 RBIs (in 174 at-bats).  That means that if Trout had as many opportunities to drive in runs as Cabrera, he would've had an extra 30 RBIs.  Add those 30 to his actual 83 and he would've had 113.  Not that far off from Cabrera's 139.

Since RBIs are team dependent, let's try and isolate what Cabrera and Trout did on their own. Apart from driving people in, the best thing a hitter can do is score themselves (a HR) or get in scoring position (double, triple, or stealing a base).  Cabrera hit 44 HRs, 40 doubles, no triples, and stole 4 bases.  So Cabrera scored or put himself in scoring position on 88 occasions.  Trout had 30 HRs, 27 doubles, 8 triples, and stole 49 bases, which means he scored or put himself in scoring position on 114 occasions.  Which one is more valuable?

If you go by advanced stats, Trout was the better offensive player.  According to Baseball-Reference, Trout was worth 8.6 offensive Wins Above Replacement and Cabrera was worth 6.9.  By the way, I think it's funny that people think advanced stats (like WAR) are inaccurate or faulty, but would use the Triple Crown as evidence.  One final thing on that: Cabrera may only be the 10th guy to win the Triple Crown in the AL, but Trout is only the third player ever to hit 30 HRs and steal at least 49 bases in a season. 

The final point for Trout is defense.  Baseball-reference had Cabrera worth -0.2 defensive Wins Above Replacement, while Trout was worth 2.2.  Trout was one of the best center fielders in baseball.  The guy literally robbed multiple HRs.  Offense, defense, baserunning.  The guy did it all.  Dig deeper than HRs and RBIs and you will see that Mike Trout wasn't just the best player in the AL, he was the best player in baseball.

Carried his team to the playoffs:
Not only do we not know which year this will be the decisive factor in a MVP race, we don't even know what this really means.  Shouldn't there be a more nuanced reasoning than one team making the playoffs and the other one not?  Acting like a team making the playoffs is automatically significant ignores the strength of the division.  How can you fault Trout for the Angels not making the playoffs, when they play in a tougher division?   The Angels had a .556 winning percentage against the AL Central and a .526 winning percentage against the West.  The Tigers had a .597 winning percentage against the Central and a .394 winning percentage against the West.  The West was much tougher than the Central.

Not only did the Angels have a tougher schedule, they still finished a game ahead of the Tigers.  If they switched divisions, Cabrera wouldn't be in the playoffs.  If the playoffs didn't require a representative from every division, Cabrera wouldn't be in the playoffs.  The Tigers needed a soft division and a technicality to make the playoffs; not Cabrera "carrying them."  "Carrying his team to the playoffs" is a faulty way to determine the MVP, unless they're from the same division (and even then it's not necessarily conclusive).  Something so circumstantial shouldn't be used to determine a players' value.  Trout's not the MVP because he played in a tougher division?  That doesn't make sense.

Forget about the technicality of the playoffs and focus on what they players actually did.  Mike Trout was worth 10 WAR.  Cabrera was worth 7.  Mike Trout's job was to score runs.  He did that better than anyone in the league (129).  Miguel Cabrera's job was to drive in runs.  He did that better than anyone in the league (139).  That's a difference of only 10 runs (less if you factor in the literal runs Trout saved).  This, in spite of the difference in the level of competition.  The teams in Cabrera's division gave up an average of 775 runs.  The teams in Trout's division gave up an average of  657.  That's essentially the difference between playing a team that gives up the 5th most runs in the AL and the 11th most runs.  Yet Trout was basically as productive at his job as Cabrera was at his.  And if you still insist on tying their value to their team's record, look at how their teams performed; not whether they made the playoffs.  When Trout started, the Angels had a .580 winning percentage.  When Cabrera started, the Tigers had a .540 winning percentage.  That's the difference between a 94-win team and an 88-win team.  You tell me who's more valuable.

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