Centerfielder Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels* received only 6 of 28 first place votes for the American League's Most Valuable Player Award.
How far we've come.
I've shouted from the rooftops (and on Twitter) for months that Trout was clearly the most deserving player of the MVP, not Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera. I'm by no means the only disciple of the cause—virtually all baseball media with even the slimmest recognition of advanced statistics have championed Trout. Even ESPN's crew of panelists—which by no means has universally accepted Sabermetrics—gave Trout 21 first-place votes to Cabrera's 7.
Those who follow political news closely will see a lot of familiarity with the collective work of many baseball writers: it's absolute garbage. There's also one more similarity to make: both political analysis and baseball writing is becoming more informed, helpful and relevant. Maybe the BBWAA crew still controls award voting (and while we're at it, how did Buck Showalter not win AL Manager of the Year?), but I can guarantee you that young baseball fans like myself don't even bother reading their work. Their days are numbered, because we'd rather read Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs—publications that rely not on "gut" and "grit" but facts. And when I want political news, I turn to Nate Silver or a whole slew of logic-based pundits, not blithering nonsense offered by Wolf Blitzer and his ilk.
Trout should have won the MVP. Even conceding that his offense was not as impressive as Cabrera's—not a universal opinion —Trout's contributions in defense and baserunning are simply stratospheric compared to Cabrera's faults in these areas. Let's (briefly) run down the biggest arguments in Cabrera's favor:
- He won the Triple Crown: Yes, he did win the first Triple Crown in 45 years. But everything we know about baseball now is that batting average and especially RBIs are insufficient indicators of a player's offensive worth. For one, batting average is simply a worse stat than on-base percentage (which Trout bettered Cabrera in). There is no legitimate argument to the contrary. The job of a hitter is to not make an out, i.e., get on base. Penalizing walks at the expense of hits is preposterous. RBIs are even worse: a stat massively skewed by team strength and position in the lineup should not be a determinant on who was the best player in the league in any given season. And what if Trout had three more hits , or Curtis Granderson or Josh Hamilton had hit two more home runs —depriving Cabrera of the Triple Crown? Why is the performance of other players relevant to the greatness of another player's individual season?
- Cabrera's team made the playoffs, whereas Trout's team didn't: True. But also true is that the Angels won one more regular-season game than the Tigers, in a division that was infinitely stronger than the abysmal AL Central (and I would know, since the Indians are my cursedly-beloved favorite team). The AL West's collective winning percentage versus the rest of the AL was 55.5 percent, compared to the AL Central's 42.7 percent. Moreover, the teams in the AL Central (beside the Tigers) had the 9th, 10th, 13th and 14th best team ERAs in the league, while the other teams in the AL West had the 2nd, 4th, and 7th best team ERAs.
- Trout slumped when it counted: No. Just, no, no, no, no. Cabrera boosters point at Trout's .257 batting average in September as proof he collapsed, and thus the Angels didn't make the playoffs. Unfortunately for their case, Trout's OPS was .900 in September/October—and a top-shelf defensive centerfielder with a career OPS of .900 who is also an excellent baserunner would be a first-tier Hall of Famer, easily.
This is not to say that Cabrera's season was not an MVP-caliber season. Far from it, in fact. For really, really egregious examples of MVP winners, we should look at statistics from four glaring cases in the last 16 years (using Baseball Reference WAR, instead of FanGraphs or Baseball Prospectus, for simplicity.):
- 1996: Juan Gonzalez: Finished 7th in OPS, 11th in OPS+ and 17th in WAR.
- 1998: Juan Gonzalez: Finished 2nd in OPS, 9th in OPS+ and 15th in WAR.
- 1999: Ivan Rodriguez: Finished 13th in OPS, 24th in OPS+ and 7th in WAR. Note that this is a special year since no offensive player should have won, since Pedro Martinez had one of the greatest pitcher seasons of all time—though his 2000 season was even better!
- 2006: Justin Morneau: Finished 8th in OPS, 8th in OPS+ and 19th in WAR (well behind two of his own teammates).
Thankfully advanced statistics have become popular enough that decisions like those four above will never happen again. (And yes, perception really has changed that much since 2006.)
Mitch Albom** presented today a stellar flat-earth case for why we should be happy decisions like the four listed above are becoming less frequent. For the Detroit Free Press he wrote:
Statistics geeks insisted Cabrera was less worthy than Angels rookie centerfielder Mike Trout. Not because Trout's traditional baseball numbers were better. They weren't. Cabrera had more home runs (44), more runs batted in (139) and a better batting average (.330) than Trout and everyone else in the American League. It gave him the sport's first Triple Crown in 45 years.
But Trout excelled in the kind of numbers that weren't even considered a few years ago, mostly because A) They were impossible to measure, and B) Nobody gave a hoot.
Today, every stat matters. There is no end to the appetite for categories -- from OBP to OPS to WAR. I mean, OMG! The number of triples hit while wearing a certain-colored underwear is probably being measured as we speak.
So in areas such as "how many Cabrera home runs would have gone out in Angel Stadium of Anaheim" or "batting average when leading off an inning" or "Win Probability Added," Trout had the edge. At least this is what we were told.
I mean, did you do the math? I didn't. I like to actually see the sun once in a while.
How about the fact that Cabrera's team made the playoffs and Trout's did not? ("Yes," countered Team Trout, "but the Angels actually won more games.") How about the fact that Cabrera played the whole season while Trout started his in the minors? ("Yes," said the Trout Shouters, "but the Angels won a greater percentage with Trout than Detroit did with Cabrera.")
Disregard Albom's obvious trolling. Here's what I really don't understand: Albom countered his own arguments and showed how wrong they are. And yet he thinks he's helping his case?
Which, by the way, speaks to a larger issue about baseball. It is simply being saturated with situational statistics. What other sport keeps coming up with new categories to watch the same game? A box score now reads like an annual report. And this WAR statistic -- which measures the number of wins a player gives his team versus a replacement player of minor league/bench talent (honestly, who comes up with this stuff?) -- is another way of declaring, "Nerds win!"
We need to slow down the shoveling of raw data into the "what can we come up with next?" machine. It is actually creating a divide between those who like to watch the game of baseball and those who want to reduce it to binary code.
To that end, Cabrera's winning was actually a bell ring for the old school. There is also an element of tradition here. The last three Triple Crown winners were also voted as MVP.
Yes, and yet since voting for the MVP began in 1931, nine players have won the Triple Crown. Only five of them won the MVP. Albom, whose entire article is one long screed against statistics, cherry-picks his own—deliberately incomplete—to use.
There's no doubt I'm weird about this: If given the choice between watching a random baseball game (that is, teams I have no interest in) or looking at stats online for three hours, I will choose the stats. Does this mean I not like baseball, that my fandom is any less serious than someone who voraciously watches hundreds of games a year? No, of course not (and I do, of course, pay very close attention to my preferred teams***). If anything, my appreciation of advanced statistics gives me greater overall interest in the game than I would otherwise have, since it has largely been pointless to follow the Indians past-July since 2007. Is a traditionalist who watches many more games a year a bigger baseball fan than someone who spends—literally—dozens of hours per year scouring minor league statistics?****
Mitch Albom reads more like a raving Romney supporter, swearing the polls are wrong and that everything he believes is right, than a sound, rational, informed person. Thankfully, his kind are fading, fast.
*Also, it should be mentioned that Trout's team name literally translates to, "The Angels Angels."
**Totally unrelated side note, but Mitch Albom was a speaker while I was a member of the University of Iowa Lecture Committee, and it was universally acknowledged among committee members that he was a complete ass.
***It feels very, very odd for me to make that plural, but I'd be lying to myself if I said I didn't honestly like the Nationals (though not nearly as much) as well as my Indians.
****And my friends can attest to this, given my incessant praise of, for example, Rays pitcher Matt Moore's strikeout rates in the Minors ("No, seriously, look at his K rates!").