Keeping Score

Miguel Cabrera Wins Historic Triple Crown. But Is He the Best Player in Baseball?

According to some advanced analytics, Mike Trout deserves the MVP award over Miguel Cabrera, despite Cabrera's possible Triple Crown. Should we trust these numbers?

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REUTERS/Dave Kaup

Detroit Tigers Miguel Cabrera (L) bumps fists with designated hitter Delmon Young after hitting a solo home run against the Kansas City Royals in the sixth inning solo home run in their MLB American League baseball game in Kansas City, Missouri October 1, 2012.

For the first time in 45 years, baseball has a Triple Crown winner. Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera finished the regular season tops in the American League in batting average — .330, four points ahead of Los Angeles Angels rookie sensation Mike Trout, who hit .326 — home runs — 44, one more than Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers and Curtis Granderson of the New York Yankees — and RBI – 139, which is 11 ahead of Hamilton. No player had won baseball’s Triple Crown, and led his respective league in batting average, home runs, and RBI over a single season, since Carl Yastrzemski did it, with the Boston Red Sox, back in 1967.

But despite this epic, historic accomplishment, Cabrera’s performance has sparked an intriguing intellectual debate: did Cabrera actually have a better season than Trout, the center field phenom for the Angels? Is he more deserving of the American League MVP award?  According to many scholars of sabermetrics — otherwise known as the “stat geeks” — the answer is a pretty convincing no.

This stance has ticked off some old-school baseball observers. In a New York Daily News column on Sunday, veteran scribe Bill Madden — a Hall of Famer — took a staple of sabermetrics, a stat called Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, to task. WAR attempts quantify a player’s overall value. Wrote Madden:

I’m very perplexed with a lot of my baseball writing brethren. Miguel Cabrera and R.A. Dickey have each respectively had phenomenal seasons, MVP and Cy Young-worthy seasons — seasons we should be celebrating. But instead many scribes and bloggers across the country have taken to disparaging them, especially Cabrera who has fallen victim to that nebulous (I would say ludicrous) new-age sabermetric stat called WAR.

 Trout holds a significant edge over Cabrera in WAR: 10.4 to 7.2, according to FanGraphs, the baseball analytics site (in fact, Robinson Cano of the New York Yankees also has a higher WAR than Cabrera, at 7.7, according to FanGraphs). WAR, which attempts to measure how many more wins a player is worth than a low-level replacement, not only accounts for hitting statistics, where Cabrera and Trout are comparable, but for fielding and defensive prowess, where Trout has a significant edge over the slow-footed Cabrera. That explains Trout’s significant WAR advantage over Cabrera.

(MORE: The 2012 Boston Red Sox – Reflections On An Epic Fail)

Writes Madden:

I certainly get that Trout’s speed is an important component in this debate. But this growing infatuation with WAR (wins above replacement) is, in my opinion, turning baseball into a inhuman board game. This is a stat even its inventors can’t agree on an established formula, other than when all of these various factors of offense and defense are put into a blender and shaken well, out comes the player’s value to a team in wins above and beyond the “replacement” value of a player taken off the waiver wire for nothing. In other words, one big hypothetical … How do you vote on a stat nobody knows how to calculate? …  When it comes to almighty WAR, I agree with soul man Edwin Starr: “War, huh, yeah. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Uh-huh.”

Look, I’m no sabermetrician. Far from it. And I’m not sure exactly how many baseball writers and pundits and front office personnel and fans are still so dismissive of analytics that they’d agree with Madden’s assertion that WAR is good for “absolutely nothing.”  (Although while driving around on Monday night, I heard veteran New York Mets broadcaster Howie Rose — one of my favorites — praising Madden’s stance). But please, can we put a permanent stop to stat bashing? It’s counterproductive, and misses the point.

These newfangled stats are not religion. Most sabermetrics types don’t declare that they are. “They aren’t the end-all, be-all,” says Jim Furtado, owner of baseballthinkfactory.com. Furtado recognizes the limitations of WAR. “But that doesn’t mean you should just dismiss them,” he says. Advanced stats don’t, as Madden writes, turn “baseball into an inhuman board game.” They just offer a different way of looking at the sport. In fact, sabermetrics makes watching, and thinking about, baseball more enriching and fun.

Madden’s passion for Cabrera is commendable, and very understandable. He’s had an amazing year. But calling WAR “ludicrous” is just wrong. Yes, there are slight differences in the formulas. But they account for decimal-point swings. Any way you cut it, Trout beats Cabrera. He’s at 10.4 to 7.2 on FanGraphs, and 10.7 to 6.9 at Baseballreference.com, another highly-respected analytics site.

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And while the WAR formulas are complicated, and mysterious, they’re not entirely hypothetical. Dave Cameron, managing editor of FanGraphs, point outs that while the valuation of the replacement player is indeed hypothetical, it’s not relevant to the Cabrera vs. Trout debate, since they are both are being compared to the same baseline replacement player. On offense, WAR measures raw production. Walks, singles, doubles, triples, home runs, and stolen bases are all assigned values, based on the number of runs each outcome has produced historically. The more home runs you hit, for example, the better your score. Nothing hypothetical about that.

WAR also gives players credit for fielding batted balls that average fielders can’t get to, for preventing runners from advancing an extra base because of their arms, and for using speed to stay out of double plays, or advance from first base to third base on a single. These defense and speed metrics are more subjective than the hitting ones. But here, the stats just back up the eyeballs. Trout is a superior fielder, and much faster on the base paths, than Cabrera. So he saved more runs, and created more runs, than Cabrera in these categories.

You can certainly argue that speed and defense shouldn’t be valued as much as performance at the plate. But that doesn’t mean WAR is based on some kind of voodoo.

WAR tries to strip out statistics that depend on events beyond a player’s control. For example, RBI don’t figure into the formula: sure, Cabrera has 139 RBI, to Trout’s 83. But Trout is a leadoff hitter, so he has fewer opportunities to drive players home. (Plus, according to Cameron, Cabrera and Trout have driven in a similar percentage of total base runners). In WAR, a solo home run is worth as much as a grand-slam, since a player surrounded by good hitters might have more opportunities to hit grand slams than a players whose teammates stink at getting on base.

You may believe that a player should be given more credit for taking advantage of the opportunities in front of him, for coming through in the “clutch” more than others. But you have to acknowledge that the WAR’s logic — the number of “clutch” opportunities depends on the performance of others, so these hits shouldn’t be overvalued — at least has some merit.

For a smart, rigorous, yet readable case for Trout over Cabrera — one that avoids getting bogged down in WAR formulas — check out Cameron’s essay here. (Though it’s dated September 19, Cameron says the conclusions still hold up). Cameron cautions against putting too much credence in the Triple Crown, because again, that accomplishment is dependent on other players. “If Josh Hamilton had hit a few more home runs, and finished ahead of Cabrera, that wouldn’t make Cabrera any less valuable,” says Cameron. “So why put more stock in Cabrera if Hamilton happens to hits one fewer home run than him.” Historically, Triple Crown winners aren’t automatic MVPs. Ted Williams won the Triple Crown in 1942 and 1947, and but did not win the MVP in either year.

If the Splendid Splinter can lose out, so can Miguel Cabrera. Stats like WAR are not the answer to these debates. But they belong in the discussion. Why declare war on them?

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Story updated to reflect final regular season statistics

112 comments
ChrisGreenaway
ChrisGreenaway like.author.displayName 1 Like

Screw Trout, he is going to be one of the most infamous flashes in the pan in MLB history. But he led the majors in an imaginary number. Surprised that the sabremetrics geeks, (none of which ever played the game on a field, just a playstation,) didn't just give Trout "eleventeen" for his WAR stat...

fernando
fernando like.author.displayName 1 Like

 Trout has shone with his defense, being elevated in a very complete player, but not more productive or better. because? -> very simple and in plain view: Detroit Tigers are in the playoffs. Anaheim Angels are eliminated. endpoint.American League batting leaders: M.Cabrera: hits (2nd), 2h (7th) homeruns (1st), OBP (4th), SLG (1st), OPS (1st) RBI (1st) RUNS (2nd) AVG (1st). Cabrera batting right arm. not on base for infield hit. Cabrera gets on base with large and strong hits.  It is stupid to say that stealing bases is the most important of baseball statistics. To see men running fast rather look at Usain Bolt in the 100 meters.

ChrisGreenaway
ChrisGreenaway

@fernando Don't forget, Trout only had 49 stolen bases. Not exactly Ricky Henderson numbers there. If a lead off man is going to win the MVP they need to be that much better than their closest opponent like Henderson was. (Not sure if he ever won an MVP but he was considered a first ballot hall of famer before he turned 30.) Until Trout starts putting up overwhelming numbers in stats that MATTER, he won't win awards like this. 

Hwyand
Hwyand

 if miguel cabrea doesn't win the mvp for his achievement of the triple crown then tell major league baseball to do away with the award  not only did he hit for the triple crown it helped propel his team to the division title  i understand trout had a great year but his team finished out of the playoffs..  if he doesnt win it  mlb needs another format in balloting because whoever doesn't vote for him is wasted space....

Vjimlin
Vjimlin like.author.displayName 1 Like

Two outs in the ninth tie game man on second who would you rather have?  I'm sure Detroit fans would say Cabrera, as well as Angel fans would say Trout. (BTW, I'm a Ranger fan so I have no bias on this) Both are Great, I'd take Cabrera. 

I was at the Ballpark in Arlington last week to watch Trout strike out against Nathan in a similar situation.  I'm sure he has come thru many times this year for the Angels.  I've also watched Cabrera through out the years kill my Rangers in the seventh, eighth, and ninth.

That is the bottom line, Miguel has been doing this for TEN years.  Always averaging 300, 30 hr, and 100 RBI.  In other words, Trout is new at this and had a GREAT year, unfortunately not the most valuable.  On the other hand Cabrera had a HUGE year, one that will be remembered for the next fifty years when the next triple crown comes around, unless he does it again in the future.... 

brianmouland
brianmouland

Trout is likely going to win a few MVPs his defence is outstanding however 2012 was the year of MC

Darien
Darien

Since it would be a shame if either Cabrera or Trout do not win the MVP, the best solution might be for them both to be co-MVP.

Carl
Carl

Go to the MLB web page and check the statistics of both players. Even if

you want to look at the more modern statistics, Cabrera also beat Trout

in SLG and OPS. So, there, wanna use "modern numbers"? Well, two of the

most important ones still go to Cabrera, so that together with having

won the triple crown in the "old numbers" makes him the MVP. End of

discussion.

Jeffrey L Adger Jr.
Jeffrey L Adger Jr.

CONGRATS to the best player in baseball this season!  You accomplished a great feat and you should be proud...

JDS
JDS

 HUGE congrats to the best player in baseball this season! But let's also congratulate Miguel Cabrera, because he had a phenomenal year too!

Freddie
Freddie

down the stretch

Take a peek since Aug. 1, through Monday:Cabrera: .343 with 42 runs, 19 homers, 52 RBIs, .411 on-base percentage, .676 slugging, 1.087 on-base plus slugging percentage.Trout: .284 with 49 runs, 12 homers, 28 RBIs, 17 stolen bases, .381 OBP, .500 slugging, .881 OPS.

Freddie
Freddie

This WAR is over.  Triple Crown winners in baseball number 15, the last one 45 years ago.  Trout had a great year and is a great player.  Trout will be watching Cabrera in the post-season.  I really don't get this whole debate about the MVP.  It's Cabrera hands down.  Baseball history must mean something!!

Grocgetter5
Grocgetter5

War is a joke. One thing that stands out is forgetting that there are other players than trout to consider. Like granderson's 2 HR day to push to 43 HR.he came just as close as trout did to ruin that crown. Still Cabrera deserves MVP. Take a look elsewhere. Trout is good but the league is full of possibilities

Robert Wright
Robert Wright like.author.displayName 1 Like

these are the same fetid, boring, friendless, killjoy geeks who we all hated in high school.  they are now adults and are DESTROYING any integrity to things such as the "MVP" award.  anyone who does not vote for Cabrera should be BANNED from ever voting again, and anyone placing ANY merit to these completely bogus, fake, fabricated and meaningless "statistics" should be mocked to the point of tears.  

S.Brothers
S.Brothers

Cabrera's accomplishments are amazing and venerable.  However... MVP = most valuable PLAYER.  Not, Most Valuable BATTER.  An all around baseball player? Trout wins.

Robert Wright
Robert Wright like.author.displayName 1 Like

you're an embarrassment.  which player lead his team to the playoffs? and which player failed miserably down the stretch?

J.R.
J.R. like.author.displayName 1 Like

Yes... At least this year for sure! What more stats do u need than the first triple crown since Carl in 1967...... I'm a die hard Rangers fan but come on! Give props where props r deserved... Trout is awesome hands down..... Did he get a triple crown this year??

Grocgetter5
Grocgetter5

I don't like it when pol make baseball out to be a Jerry Springer episode. Its how you play the game and nobody really knows about cabrera's life more than cabrera

Grocgetter5
Grocgetter5

On Cabrera's defense. He's no gold glove but highly impressed me at some of the plays he has made. I really didn't think he would cut it at third as the tale tells couple years ago when they had to make him dh.

Jorge
Jorge

comparing the 1940's and Ted Williams to the 2000's amp; modern day baseball is comparing apples to oranges.  The triple crown is so rare nowadays that Cabrera's season is truly a extraordinary accomplishment that should be given it's due.  If there was another player with similar numbers to Cabrera this year and he also happened to to have 50 stolen bases then that might be a fair debate.  But Cabrera is 14 HR's ahead of Trout and 56 RBI's ahead.  Despite the fewer games played and his wonderful defensive play, Trout hasn't quite had the season that Miguel has had.  In my opinion, it's Cabrera just ahead of Trout for the MVP.

Grocgetter5
Grocgetter5

If trout is a lead off hitter than analyze him as such. Leading in batting average is good but he should be leading in stolen bases, obp%,runs scored etc. That also fits in if he deserves MVP as lead off hitter

Djlevesque27
Djlevesque27

Cabrera is MVP hands down... Trout very well could have had a lot worse season if he was with the Angels on Opening Day... By his own admission he needed the extra seasoning to get ready to compete at the MLB level. Caabrera also gets bonus points for having the offensive season he has had while playing an unfamiliar position (very respectively I might add). That is no small task. Let's ask Trout to play 3rd base for a season and see how his offensive production benefits from playing one of the most difficult positions in the game. You also can not fail to take into account Trout's late-season struggles. Perhaps if he played in 21 more games he ends up hitting .300. Hypotheticals I know, but Cabrera's consistency through the season, and the fact that the Tigers are playing for a Championship disqualifies Trout from the MVP discussion. I have no doubt that Trout will eventually have a couple MVP's sitting on his shelf, but Cabrera deserves the award this year.

Kevin
Kevin

Want an argument on WAR is over-rated?

Baseball Reference as the source

Darwin Barney WAR 4.5

Josh Hamilton WAR 3.6

So a team with Darwin Barney was worth "One More Win" than a team that fielded Josh Hamilton.

Can we please put this non-sense to bed?

Bill Cynecki
Bill Cynecki like.author.displayName 1 Like

According to WAR, Ben Zoberist has been the best player in the American League over the past 4 years.  Please!

Robert Wright
Robert Wright like.author.displayName 1 Like

you are arguing with people who are as rational as religious zealots.  they have ZERO objectivity and simply worship at an alter of not only statistics . . . but MADE UP and fake stats.  There is no such thing as a WAR and there never will be. these people could not prove if their lives depended on it, that a team would win a certain number of games over some imaginary replacement player . . . NEVER! 

ChrisGreenaway
ChrisGreenaway

@Robert Wright And this is why we shoved those geeks into lockers in high school.

Ddfreese
Ddfreese

So, Ben Zobrist should have won the MVP last year

Maxshoesbulkbk
Maxshoesbulkbk

If the Splendid Splinter can lose out, so can Miguel Cabrera. Stats like WAR are not the answer to these debates. But they belong in the discussion. Why declare war on them?.:Recommended a comprehensive trade website http://www.shoesmallshop.com/ sports and life"!

ChrisGreenaway
ChrisGreenaway

@Maxshoesbulkbk Williams lost to DiMaggio because Joe went on a 56 game hitting streak that year and dominated the media attention for the majority of the season. The event superseded anything else as Cabrerra did here. Thankfully it put the geeks in their place where they belong.