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.

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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

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