For decades – and even over a century – baseball had relied upon sexy statistics to quantify a player’s value to a team’s success, or lack thereof. Until the 21st century and the advent of the “Moneyball” era, the mainstream media primarily utilized statistics such as batting average, home runs, and runs batted in to develop an opinion of a hitter’s worth to a team. If an individual hit .300 with 30 home runs, and 100 runs batted in, for instance, they were better than someone who hit .290, 25, and 90, respectively, disregarding the wealth of additional knowledge available, even absent advanced statistics today. Similarly with pitchers, a player’s win-loss record was the prominent barometer for success.
Fortunately, baseball enthusiasts began to realize the flaws in evaluating a sport filled with so many variables with just a few glossy statistics. Beginning with Bill James in the late 1970s, individuals placed greater emphasis on supplementary statistics to attempt to paint a more accurate picture, inevitably creating new measurements in the process. The movement of such “sabermetrics” did not gain traction within professional baseball circles until the turn of the century when Billy Beane famously utilized on-base percentage (OBP) in assembling his roster en route to a 103-59 regular season record in 2003. Statisticians, particularly Paul DePodesta, convinced Beane that OBP was a better predictor of scoring runs than the aforementioned trilogy of hallowed offensive stats, and was thus able to sign players undervalued by the rest of the league on the open market to replace stars who were no longer affordable for the small market club.
Ever since, Major League Baseball organizations have not only stopped ostracizing “stat geeks” but also have done the exact opposite, often hiring such individuals to player personnel roles. James, for instance, currently works as a senior adviser to baseball operations with the Boston Red Sox, a far cry from his days writing his Baseball Abstract series on a tight budget and limited exposure.
But the revolution remains painfully slow. While executives allocate greater resources to statistical analysis, the mainstream media is sluggish, epitomized in last year’s American League MVP debate between the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera and the Angels’ Mike Trout. As many will recall, Cabrera had a legendary season that included a .330 batting average, 44 home runs, and 139 runs batted in, obtaining baseball’s vaunted title as a “Triple Crown” winner as the league leader in all three categories, en route to winning the MVP award.
Ordinarily, Cabrera would have been a unanimous, slam-dunk choice for the award. But 2012 was no conventional year. Also contending for the distinction as the league’s most valuable player was Trout, whose rookie year may go down as the greatest in history. Although Trout had inferior traditional statistics, with a .326 average, 30 home runs, and 83 runs batted in, he not only led the league in other major stats like runs (129) and stolen bases (49), but advanced statistics – proven to be more representative of the player’s value in generating and preventing runs – were overwhelmingly in his favor due to extraordinary play on the base paths and on defense, two aspects of the game woefully undervalued in the past with basic statistics.
Wins Above Replacement, or WAR, a statistic derived specifically to measure all such aspects (the estimated wins above a replacement player that an individual produces for a team), valued Trout’s performance at an astounding 10.0, 2.2 greater than the next best in the entire league, Robinson Cano, according to Fangraphs.com. Comparatively, Cabrera finished seventh with a WAR of 6.9. To translate, while Cabrera’s value was easily palpable, Trout was overall more effective in contributing to team wins versus a standard replacement player than Cabrera, given his additional value shagging difficult fly balls and better base running ability.
It is important to note, however, that unlike traditional statistics, one cannot fully trust the accuracy of WAR, as some analysis of a player’s defense (in Fangraphs WAR, their Ultimate Zone Rating or UZR) involves subjective elements of evaluation and data recording that may slightly underrate or overrate a player’s defensive prowess, which would then affect their overall WAR. With that said, though, one should only be skeptical of a player’s superiority over another if the two players’ WAR values are within a few tenths of a point of each other (for example, when comparing players with a WAR of 5.1 versus 4.8). Trout’s superiority, therefore, is not inaccurate, but the specific value of the advantage may vary from 2.0 to 2.4 over Cano, for example, as opposed to the determined 2.2 value.
Another qualm with Cabrera’s election as MVP is the meaning we place behind the award. Does the award belong to the league’s best player or, as it implies, the most valuable? Value signifies not only high quality performance, but also production exceeding the player’s cost. If a team can employ a player who produces a given stat line for $1 million compared to a similar player for twice that price, the former provides more value to his organization. If the MVP award was based on this factor, Trout’s candidacy would have only gained more momentum. As a rookie, Trout was employed near the league minimum with a salary of $482,500 in 2012, while Cabrera’s earned $21 million as part of an eight-year, $152.3 million deal, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts and BaseballProspectus.com.
Obviously, a player’s performance should not be discounted if we are to introduce their salary and Cabrera should not be penalized for earning a high salary based on a track record of success, while Trout performed historically in his first year, where salaries are depressed. Likewise, with Justin Verlander’s earning the MVP in 2011 as a player who only played in a fifth of his team’s games, it would be more apt to designate the award as the league’s most outstanding player, as opposed to its most valuable.
Arguments in favor or against candidates for baseball’s MVP awards due to a team’s achievement are also fallacious. Following Cabrera’s victory, esteemed sports journalist and award-winning author Mitch Albom wrote overwhelmingly in defense of Cabrera’s election not only by scathing statistical arguments in favor of Trout, but also by maintaining that the Tigers’ advance to the postseason – despite winning fewer games than the Angels – warranted Cabrera superiority. Even if one were to form an argument regarding team success, Albom’s statement was far off the mark, given that the Angels just happened to unfortunately play in a division with stronger clubs and were therefore denied entrance to playing in October. Even if the Tigers did have the better record, the Angels were the best team in baseball following Trout’s promotion to the majors on April 28. While a player’s individual performance inherently affects his team’s record, he obviously cannot control the talent and performance of the other 24 players on his team. If Cabrera produced the numbers he did on the Astros, would his performance have been any less impressive? Although his opportunities to produce such significant counting statistics likely would have been reduced with a worse supporting cast, the point remains the same – players should not be penalized by factors they cannot control.
Ultimately, I believe Mike Trout deserved the 2012 AL MVP award over Miguel Cabrera, though I can understand the allure for voting for the latter. But relying on tradition and nostalgia remains unjust and prevents progress. Despite baseball’s mystique as a timeless classic, largely unchanged for over a century, the media is slow to truly recognize new age statistics and sabermetrics as the most significant indicators to evaluating a player’s performance. While at the end of the day, the MVP award is just that – an award, the 2012 debate between Trout and Cabrera serves as a microcosm of the clash between outdated and progressive thinking. Unfortunately, the media crowned the former as the victor in 2012, but thankfully those in positions of power like Billy Beane continue to prove that sabermetrics’ utility is superior, consistently tackling the giants with significantly fewer monetary resources. Baseball executives get it, and it is only a matter of time until most fans resolve their ignorance and join the movement.
Georgetown University Class of 2014