Thursday, November 21, 2013

On Awards Madness

At Baseball Arcade, I am not above beating a dead horse. Or a live horse. Or even a zombie horse. I'll beat any kind of horse is what I'm saying. With that out of the way, no topic has sparked as much heated debate and spilled more digital ink as the BBWAA MVP Awards have over the past week. It's time for me to throw my hat into the ring.

Before I begin, let's highlight some of the fantastic work that's already out there. Dave Cameron, of Fangraphs and USS Mariner, put of a multitude of articles on the subject. Jeff Passan (Yahoo! Sports) wrote a scathing indictment of his fellow BBWAA voters. Finally, Jeff Sullivan (Fangraphs, USS Mariner) wrote a more optimistic piece on the subject. Those are all excellent articles and I recommend you read them. I'll wait right here.

Done? Okay, let's move on.

First off, if I had had a vote, it would have gone to Mike Trout. This should come as no surprise. I'm a sabermetric guy. Mike Trout is the best player in baseball. While the difference in their WAR is commonly cited in the debate about Mike Trout (10.4 fWAR) versus Miguel Cabrera (7.6), the the truth is that WAR (both its Fangraphs and Baseball Reference variants) have their flaws. Fortunately, WAR is unnecessary to prove that Trout is the superior player.

I will admit, there is little argument that Cabrera was a better hitter than Trout in 2013. Cabrera's wRC+ of 196 is both ridiculous and eclipses Trout's slightly less-ridiculous  mark of 175. I want to note that wRC+, while not widely used in the mainstream media, is not some crazy esoteric stat. It is essentially OPS+, a pretty mainstream stat now, but based on wOBA, which more properly weights the value of the various offensive outcomes. However, offense is only part of the job of a position player. Miguel Cabrera plays third base, while Mike Trout plays  centerfield, a significantly more difficult defensive position. As such, offense you get from centerfield is more valuable than the same offense from third base. Cabrera is a poor defender at third whether you use the eye test or statistics. Single season UZR numbers are unreliable, but Cabrera's career UZR/150 at third is -9.8 and he's been worse the last few seasons. Trout, meanwhile, is an excellent defender to the eye test and, while his UZR has some volatility due to a limited data set, his career UZR/150 in centerfield is 7.3 (and 8.4 over all outfield positions). It's pretty clear that Mike Trout provides greater value--significantly so--from his defense than Cabrera. As far as baserunning goes, it's barely worth even discussing. Cabrera, by any measure, is a very poor baserunner, while Trout is a good-to-very-good one. Miguel Cabrera is a better hitter than Mike Trout. He's probably the best hitter in the game. But Trout gets greater value from the other parts of his game, making him the greater total package.

Mike Trout is not simply the best player in baseball right now. He is a generational talent. He's drawing comparisons to guys like Mickey Mantle that aren't the least bit hyperbolic. He's 22 years old and so good that it's hard to wrap my head around it. He just had one of the best seasons by a 21 year old EVER. In a sane world, Trout wins the MVP easily.

But he didn't. Trout lost. Cabrera crushed him. Why?

A lot of it comes down to the name of the award: Most Valuable Player. The keyword here is "Valuable". That one word has launched a metric ton of debate. You'll hear many people--particularly more 'old school' writers--say things like "it's not Best Player, it's Most Valuable Player". The argument here is that, since the ultimate goal of any baseball team is to make the postseason, a player is only truly valuable if he helps his team contend. Thus, incredible players like Mike Trout aren't really eligible, since they play for horrible teams. In my opinion, this argument is absolutely insane. The MVP is an individual award given to a single player and not a team. As such, it should celebrate the accomplishments of that individual player. Should we be really considering the quality of a player's teammates, over which he has absolutely no control? That is the same backwards logic that leads to over-valuing (and by that I mean, placing any value on) stats like RBIs and Pitcher Wins. We've finally seen traction on dispelling those statistics. We've seen Wins become less and less important for the Cy Young Award. Why do people still cling to the same ideas for the MVP? The best player in baseball just lost an award because Angels' General Manager Jerry DiPoto failed to build a functioning team.

I also think there's another, dirtier, factor in play this year. I think Mike Trout has become a poster child for the sabermetric community in the eyes of older writers. Human beings fear what they can't understand and, I suspect, a lot of older writers fear the sabermetric revolution. They see the rise of websites like Fangraphs and blogs and internet analysis as taking away their relevancy and their jobs. As such, Trout is receiving some of the backlash. I'm not saying this is a factor for all, or even most, of the writers who voted for Cabrera. I do think it exists though.

The good news is things are getting better. More open-minded writers are getting votes now. Joe Posnanski had a vote for AL MVP. Keith Law voted for the NL ROY and Jeff Passan had a vote for the NL Cy Young. Fangraphs writers David Cameron, David Laurila, and Carson Cistulli are members of the BBWAA now; a few years ago websites weren't even eligible as news sources. Even if the progress is slow, it's still progress. And Sullivan is right--the fact that voters are now explaining their reasoning and, thus, creating opportunities for public debate, is a step forward. Debate is good. It can change minds. That doesn't help Mike Trout this year and doesn't stop me from being furious at some of the voters, but it leaves hope for the future.

While Sullivan is correct that it is a good thing that voters are publishing their explanations now, it does not mean that I cannot make fun of those explanations. Which is how I'll finish out this post. I'll be taking primarily from this article by Alden Gonzalez, which compiles a few voters' explanations.

Jeff Wilson* (Fort Worth Star-Telegram): 1. Cabrera, 2. Chris Davis, 3. Trout 
Mike Trout can do things on a baseball field that Miguel Cabrera can’t. I’m not that blind. But for a second straight year, Cabrera posted fabulous offensive numbers, ones that please the traditional baseball crowd and ones that even Sabermatricians agree are pretty impressive. And he did so for a contender. I recognize that Trout wasn't the least bit responsible for the Angels’ lousy season. Injuries, questionable signings and an owner who doesn't get it doomed them. But he also didn't play in meaningful games for all but a week or two in May. Cabrera’s Tigers won the AL Central, and he hit more homers and drove in more runs against their main rival, Cleveland, than any other team. I also believe, as do many baseball people, that Cabrera isn't the defensive lump at third base that he’s perceived to be. Add it all up, and Cabrera was my MVP. The man who kept him from a second straight Triple Crown, Chris Davis, also played meaningful games all season and was my second pick. I had Trout third, though not without considerable thought of placing him higher.

This is your basic "Contention is All Important" argument. At least, he gave Trout thought. Giving Cabrera extra points for his production against a specific team is even more insane. He also had more plate appearances against the Indians than most other teams because the Tigers play the Indians more! They are in the same division!

Jeff Fletcher (Orange County Register): 1. Cabrera, 2. Trout, 3. Davis 
I was a supporter of Trout over Cabrera last year, but this year I felt like the offensive gap was even wider, too big for Trout to overcome with his advantages defensively and on the bases. Also, I was impressed by Cabrera’s 1.311 OPS with runners in scoring position. (Trout’s was .993.) Regardless of the different number of opportunities each had, that’s a big gap in production at the times when games are won. While I don’t believe “clutch performance” is a skill or predictive, the MVP is about what you did, not what you can do again.

Hitting with RISP? Really? Aren't we past that yet? You even say it's not a skill! YOU SAY IT'S NOT A SKILL!! If it's not a skill, what is it? Could it be LUCK? Random variation? You're giving out an MVP for that?

Phil Rogers ( 1. Cabrera, 2. Trout, 3. Donaldson 
You wouldn’t think somebody could be better than they were during a Triple Crown season but Miguel Cabrera found a way to raise his game, maybe because he had a little more help in the Detroit lineup. He was an easy choice over Mike Trout for me, in large because I think that the MVP should come from a playoff team, especially now that we’re in an era in which one of every three teams goes to the playoffs. Winning matters but records being equal I still probably would have taken Cabrera over Trout. You can’t replace a guy who hits day in and day out like this guy, even if he does have some rough edges.

More "MVP must come from a playoff team" silliness here, but the real standout part is the fact that he says that having even more teams reach the postseason now makes that even more important in judging an MVP. What? So, since it's easier to do now, it's even more valuable? That doesn't make any sense.

John Hickey (Oakland Tribune): 1. Donaldson, 2. Cabrera, 3. Davis (Trout 4th) 
To me, the key part of the award is “Valuable.” It’s not Most Outstanding Player, it’s not Player of the Year, in which case(s) Trout and Cabrera would dead heat. Both were terrific. As good as Trout was, the Angels finished 18 games out. There’s not much value in finishing third. Cabrera’s value was that the Tigers won their division. My first place vote went to the A’s Josh Donaldson, even over Cabrera, because Cabrera was surrounded by a much superior lineup than was Donaldson. Such was Donaldson’s value, in my mind, that without him Oakland would have been a middle-of-the-road finisher. Donaldson wasn't the best player. He was the most valuable.

Even if it was Player of the Year, Cabrera and Trout would be in a dead heat? Really? I know hitting is easy to quantify, but there are other parts of the game too, you know.

Bill Ballou (Worcester Telegram & Gazette): 1. Davis, 2. Cabrera, 3. Donaldson (Trout 7th) 
I am a strict constructionist re: “valuable”. If the award were Player of the Year, Trout would get my vote. I’m of the school that in order to have “value” you have to help your team be good, at least to the point of contending. The Angels didn’t truly contend. To fully develop that logic, players from non-contenders should not be listed on the  ballot at all, but the BBWAA insists that we fill out all 10 slots, so I did, even though I did not think there were 10 worthy candidates from contending teams.

If this was a war and not an award given out to millionaires playing a kid's game, Bill Ballou would be a war criminal. Trout SEVENTH? At least the other guys simply used contention as a bonus factor that pushed Cabrera over the top, leaving Trout second or third. Meanwhile, he has Chris Davis over Cabrera! Davis was not only inferior to Cabrera, but his team only contended in the loosest sense of the word. The Orioles finished 12 games out of the division and 6.5 out of the Wild Card. The Tigers actually did make the postseason! Ballou isn't even consistent with his own argument! He voted Cano fourth! The Yankees were terrible! They had a NEGATIVE Run Differential! Bill Ballou, I hate you.

Ken Rosenthal (FOX Sports): 1. Trout, 2. Cabrera, 3. Donaldson 
I’m just wondering, what is it going to take for Trout to win an MVP? Another writer said it well — he is this generation’s Mantle. I generally prefer my MVP to come from a contender, but why should Trout be held responsible for the failings of his owner, general manager, manager and teammates? I love Cabrera, but Trout is far superior as an all-around player and, when you put it all together, more valuable.  
Tim Brown (Yahoo! Sports): 1. Trout, 2. Cabrera, 3. Donaldson 
In its simplest terms, my first-place vote went to the most complete player in the game. While Mike Trout did not necessarily hit with Miguel Cabrera, he was so far superior outside the batter’s box that I believed it more than covered that ground. The issue of “value” continues to be kicked around. My view is this: The best player carries the most value.

Ahhh, sanity. I needed to read that. I love these guys.

Finally, a bonus bit of madness from Derrick Goold, on his  NL MVP voting thought process. He's a Cardinals guy and voted for Yadier Molina. While it may seem like a homer pick, it's actually defensible. That's not the crazy part. He also gave some thought to Matt Carpenter and here's his "logic":

When starting the centrifugal process of distilling all of the statistics, research, and reporting into one ballot for the National League Most Valuable Player award, I had one name foremost on my mind. 
That’s right, Rogers Hornsby. 
The Hall of Famer and Roarin’ 20s Cardinals great won two MVPs in his career (1925 with the Cardinals) and, as fictitious as it is, won the Decade Triple Crown for the 1920s. He was one of the most dominant players of his era, and he did most of it while playing second base for the Cardinals. This year, the Cardinals second baseman Matt Carpenter had a season that by many measures came as close to Hornsby as any second baseman had in generations. Carpenter had a year where he broke a record set by Stan Musial, one set by Albert Pujols, and had the kind of success as a leadoff hitter that rivaled any Cardinals leadoff hitter in the past five decades. But it was this Hornsby bit that stayed with me. 
If you go to and search for the highest single-season WAR (Wins Above Replacement, as calculated by’s formula) from a Cardinals second baseman, you’ll find Hornsby has the five “best” seasons. They are: 12.1, 10.8, 10.1, 10.0, and 9.6. Hornsby has six of the top seven, interrupted only by Frankie Frisch’s 9.2 WAR in 1927. And then there is Carpenter, at No. 8. His WAR for this past season was 6.6, right behind Hornsby’s 6.7 in 1923. I recognize this search compared Cardinals against Cardinals and its connection to this year’s MVP vote was non-existent. It did put Carpenter’s season in perspective, and had me wondering if maybe he was the MVP of the league.

I... what? I can't... That's... I mean...

I give up.

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