I have to say that, personally, I have come to enjoy the “Trouble With The Curve” grumpiness about advanced statistics that is re-emerging because of the MVP tug-of-WAR between Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera and the Angels’ Mike Trout. I came across several stories making the case that Cabrera should be the MVP, because (a) you would have to be insane to NOT give the Triple Crown winner the MVP, (b) the Tigers look to be going to the postseason when the Angels do not and, (c) the arguments for Trout are so often built around an evil statistic, WAR, that you can’t even calculate without a physics degree and help from the guy in “A Beautiful Mind.”
I’ve already written that I think it does a great disservice to Mike Trout’s MVP case to pin it on advanced statistics. His case as the league’s most valuable player is as old-school as Jim Leyland’s mustache. His case is that he’s having a great offensive season in different ways from Cabrera (he leads the league in runs and stolen bases, and his on-base percentage and OPS+ is actually HIGHER than Cabrera’s), and he’s a much better defender and base runner. His case is that when you take into account the whole ballplayer, he’s more valuable than Cabrera, Triple Crown or not.
In a league filled with people who have been badgering us with “you win games with pitching and defense” and “you can’t tell what kind of ballplayer you have based on his batting average” for 100 years, it seems odd to me that so many old-schoolers cannot see that Mike Trout is the very essence of what they’ve been talking about.
Now, this is not to say that Trout should win the MVP. That’s an opinion, and it’s well worth arguing about. But the arguments should be ARGUMENTS, not absurdities. To say Trout’s obvious MVP case is all about manipulating numbers or trying to trick the masses with some fancy-shmancy new statistics is crazy. Cabrera’s a great player. Trout’s a great player. Cabrera happens to be leading in categories that have historically been packaged into a neat container we call the Triple Crown. That’s amazing. It really is. But if the Triple Crown was stolen bases, runs scored and OPS+, then Trout would be leading. And we still would not have started talking defense.
Let’s break down the three things some are saying about why Cabrera should absolutely be MVP.
1. Cabrera should be MVP because he’s leading in numbers that are tangible -- home runs! RBIs! Average! We know these numbers, they are our friends -- not this confused WAR nonsense.
WAR is confused. Absolutely. You can’t figure it out at home using basic stats. And there are various versions of WAR out there, which definitely hurts the opportunity for WAR as a statistic to go mainstream. If there were two different versions of RBIs, it would never have taken off.
That said, there is something about WAR that people don’t seem to be noticing. It is consistent. And, more often than not, it tells people exactly what they might expect.
Here’s what I mean. Here’s a chart of all the Triple Crown winners since 1900. See if you notice something:
1967: Yaz won Triple Crown. Yaz led with 12.3 WAR (Frank Robinson was second at 7.3).
1966: Frank Robinson won Triple Crown -- Robinson led with 7.3 WAR (Tony Oliva, 6.0)
1956: Mickey Mantle won Triple Crown -- Mantle led with 11.0 WAR (Al Kaline 6.4)
1947: Ted Wiliams won Triple Crown -- Williams led with 9.6 WAR (Lou Boudreau 7.2)
1942: Ted Williams won Triple Crown -- Williams led with 10.2 WAR (Joe Gordon 7.8)
1937: Joe Medwick won Triple Crown -- Ducky led with 8.1 WAR (Dick Bartell 6.4)
1934: Lou Gehrig won Triple Crown -- Iron Horse led with 10.1 WAR (Jimmie Foxx 8.6)
1933: Jimmie Foxx won Triple Crown -- Foxx led with 9.0 WAR (Joe Cronin 7.1)
1933: Chuck Klein won Triple Crown -- Klein led with 7.3 WAR (Arky Vaughan 6.7)
1925: Rogers Hornsby won Triple Crown -- Hornsby led with 10.1 WAR (Kiki Cuyler 6.6)
1922: Rogers Hornsby won Triple Crown -- Hornsby led with 10.0 WAR (Dave Bancroft 6.0)
1909: Ty Cobb won Triple Crown -- Cobb led with 9.5 WAR (Eddie Collins 9.4)
1901: Nap Lajoie won Triple Crown -- Lajoie led with 8.3 WAR (Jimmy Collins 6.6)
OK, do you see what I see? As confusing and baffling and new-agey a statistic as WAR might be, the truth is that EVERY SINGLE TRIPLE CROWN WINNER led the league’s everyday players in WAR. Every single one. Most of them led by a lot. This is the same statistic being used now.
In other words, WAR is not out to suppress the value of those comfortable statistics, it is an attempt to take in the whole ballplayer. If you win the Triple Crown, WAR will tell you -- you’ve had one incredible season.
This year, though -- because Cabrera is limited in ways other than those three Triple Crown numbers, and because Mike Trout is so good in so many ways -- WAR is saying that Mike Trout is quite a bit better. It could be an anomaly. It could be that the statistic is malfunctioning. It could be that that the statistic is horrible and was always useless and just so happened to get every other Triple Crown year “right” by pure luck.
But make no mistake, WAR as a statistic has never before undervalued Triple Crown winners.
2. Cabrera should be MVP because he is carrying the Tigers to the postseason while Mike Trout is not doing the same for the Angels.
This one has me more confused than any of the other arguments. We are aware that the Angels have a better record than the Tigers, right? I mean, people haven’t just missed that, have they? The Tigers happen to play in a crummy division and because of that look like they will go to the playoffs, but certainly we’re not going to hold it against Mike Trout that his team has a BETTER RECORD than the Tigers?
And to take it one step further: The Angels were 6-14 before they called up Trout. That means they are 81-56 since his call-up, which happens to be the best record in the American League over that stretch. To give Cabrera the nod because the Tigers make the playoffs and the Angels do not would be a level of loopy logic perhaps unmatched in recent memory.
3. Because he could win the Triple Crown, and that’s one of the rarest feats in baseball history.
I am on record saying that I think Cabrera is a virtual lock to win the MVP if he wins the Triple Crown. And I think he’s probably going to win the MVP even if he doesn’t win the Triple Crown. But the question here is not “will he” but “should he.”
I think it’s an open-ended question with good arguments both ways. But I don’t think the “he won the Triple Crown so he should win the MVP” award argument flies. Here’s why:
Let’s say that Miguel Cabrera hits three home runs in the Tigers' last four games and wins the Triple Crown. I think it goes without saying that the vast majority of voters and baseball fans would think he deserves the MVP.
OK, now let’s say that Miguel Cabrera hits three home runs in the Tigers' last four games, but Josh Hamilton hits four and Miggy LOSES the Triple Crown. Nothing really changed there except someone else took the Triple Crown away from him. But now, suddenly, without the Triple Crown, you might wonder: Hey, didn’t Trout have the better season?
Turn it the other way. Let’s say Cabrera goes 0-for-15 down the stretch, barely holds on to his batting title victory and ties for the home run lead -- so he still wins the Triple Crown. Is he MVP? He won the Triple Crown, so you would have to say yes.
Now let’s say Cabrera goes 0-for-15 down the stretch, loses the batting title (to Mike Trout, let’s say) and gets passed by Josh Hamilton AND Edwin Encarnacion in home runs. Suddenly, he doesn’t look very good as an MVP candidate.
And none of this has anything to do with how valuable he is as a player. He will put up the numbers he puts up. Whether or not they are good enough to win the Triple Crown will have to do with other people’s performances. But it’s kind of ridiculous to say that a .327, 43-homer, 133-RBI season IS MVP-worthy if it wins the Triple Crown, but not MVP-worthy if it doesn’t.
I’d love to see Cabrera win the Triple Crown. I was one of those kids who would score the daily leaders in the morning paper and try to figure out what Jim Rice or Fred Lynn or George Foster had to do to get to the Triple Crown. In some ways, I still am. But let’s not turn this MVP race into yet another argument about traditional stats and modern ones, between fossils making outdated arguments and pointy-headed, basement-dwelling bloggers with slide rulers. It’s none of that. Miggy Cabrera might win the Triple Crown! Mike Trout is having a season for the ages! One of them won’t win the MVP, which is a shame. But one of them will.