by Michael Scully
Over the past couple of days, I’ve been reading in the SABR community how Mike Trout is the hands down MVP for the AL this year. Their argument essentially comes down to this: Mike Trout’s WAR is far greater than that of Miguel Cabrera’s; therefore, Trout should win the MVP. And of course, their second argument is along the lines of “Nah, nah, nah, I’m not listening.”
We will paint a picture of how and why Miguel Cabrera is not necessarily a wrong choice for the MVP. Our arguments will be based on the following; when a win isn’t a win, is WAR context based or neutral based, and of course should the rarity of the Triple Crown have any impact?
To start, what is WAR? WAR is the acronym for Wins Above Replacement which is used to describe how well a player plays above a replacement [read AAA] player who is called up, to conveniently enough, replace him. The replacement player is assumed to be an abstract constant dependent on the year such that a 2 WAR player is league average, 5 WAR is All-Star, 8 WAR is MVP, and 10+ WAR is essentially your future HOFer. With 10 games left, Trout sits at 9.5 fWAR (Fangraphs WAR) and 10.4 rWAR (bref WAR) while Cabrera sits at 6.9 fWAR and 6.4 rWAR respectively.
First, wins aren’t exactly all equal. An astonishing fact, but think about it, Miguel Cabrera is currently worth 7 fWAR if he were on say the Astros, would it matter that they should be a 59-94 team instead of a 52-101 team? Now let’s place Miguel on the Orioles, they should now be a 94-58 team clearly in the playoffs. The Yankees really wouldn’t like us to do this; and yes, they’d prefer we placed Cabrera on the Orioles instead of Trout, but we’re not playing a video-game so Cabrera is a Tiger and Trout is an Angel.
So what is the point of that? As much as Trout’s 9.5 fWAR season has been great for the Angels, they never really got their season together, and are sitting 2.5 game backs of the Athletics for the final wild card spot. Now given what the Cardinals did last year, this is not insurmountable, but it’s definitely not ideal. Just like a game is 9 innings (sometimes more,) so too is a season 162 games. [For measure, the Tigers have a worse record, but are only 1 game back in the AL Central and the records would be equal if the Tigers played to their fWAR record.] So, just like hitting a two-run home-run in the ninth when down by one, does more than one in the first, Cabrera’s WAR is doing just a little more for the Tigers’ playoff chances than Trout’s for the Angels.
The second argument used by the Fangraphs has been that WAR is the true measure. They will argue, that the total WAR for both teams is the same, thus Trout has had more impact for his team. However, looking solely on the batters side, we see the Angels have outWAR-ed (new word?) the Tigers 34-20 (24.5-13 without Trout and Cabrera.) Now, offensively we can attest Cabrera is having the better season, by how much, we don’t know but it’s probably minimal and within error of each other. Also, we can concede Trout is better in the field and on the bases, 3 wins worth, that we cannot verify.
To compound our argument the Angels “replacement” centerfielder is Peter Bourjos, who is actually better than Trout in the field. This isn’t a knock on Trout, but it’s like being the other CB on the Broncos when Bailey was in his prime. The point is Trout’s replacement is actually a 4-5 WAR player if we believe Trout’s WAR to be correct (The majority of Bourjos’s value is his defense; which is worth at least 3 WAR a year.) So as great as Trout’s season’s been, you cannot say he’s 10 WAR better than the Angels replacement without taking the context. On the same side, you can’t say he’s only 5 WAR if you believe Bourjos to be a 5 WAR player. However, realistically, in the Angels system he’s probably a 7-8 WAR player. Which coincidentally, is the level Cabrera is playing at right now, and we know this to be a close enough argument in terms of WAR value to give it to either. Our point here is WAR is entirely context based when it comes to batters except the most important part, who is replacing them!
Additionally, we know defense to be the murky area of WAR. We know how it should work, and what looks good or not, but there’s no unified concrete defensive metric with which everyone agrees. However, aside from the catcher position, the results are for the most part reasonable, just unstable. Taking a broad view of all defensive metrics to value a player’s defense is probably the best scenario for analysis. For example, Yadier Molina should be running away with the NL MVP, but due to being underrated in the three most important parts of catching; running game prevention, game calling, and pitch framing, his defensive WAR is vastly understated. Years from now, you will see people question why all the Trout love, when Molina was heads and heels the best player in MLB. Currently, Molina sits at 6.3 fWAR and 6.7 rWAR. We could easily see +2-3 WAR, which would put him at the same level Trout is now.
Finally, the narratives: they can’t make you the MVP winner, but they can sure help [See Josh Hamilton recovering from his past, Justin Verlander winning 25 games.] Right now, Miguel Cabrera has two big narratives going for him; the lesser is his willing the Detroit Tigers into the playoffs. To compare to Trout whose Angels have found every way to not live up to the preseason hype. This alone would be enough to sway some BBWAA members into voting for Cabrera, but his second story is the fact he may win the Triple Crown.
As noted, the Triple Crown is more of a statistical anomaly akin to the 40-40 club, or the 20-20-20-20 club. To win the Triple Crown you need to lead the league in Home Runs, Runs Batted In, and Batting Average. Now, Home Runs and RBI go together, but add the batting average, and you’ve probably had a decent year offensively. Not every Triple Crown winner wins the MVP award; in fact Ted Williams lost the MVP race both times he won the Triple Crown. So the two are not hand in hand, but what is, an amazing offensive season, which you have to be mad to deny Cabrera is having.
So the point is what exactly should be valued in the MVP award? How you answer that question basis your choice. If we assume getting to the playoffs is a team’s goal, then winning is a team’s goal, and therefore accumulating players with high WARs is the team’s goal. If we answer this way, we must choose Mike Trout. But, if we change that answer slightly to be, if we are close to the playoffs, then we must win, the answer switches to Cabrera because here we assume we are reasonably going to make the playoffs and the final push in is what makes the MVP. But, that’s a narrative, that’s not something we can look at out of context; it’s not a number we can quantitate.
For an example of this, consider Adrian Beltre’s 3 HR game in the playoffs last year vs. Albert Pujols’s. We remember Albert’s because it was in the World Series (even though we remember Freese’s game 6 more,) but that game was a blow out (16-7.) In turn, Beltre’s 3 HRs were the only mistakes Rays pitching made that day (aside from Kinsler’s 1st inning HR,) and allowed the Rangers to win 4-3, the ALDS 3-1 and eventually make the World Series. Which game helped his team to a World Series title more? Your answer is probably the same as Trout vs. Cabrera for MVP.