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Trout the rational choice for AL MVP

9/25/2012

I argued in late June that Mike Trout had the early look, statistically speaking, of an MVP candidate, because he was such a complete player, contributing in all facets of the game. That MVP race has turned out to be a rout, with Trout nearly lapping the field in value, though that hasn't stopped a portion of the media and the fan base, largely situated in a certain state that borders four Great Lakes, from arguing in favor of another candidate, Miguel Cabrera.

The Luddite argument -- and don't kid yourself, that's what this is, a backlash against progress -- says that wins above replacement isn't reliable, or credible, or accurate enough to use in an MVP discussion. So while Trout destroys all of his competition in WAR, whether you use FanGraphs' version (a lead of 2.6 wins) or Baseball Reference's (a lead of 3.7), it might be more convincing to consider just why Trout's lead is so commanding.

The reactionary campaign for Cabrera right now focuses primarily on his offensive output, and if you look only at the raw, unadjusted stats, he does have a slight edge over Trout. The two players are in a dead heat in OBP, with Cabrera just .001 ahead (.395 to .394) while holding a 58-point (.060) advantage in slugging percentage, equal to roughly 40 total bases during the course of a full season.

Cabrera also has about three weeks of additional playing time over Trout, who inexplicably started the season in Triple-A to free up playing time for Vernon Wells. If offense was the entire story, Cabrera would be the MVP, holding a lead of about half a win of value over Trout once we adjust for their ballparks, because Comerica Park is a better park for hitters than Angel Stadium is.

Of course, we live in 2012, an era in which any rational observer of the game should realize that there's a lot more to a position player's value than just what he provides with his bat. The most obvious aspect is defense, something we're only beginning to measure accurately but can at least quantify at a level beyond the useless stat of fielding percentage. FanGraphs uses Ultimate Zone Rating to try to measure defensive value, looking at all balls in play in that fielder's area and assigning them positive or negative run values based on how often balls hit that way were fielded, and if they weren't, what the typical damage was to the fielder's team. UZR has Trout saving 12 runs over an average center fielder this year, plus another net run saved in left and right, for a total of 13 runs saved; it has Cabrera costing the Tigers a little more than nine runs compared to an average third baseman.

The Defensive Runs Saved metric, from Baseball Information Solutions, is even more favorable to Trout, giving him credit for 25 runs saved while rating Cabrera at four runs cost. (DRS is what is factored into Baseball Reference's version of WAR.) I prefer the UZR method, but both results match the eye test as well: Trout's a plus defender, and Cabrera is at best a below-average defender (and more likely a poor one). The defensive value difference between Trout and Cabera is something on the order of two full wins, if not more.

Players add value through their baserunning. Trout has stolen 46 bases in 50 attempts, and because the break-even rate is somewhere in the 70 to 75 percent range, that is a significant net gain for the Angels, and he's added another six runs on the bases independent of his base-stealing prowess. Cabrera, on the other hand, has stolen four bases and been caught once, while his baserunning has cost the Tigers just under 3 runs. (The baserunning numbers also are drawn from FanGraphs, and include things like taking an extra base on a batted ball or advancing on a fly ball or groundout.)

Baseball Prospectus also produces baserunning numbers, including stolen base value and other baserunning events in a single number, giving Trout a net gain of 10.4 runs and Cabrera a net loss of 4.9 runs. Again, you might disagree with the precise figures, but there is no disputing that Trout has been substantially more valuable on the bases than Cabrera, on the order of over a full win.

There's a little more work to do, but even at this point, it should be obvious why Trout has been much more valuable than Cabrera, and this why there is such a large gap in their respective WAR. Cabrera's small edge in offense is wiped out by Trout's value on defense and on the bases. Trout even gets a small bump for playing center, a position where replacement level -- that is, the expected offensive production of a generic player called up from Triple-A to fill that role -- is slightly lower than it is at third base.

And WAR doesn't consider the quality of competition, a factor that also favors Trout, who has faced more difficult pitching than Cabrera this year. Miggy has particularly feasted on the two worst pitching staffs in the league in 2012, Cleveland and Minnesota, slugging .742 against those two clubs in 132 at-bats. Trout has just a third as many at bats against those clubs, but has spent more time facing the A's, Mariners, and Rangers, all above the league median in ERA.

Counterarguments

But Trout's a rookie!

This is a classic red herring argument -- arguing a premise that doesn't support the conclusion. The MVP award is a single-season award, and rookies are every bit as eligible as veterans with 10 years or more in the league. Nothing that happened prior to 2012 should carry any weight whatsoever in MVP voting: not past performance, not All-Star appearances, not service time, nothing.

A corollary to this argument is that Trout hasn't played a full season, and the MVP criteria do specifically say that voters may consider games played as a factor on their ballots. However, Trout has been so productive on a per game basis that his overall value this season still dwarfs that provided by Cabrera.

With that in hand, let's consider some of the major counterarguments that Cabrera supporters use to claim that he should win the award over Trout.

But Cabrera may win the Triple Crown, so he's the MVP!

This is begging the question: It assumes that the Triple Crown is an accurate measure of value, which it's not. Here's a short list of important factors not covered by the Triple Crown categories: Walks, the added value of doubles and triples, stolen bases, other aspects of baserunning, defensive value, positional value, park effects -- in other words, huge swaths of the game that are completely ignored.

Triple Crown is cute, but there's something very arbitrary and dated about its categories, an anachronistic way to look at the game that is wildly out of tune with how front offices look at players today. Once you realize, as you must, that a player who wins the Triple Crown has not necessarily delivered the most value, this argument evaporates.

The main corollary to the Triple Crown argument is that players who win this honor typically win the MVP award. That's not universally true -- Ted Williams twice won the Triple Crown and finished second in the MVP vote -- but even if it were true in all previous cases, it is a classic argument from tradition: We've always done it this way, therefore it's right. If you believe this still applies to Cabrera, I assume that the next time you're sick, you'll ask your doctor to bleed you with leeches.

But Cabrera's been better in August and September!

This is argument-by-selective observation, better known as "cherry-picking" -- utilizing a favorable subset of the available data while ignoring all other information. It's also presented in a misleading fashion, as Trout's less-productive stretch has only lasted a few weeks. After he homered on August 28, Trout's line for August sat at .301/.378/.544; since that date, he's hit .242/.355/.374, a weak stretch by his standards but not enough to drag down his seasonal numbers.

This argument also relies on a bogus assumption, that games late in the season are more important than those early in the season. I've checked the standings, and have concluded that a win in April is worth as much as a win in September. The Los Angeles Dodgers are still in the playoff race primarily because of a hot April; they're sub-.500 since May 1 The Orioles have been slightly over .500 since finishing their first series with Washington on May 20, at which point they were 27-15, and that will likely be enough to put them in the playoffs. Winning in September feels more important than winning in April or May, but that is not actually true.

But Cabrera's been better in the clutch!

Again, more cherry-picking. When applied properly, the fundamental problem with this argument for Cabrera supporters is that it supports the guy they're trying to discredit: By win probability added (WPA), a stat that weights each plate appearance and result by the impact it had on the team's probability of winning that particular game, Trout has done more to add to his team's chances to win than any other player in baseball. Cabrera has been better in "late and close" situations, but those represent such a tiny fraction of each player's season that it's nonsense to base an MVP vote on those while ignoring the approximately 85 percent of the season not reflected in that small-sample stat line.

But WAR is a new-age stat for geeks who don't know baseball!

Let's be honest here, this is the real argument that non-Tigers fans are making about Trout. On its face, these comments are ad hominem arguments: rather than dispute the facts, some Cabrera partisans who use these terms are focusing on the person arguing for Trout, rather than on Trout's credentials. But really, nothing could be less "new age" than a thorough, rational metric, unless WAR was secretly developed by Yanni in his mother's basement.

The false Trout/Cabrera debate, stripped of Tigers and Angels fans, is just the latest in the ongoing battle between two camps in the baseball media, one of which has seen its longtime primacy usurped by new writers, mostly younger, who look at the game in different ways and have more in common with successful front offices.

Once upon a time, fans like you and me relied on a small number of writers and reporters to deliver baseball news and interpret it for us. Today, we have a panoply of voices offering different perspectives, some more rational than others, and the dedicated fan is better able to interpret baseball news and events for himself.

The pro-Cabrera camp in the voting pool may win this battle and rob Trout of the MVP award he clearly deserves, but the war over WAR and its statistical brethren is already over. The philosophy behind these advanced statistics and the way they inform our views of the game is here to stay, and although the fairy-tale scout Gus Lobel doesn't have to adapt, in this world, he'd have to retire, or he'd have to get on that computer and figure out how to reconcile what he wants to believe with what the facts before him say.