Saturday, October 6, 2012

Does triple crown equal MVP?

This season, the Detroit Tigers' third baseman, Miguel Cabrera, became the first player in 45 years to win baseball's Triple Crown. He did it by leading the American League in batting average, home runs and runs batted in. The last player to do that was Carl Yastrzemski back in 1967.

The feat is incredible. Generally sluggers are feast-and-famine style hitters. They have a fairly low batting average - but when they do hit the ball, they crush it.

But are those three categories the best way to determine who is the best offensive player in the league? And was Miguel Cabrera the best player in the AL? Because there are some who believe that Mike Trout of the California Angels was a more valuable player.

Batting average is important. The higher the average, the more balls a player has put into play and more opportunities he has created for his team to score. But the same can be said for players who draw walks. Billy Beane questioned whether it really matters how a player got on base. The important thing is he got on base and created the possibility of a run crossing the plate.

So maybe on-base percentage is a more important measurement of what a player brings to the plate. After all, the more a player gets on base, the fewer outs are used up - and outs are the most precious commodity in baseball.

For 2012, Mike Trout had the third-best OBP in the AL and Miguel Cabrera was fourth. The two leaders, Joe Mauer and Prince Fielder, both had OBP's almost 100 points above their batting averages (which means  they took a lot of walks).

Slugging percentage (total bases divided by at-bats) is another way to measure the offensive output of a batter. Simply put, the higher the slugging percentage, the more the players are being moved around the bases. And the more the players move around the bases, the more runs light up on the scoreboard.

Miguel Cabrera led the AL in slugging percentage with a .606, while Mike Trout came in third with a .564.

If you take that on-base percentage and add it to the slugging percentage you come up with a metric baseball wonks know as OPS. And it is this metric that tells us how valuable a batter is at the plate. The higher the OPS, the more good stuff happens when the batter steps into the box.

One stat that is vastly overrated is the run batted in (RBI). RBI's are a function of what the other batters on the team are doing. If they aren't getting on base, then you aren't getting any RBI's. So, far from indicating how awesome a player is, a gaudy RBI number means that when he came up to bat there were men on the bases in front of him. The only RBI a batter can control is the one he gets when he crosses the plate over hitting one over the fence.

So, if we take a look at OPS for 2012, Miguel Cabrera still comes out ahead with an awe-inspiring .999. His closest competitor was Mike Trout with a .963. (Click here for the final stats from the 2012 regular season.)

Now there are those who look at even more arcane numbers such as a player's wins above replacement (WAR). But that is a measurement that includes a heaping spoonful of conjecture and subjectivity. The metric attempts to calculate how many more games a team won because a certain player was in the lineup.

If that is your cup of tea, the Mike Trout was the best player in the American League with a WAR of 10.7 to Miguel Cabrera's 6.9.

I have a hard time, however, worshiping at the altar of WAR because it purports to measure that which cannot be measured. While OPS measures what a player did at the plate, WAR tries to measure how much better a player did that the person who would have replaced him had he not played. And that's impossible to measure because we don't know what might have happened had our star player gone down with an injury.

For that reason I have to go along with Miguel Cabrera as the American League's Most Valuable Player for the 2012 campaign. He was tops in the sexy categories and tops in the category (OPS) that is best measure of how good a player is at the plate.

Mike Trout may have made the Angels better than they would have been otherwise, but statistics such as WAR and defensive stats are far too subjective and far too dependent on contingency than OPS. The point of Sabermetrics (and Billy Beane's "moneyball") was to get rid of the subjectivity in baseball and to base decisions on cold, hard, objective numbers.

By that measure, Miguel Cabrera deserves to take home the MVP trophy.


tgt said...

You didn't explain WAR properly. It has nothing to do with what would actually happen. It's a comparison of the player against what's generally available for replacement. Basically, it's a position adjustment. it also takes into account base running and fielding.

There is no conjecture or subjectivity involved.

Paul B. Kennedy said...

Thank you for the comment.

While I might not have explained WAR properly, my point is still valid. We know what happened. We don't know what might have happened. Therefore, even though we're looking at stats when evaluating WAR, it is still conjecture to assume that Mike Trout is worth a shade more than 10 wins a year over some average replacement.

We don't know how this replacement would have played had he played. We are assuming that his stats would have remained the same. That may or may not have happened.