Once the votes were tallied and the winner declared, one side, its beliefs now validated, basked in the glow of victory, while the other lamented the outcome and tried to grasp how the majority of voters could be so wrong-headed and blind to the facts. And then everyone waited to see what Nate Silver had to say.
Such a scenario could describe either the presidential election of 10 days ago or a second vote that was only slightly less important to those involved, and only slightly less contentious: Miguel Cabrera’s victory Thursday over Mike Trout in the balloting for American League’s most valuable player.
In a vote that went to the heart of how value is defined in baseball and that reignited the debate between the sport’s rising sabermetrics community and those who would dismiss it — call it pro-WAR vs. anti-WAR — Cabrera, the Detroit Tigers’ slugging third baseman, beat out Trout, the Los Angeles Angels’ electrifying rookie center fielder.
Cabrera, who became baseball’s first Triple Crown winner in 45 years, earned 22 of a possible 28 first-place votes, in balloting by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Trout, who earlier this week unanimously won AL rookie of the year, finished second.
To many who backed Cabrera’s candidacy, Thursday’s outcome was the only possible one that made any sense: If you lead your league in home runs, runs batted in and batting average — something no one had done since Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 — while playing for a first-place team, you’re the MVP, period.
While Trout had “a good year,” according to former Baltimore Orioles slugger and Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson, a two-time MVP and the 1966 Triple Crown winner who spoke to reporters at Nationals Park last month, “I don’t see how an individual can play on a winning ballclub, and get his team into [the postseason], and win a Triple Crown — and not be the MVP of the league.”
But to a growing (and mostly younger) segment of the baseball community — not only fans, but media members, front-office types and uniformed personnel — Thursday’s vote was emblematic of an archaic definition of “value” that has been proven obsolete by more advanced metrics, even if the old guard refuses to accept it.
“When you look at it across all components of a player’s ability, Trout is the best player in the league,” said Sean Forman, the founder of one of the most influential stats Web sites in the industry, “and it’s not even particularly close this year.”
Forman’s site, Baseball-Reference.com, publishes a popular catch-all statistic to measure a player’s full value, known as wins above replacement, or WAR. And that is as good a place as any to start when it comes to the case for Trout — who is by virtually any measure a better defender and base runner than Cabrera.
Under the complex formula for WAR — which takes into account not only a player’s offensive contribution, but his defense and base running, while adjusting for certain league and ballpark effects — Trout was worth 10.7 additional wins to the Angels over what a low-cost, freely available “replacement” would have contributed, while Cabrera was worth only 6.9 additional wins to the Tigers.
Trout’s 2012 season, in fact, wasn’t only the best in baseball, as measured by WAR, but one of the greatest in modern baseball history. In the past 50 years, his 10.7 WAR was bettered only by Yastrzemski (1967), Barry Bonds (2001, 2002), Cal Ripken (1991), Willie Mays (1964, 1965) and Joe Morgan (1975).
“It was the kind of season,” Forman said, “that would not look out of place in the year-to-year statistics of Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds.”
Debates over baseball’s postseason awards are nothing new. Ted Williams twice lost MVP votes in seasons in which he won the Triple Crown, losing in 1942 to Joe Gordon and in 1947 to Joe DiMaggio. Alex Rodriguez almost certainly would have won the AL MVP in 1996, instead of Juan Gonzalez, had the sabermetrics community had the same influence it does today.
Felix Hernandez’s Cy Young Award victory in 2010 — despite the fact he had only 13 wins — was widely characterized as a huge win for sabermetrics, which dismisses wins and losses as beyond a pitcher’s control. Hernandez did, though, lead the league in other traditional stats, such as earned run average, and non-traditional ones, such as WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) and WAR for pitchers.
But as the Cabrera-Trout debate demonstrates, the battle is far from over.
Many of the arguments used by traditionalists to support the case for Cabrera — his knack for hitting in the clutch, the fact he willingly switched from first to third base so the Tigers could accommodate Prince Fielder, and his increased production down the stretch as Detroit battled for a playoff spot — are dismissed by the sabermetrics crowd as mere “narrative” that only serves to muddle the clear-cut picture painted by the numbers.
“It’s a question of whether you want to look at who is the best player,” Forman said, “or are you adding in a measure of narrative? And how much sway does that narrative have over your vote?”
Or, as Silver put it in a post at his FiveThirtyEight blog at NYTimes.com, “It’s the traditionalists who are using statistics in a way that misses the forest for the trees.”
Before Silver became the nation’s most famous prognosticator of presidential elections, he was a leading figure in baseball’s sabermetrics community – a group of math-savvy writers and bloggers heavily influenced by the writings of Bill James, often called the godfather of sabermetrics.
However, as it turns out, James himself is not completely on board with the notion of Trout’s being vastly more deserving than Cabrera of the MVP award.
“The more closely I look at it, the less I understand it, honestly,” James said Thursday in an e-mail, before the voting results were announced. “I would vote for Trout, but it’s almost too close to call in terms of measurable value.”