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.”