The MLB’s MVP Crisis

Mike Trout, Miguel CabreraBy: Daniel Ziarko

With the conclusion of this Major League Baseball season comes the annual awards. And, once again, Mike Trout is a finalist for MVP. As viewers of baseball, we rarely get to appreciate the fact that we are watching greatness, but if you turned on an Angels’ game at any point during the season, you would have had the opportunity to watch one of the greatest players of the past fifty years. Trout has been a staple of baseball greatness for years now, yet he was robbed of MVP in arguably his greatest season. This is all due to a complete botchery by the BBWAA, and a failure to look at performance through sabermetrics.

It is 2012, and Miguel Cabrera is batting 14 points lower than his previous season, has an OBP 55 points lower, and a few more home runs. By every measure, he was a better player in 2011, yet, this was his Triple Crown season.

Miguel Cabrera:                                           wRC+    oWAR

2011 .344/.448/.586                                   177       7.9

2012 .330/.393/.606                                   166       7.7

In the year before, he finished fifth in MVP voting, but since this was the Triple Crown, he would invariably go on to receive MVP. This was the BBWAA being shockingly ignorant. Why? Because Mike Trout was clearly the best player of the season.

The argument for Cabrera over Trout lies on just three numbers. That’s it. But if we begin to look at the many stats behind their seasons, it becomes abundantly clear that Trout was simply a much better player.

Player

Stats

2012

wrC+ OPS+ Run Expectancy WPA Baserunning Runs Defensive Runs Saved Ultimate

Zone

Rating

WAR
Trout 167 168 53.4 5.2 12.0+ 21+ 13.3+ 10.8
Cabrera 166 164 46.8 4.8 -2.9 -4 -7.5 7.2

Let us talk about these numbers. wRC+ and OPS+ are aggregate measures of everything that a hitter does from BA to OBP. The + means that the statistic was adjusted for park effects. Run Expectancy is a context dependent statistic that takes into account the situation and outs in a game, and comes up with a number about how many runs you expect that player to score. And despite missing a month of his season, Trout was able to clearly beat Cabrera in this statistic. When it comes to hitting, Trout does not lose by much, if at all.

WPA, or win probability added, is a measurement of the odds that you help your team win. It is essentially a measure of a player’s clutch. In WPA, the win and the score matter greatly. Hence, a home run in the 9th is worth a lot more than a home run in the 1st. Again, we see that Mike Trout beats Cabrera.

It does not take a data analyst to tell you that Trout can run faster than Cabrera. While perhaps lacking the panache that a strong bat has, baserunning is very important. Cabrera would actually be the cause of a few key outs in the 2012 playoffs as a result of poor running. In “Baserunning runs”, we see a measurement of how many runs were thought added as a result of a player’s running ability. Trout led the league that year, beating Cabrera by fifteen runs.

When it comes to defense, it is also not close. When compared to the average, Cabrera was an okay fielder. When compared to Mike Trout, he was horrible. The statistics open and shut this case clearly. So to Recap:

Hitting: More or less even

Baserunning: Trout by as wide a gap as possible

Fielding: Trout by far

With all of this said, how in the world was Cabrera the MVP? The Triple Crown contains simply the wrong numbers to focus on. Trout had more clutch, helped his team win more, and simply was the better overall player. Furthermore, even though WAR is not the best statistic, Trout clearly has a wide enough gap to be considered better. In every logical sense of the word, there was no reason not to pick him.

So we must ask: Is there any intrinsic worth to leading your team to the playoffs and getting the Triple Crown? In my opinion there is not. It is simply a human created title placed on a player to romanticize their achievements. Yet, I still find myself reluctant to go just by the numbers. If we did that, Ben Zobrist would have won MVP in 2014. And I am sure many people feel this cognitive dissonance as well. We want the MVP to reflect the best player, but we do not want him to be on a sub .500 team.

Perhaps there is a way to reconcile this. Instead of defining “Valuable” as added net utility, we can weight it with respect to the team’s record. For example, Chapman and Miller were far more valuable on the Cubs and Indians than they were on the Yankees. Yes, their stats were still about the same, but the role they played was simply bigger. Take Lester away from the Cubs, you probably lose a world series, but take Sale away from the White Sox, and you lose nothing but the small amount of pride you are holding on to from 2005. Finally, while you can make an argument for not awarding MVP to a player on a bad team, there is really no logical reason to not award one simply because another player earned a title such as Triple Crown.

This voting season will once again bring up the Trout question. He was clearly the best player in the American League in terms of statistics, but again the Angels underperformed. Whatever happens, we are again going to consider the question of total utility over weighted utility. Maybe one day a clear definition of “value” will come, but until then, it seems like the BBWAA focuses on the latter.

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