Friday, October 05, 2012

The Arguments Against The Arguments Against: AL MVP

This is what it looks like when baseball bloggers throw down 
over Cabrera vs. Trout. Exactly like this.


At this point, the debate over who gets the American League MVP has gone past baseball and straight into religion, or perhaps politics. For good or for ill, the AL was blessed this year with two guys who had utterly transcendent, if wildly different, seasons. In any given year, either of the two - the remarkable all-around play of rookie Mike Trout or the once-in-two-generations offensive onslaught of Miguel Cabrera - would be enough to win MVP in a walk. This year, however, they're up against each other, and the partisans on each side have long since moved past debating their choice's merits and gone on to attacking the other guy's fans as A)knuckle-dragging Philistines who wouldn't know good baseball if it sat on their face and wiggled or B)spreadsheet-loving nerds who are afraid to attend actual ballgames without their allergy inhalers, and even then, only with written permission from their mothers.
It is, in a word, sad that in a year when we should be celebrating two feats of excellence, we are instead  beating each others brains in so as to best remove all the joy from what these two jokers actually did on the field. Contrast that, for example, with what's going on in the National League, where an army of good-but-not-transcendent candidates (Buster Posey, Andrew McCutcheon, Giancarlo Stanton, Chase Headley, Chipper Jones, Yadier Molina, and I believe the late Pat Paulsen) clutter the ballot and the debate is less than inflamed. The difference is night and day, where night is somewhere out beyond the Oort Cloud, and day is on Mercury.
That being said, it is the official position of Sportsthodoxy that it would not be a crime to award the American League MVP to either of the two gents currently in the running. Both of them have had historic seasons. Trout's combination of speed, defense and hitting has produced a nightly array of highlights, and his HR/SB/Runs numbers are, in conjunction, historic. Cabrera, of course, won the Triple Crown, and while it must be recognized that RBI are in large part a function of the guys hitting ahead of you, it's still one hell of a mythologically potent feat.
With that in mind, we're not going to make the case for either candidate. Instead, we're going to take a little time to demolish various arguments against them, largely because the people making those arguments are a bunch of Negative Nancies who are largely annoying about the whole thing, and because their failure to grasp the fundamentals of logic whilst still clinging to the slipperiest of ad hominems infuriates the editorial staff to no end.

So here we go:

ARGUMENTS AGAINST MIKE TROUT

  • WAR Is Arbitrary And Thus Inaccurate - WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, is an advanced metric that tries to assess a player's total contribution by including not just hitting, but also baserunning and defense. There are multiple formulae for WAR, and they don't all agree, and as such, nobody - not even the guys who come up with those formulae - think that WAR is utter and definitive. But, hey, it'll do as a general overview stat until something better comes along, and when all the thumbnail sketches line up the same way, you've probably got a good idea of what something looks like.
  • Stats Are For Losers - Mike Greenberg, of all people, made this argument. One can only presume that Mike Golic was giving him an atomic wedgie as he tweeted it; proponents of this ridiculous idea conveniently forget that HR, RBI, and Batting Average are also statistics. Ironically, the stuff that WAR includes that the Triple Crown doesn't - speed, defense, baserunning - are precisely the sort of thing that statheads are constantly accused of missing. 
  • Cabrera's Team Made The Playoffs And Trout's Didn't - This conveniently overlooks a couple of basic facts. One, the Angels won more games than the Tigers. Two, the Angels won them against tougher competition. The AL West had 2 90+ win teams and nearly had a third; the AL Central had 3 90-loss teams. The worst team in the AL West was still running King Felix out there on a regular basis; the AL Central had a team that insisted on letting Luke Hochevar pitch in front of paying customers. In other words, the Angels won more games against better competition than the Tigers did. "But they made the playoffs" is an artifact of the divisional setup.
  • Cabrera Won The Triple Crown And Trout Didn't - This is true, largely because only one guy can win the Triple Crown or it stops being the Triple Crown. On the other hand, it is also true that the Triple Crown Stats are A)an arbitrary selection and B)limited to the subset of baseball skills known colloquially as "hitting". So the argument really boils down to "Cabrera should have it because he was the best power hitter", which is a little less convincing.
  • Cabrera Helped His Team All Year And Trout Didn't - This also true. It probably also wasn't Trout's idea. And the fact that Trout managed to put up such monstrous stats even with missing 20 games would actually seem to point in Trout's favor. After all, he needed less time to do it in. 
  • Trout Wasn't As Hot As Cabrera In September - This line of attack is popular amongst a certain branch of narrativists, most of whom suffer from an inability to remember more than two weeks' worth of events at a time. Last I checked, they didn't award bonus wins for September. The guy who helped dig his team out of a 6-14 hole in May is still digging his team out of a hole when they need him to. He's just being a little more proactive about it.
  • Trout's A Rookie And He'll Get Plenty Of Other Chances - Tell that to Ken Hubbs.


ARGUMENTS AGAINST MIGUEL CABRERA

  • Cabrera Gets "Good Teammate Points" Unfairly - In the offseason, Cabrera's team signed another portly first baseman, which meant that Miggy had to migrate back across the infield, in a scene reminiscent of the march of the dinosaurs in Fantasia, to his former position of 3rd base. His switch was less eventful than the annual ritual of Mike Young holding his breath until he turns blue down Tejas way, seeing as he had previously played 3B and didn't take his displeasure at the move to the media, and some folks think that he's getting way too much credit for being "valuable" over that. Regardless, an established All-Star agreed to move for the good of his team and worked hard, if not always successfully, at performing credibly there. That fits some definitions of valuable. 
  • Cabrera Benefitted From His Ballpark And Division - Yes he did. Comerica Park actually plays as a slightly better offensive joint than Anaheim does; Cabrera did get to bat against the Royals and Twins repeatedly. That being said, short of volunteering for a trade to Petco, what do you want the guy to do? He plays where his team plays, whom his team plays, and the fact remains he produced under those circumstances better than anyone else - even Prince Fielder, who got the exact same Golden Corral buffet of stiffs to hit off of. Favorable circumstances can only take you so far. Eventually you have to produce. And Cabrera did.
  • Cabrera's Defense Was So Horrible It Made The Baby Jesus Kill Kittens - Mike Trout is a superlative center fielder. Cabrera is not. Trout is worth much, much, much more with the glove than Cabrera, by any measure except perhaps the paleolithic abomination that is "fielding percentage". That being said, Cabrera actually turned himself from a horrible 3rd baseman into a slightly below average one this year, depending on which defensive metric you use. Yes, he's far worse in the field than Trout. No, he's not as bad as you think he is.
  • Cabrera's Good Teammate Narrative Is Phony - This largely goes back to Cabrera's unfortunate incidents with alcohol, bad driving, and the law, in various combinations. Proponents of this argument note that all of the "Good teammate because he switched positions" narratives conveniently ignore this stuff, which is probably true. That being said, MVP is not measured on the same metrics as the Lady Byng Trophy, and in any case, Cabrera seems to have cleaned himself up considerably. It's a worthwhile discussion to have, if you want to talk about whether you'd let Cabrera date your sister. It's got less of a place in the MVP discussion.
  • The Triple Crown Is An Antiquated Relic - Yeah, well, so was a lightsaber. Are BA, HR, and RBI the best measure of a player's worth? Absolutely not. But the trio of them together is something deeply rooted in the game's mythology, and that mythology is something that no other sport has. To arbitrarily dismiss it because OBP is a better measure of worth - and I don't argue that it is - is to risk losing some of what makes baseball so unique. And yes, RBI are largely a function of the guys batting ahead of you, but as misleading as they are, you generally have to be pretty decent to rack up a lot of them AND a lot of homers AND a lot of base hits, all at the same time.
  • It Wasn't As Good A Year As [insert season and year here] - Saying that Cabrera's Triple Crown season wasn't as good as Albert Pujols' 2007 or whatever would be great, if the award were "Best Offensive Season In Some Arbitrary Subset Of The Last Ten  Years And Both Leagues". Which it ain't. This is the American League MVP for 2012. Pujols had his shot at it; he doesn't get to drag his 2006 in from the other league when no one's looking.

Ultimately, it comes down to whether you value Cabrera's raw batting output over Trout's better rounded game, or vice versa. Both candidates are worthy; the sky will not fall and Cthulhu will not rise if one or the other is picked. We should celebrate both. We should denigrate neither. And we should definitely stop being complete jackasses about it.




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