Sunday, September 22, 2013

AL MVP: Any Argument In A Storm

I remember it like it was only last year.

The baseball season was headed into its home stretch, and one of the fiercest debates raging was who deserved the AL MVP award. Was it Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera, on his way to the first Triple Crown in recent memory? Or Angels outfielder Mike Trout, the darling of the analytics community, whose unprecedented rookie season was made even more impressive by the fact that he got a late start on the year. Columns raged, invective flew, and in the end, Cabrera won. Old-school types cheered it as a win for, well, for old-school types, and yelled at the analytics types to get off their lawns. Analytically-aligned fans chanted "but what about defense" and muttered darkly about how the demographic shift was on their side.

Which brings us to this year. Once again, it's late in the season. Once again, the AL MVP award is seemingly down to Cabrera and Trout, with Orioles 1B occasionally mentioned because, hey, 50 homers is 50 homers. Once again, Cabrera has an edge in raw production at the plate, while Trout has sizable advantages in fielding and baserunning. 

There are some differences, though. Last year, the Angels were in contention for a playoff spot until October 2nd; this year, they're stiffs. And last year, Miguel Cabrera had a superhuman September and October, while Trout's was merely very good.

Which is why a huge part of the narrative around Cabrera's MVP candidacy was that he had "stepped it up when his team needed him most" and that he was "performing in the clutch". Comparison after comparison got dragged out: In September, Cabrera had 5 more home runs! And a higher batting average! And struck out 8 fewer times! You get the idea: arbitrary start dates, cherry-picked categories (Trout's OBP was actually higher than Cabrera's in September of last year), you name it, all in the interest of shoring up the story of Cabrera's inevitable coronation.

(and look, I've got nothing against Miggy here. He had a magnificent year. This ain't about him, not even a little bit. So bear with me, all of you who are bursting with indignation and ready to type your YOU LEAVE MIGGY ALONE responses.)

But if you spin the clock forward to 2013, you'll see something curious. This September, playing hurt, Miggy's not having such a great month. Slugging percentage: a Willie Bloomquist-esque .340. Homers: 1. Doubles: 1. Batting Average: a pedestrian .264. An OPS of .749.

Trout, on the other had, has upped his production. Slugging .544, batting .309, OPSing 1.044, with 3 homers and 5 doubles. Coming down the stretch, it's Trout who's coming on, and Cabrera who's pedestrian.

So of course you'd expect to see tons of op-ed pieces declaring that Trout was rising to the occasion even when the rest of his team failed him, and that Cabrera was struggling when his team, fighting for home-field advantage in the playoffs, needed him most.
Not so much.

Instead of "September stats count more!", this is the year of "His team isn't in contention so his performance doesn't matter". It's an ancient line, one that's been used many times before, and you can debate its merits on your own time. What's interested is how it's getting deployed here. The same writers and pundits who insisted that September mattered so very much last year are actively ignoring September because it doesn't suit their pre-decided approach. Whether it's about punishing the analytics folks by punishing their preferred candidates or just a general preference for Cabrera's lead in counting categories instead of advanced stats - and let's not forget the irony that Trout's theoretical advantage comes from baserunning and defense, the stuff the stuff the old-school guys grumble magnificently about - they've decided that they want Cabrera to win, and thus any convenient argument will do.

Even if it contradicts the argument they used last year, that they swore was the be-all and end-all of the debate. Because, hey, that was last year, right? 


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