On the 2012 MVP Debate

November 15, 2012
One of the first ‘advanced’ formulas I encountered as a young baseball fan was a stat called ‘Runs Produced.’ The old Beckett Baseball Card Monthly ran an article detailing ‘Runs Produced’ late in 1990…I remember that Bobby Bonilla led the majors in ‘RP’ that year, with an even tally of 200 (he had 112 runs scored, 120 RBI, and 32 HR).
 
Older and wiser, I can see the obvious flaws in a metric like ‘Runs Produced’…maybe I can’t see any flaw in the metric of ‘Puns Reduced,’ but I know enough to realize that R+RBI-HR isn’t a sophisticated measure of the quality of a hitter.
 
Way back in 1990, however, the eleven-year-old version of me really thought that Runs Produced was something. If the eleven-year-old me had been given a vote for the NL MVP, I almost certainly would’ve gone with Bonilla over Bonds. What, after all, are the forty-eight extra stolen bases, twice as many walks, and drastically superior defense of Bonds, when set against Bonilla’s fifteen Runs Produced? Give that trophy to Bobby Bo!
 
(It’s worth noting that one voter did vote for Bonilla over Bonds in 1990. I’m not sure who it was, but I’m sure it wasn’t me. Really. I absolutely did not submit a fraudulent ballot for the Houston sportswriter. I didn’t know what the ballots looked like! I’ve never even beento Houston! Stop looking at me!)
 
Anyway, I think part of the reason I liked Runs Produced is because it gave me an argument about the game that could potentially separate my perspective from the common one. That’s part of the appeal of non-traditional statistics: they allow us a way of understand the game that is separate from the conventional understanding.
 
I was always looking for that: my favorite player was Dwight Evans; you had to look pretty far afield to find any metric that made Evans look better than Jim Rice. Or Dale Murphy. Or Dave Parker. One reason I’m so susceptible to the charms of advanced metrics is that advanced metrics typically consider walks. Dwight Evans drew tons of walks….it’s one of the few categories printed on the back of a Topps card that show up in bold for him (three times!) It’s one of the categories where Dewey trounces Rice.
 
So, Runs Produced was a pretty cool metric that I spent a bit of time tallying in notebooks. Then I discovered girls and forgot all about it.
 
*          *          *
 
I bring this up because we have a couple of interesting MVP votes coming up, and because I’ve noticed that a whole lot of people who write or talk about things like MVP votes have been talking a lot about the hot statistic du jour : Wins Above Replacement, or WAR.
 
WAR…(huh)…(yeah)…what is it good for?
 
Absolutely everything: WAR is one of those statistics that attempt to measure everything: to evaluate the totality of a player’s contributions to a team. How many wins did Mike Trout give the Angels, over a replacement-level centerfielder? Approximately ten wins, a staggering, historic total. The best total for a rookie, and the best total for a twenty-year player in baseball history.
 
I love WAR. I reference it in a lot of columns, including a few length columns about the worst MVP’s and Cy Young selections measured by WAR.
 
That said, I’ve noticed a somewhat alarming trend regarding this year’s MVP debate: a lot of people are saying things like:
 
“Mike Trout has a WAR of 10.7. Miguel Cabrera has a WAR of 6.9. So Mike Trout should be the MVP, obviously. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a twit.”
 
That’s a direct quote. Granted, it’s a quote from me, spoken to the blank wall in my office. Still, a google search of ‘Trout’, ‘WAR’, and ‘MVP’ also turns up:
 
“Mike Trout has a WAR of 10.3 while Miguel Cabrera is at 7.1. Trout has led in AL WAR ranking every full month this year with the exception of September, when he was second behind Adrian Beltre. As I’ve stated, I’m not a huge fan of saber metrics, but that stat is very impressive.”
 
That’s from a guy named Brandon Weeland, from Bleacher Report. He isn’t even a fan of sabermetrics (or sabers and metrics), but he’s impressed by Trout’s showing on the WAR boards.
 
ESPN’s Jason Stark is a fan of sabermetrics. What says he?
 
[T]hose of us who believe that (Mike Trout should be the MVP) don't believe it because we worship WAR, or because we see that Trout has accumulated more wins above replacement than Cabrera or anyone else.
 
Good….no WAR worship there.  
 
We just understand that Trout's insane 10.5 WAR are one more clear indication that he's a better baseball player than even one of the greatest hitters of our lifetimes.
 
Ah.
 
Just to be clear: whatever version of WAR (fangraphs or bb-reference) you prefer, Trout does kick ass:
 
AL
 fWAR
rWAR
Mike Trout
10.0
10.7
Robinson Cano
7.8
8.2
Miguel Cabrera
7.1
6.9
 
Looking at the three serious candidates for the AL MVP, Trout is clearly ahead of Cano and Miggy. It’s a bit of a pity that no one has really given attention to Robinson Cano’s incredible season, but the Trout/Miggy debate leaves no room for third-party candidates.
 
 In the NL, the waters are a tad murkier:
 
NL
 fWAR
rWAR
Buster Posey
8.0
7.2
Ryan Braun
7.9
6.8
Andrew McCutchen
7.4
7.0
 
If you go by fangraphs’ version of WAR, Posey is neck-and-neck with last year’s MVP, Ryan Braun. Baseball-Reference has a three-way race between Posey, Braun, and Andrew McCutchen, the guy who led the MVP race for much of the season, but faded down the stretch.
 
The sudden emergence of WAR as a well-known metric has taken the thunder away from other equally interesting metrics that measure the totality of players. There is, for instance, Total Runs. This metric measures a players offensive, defensive, and base running contributions, and makes an adjustment for position. In the case of Buster Posey, you get:
 
Name
Runs Created
Runs Saved
Baserunning Runs
Position
Total Runs
Buster Posey
110
-1
1
30
140
Jason Heyward
94
20
6
19
139
 
Posey was the better hitter than Heyward, but the Braves outfielder gets some runs back on defense and base running. Posey, as a catcher, gets a higher position adjustment.
 
Looking at the MVP candidates by Total Runs gives us this:
 
AL
Total Runs
NL
Total Runs
Mike Trout
173
Andrew McCutchen
153
Robinson Cano
162
Ryan Braun
153
Miguel Cabrera
150
Buster Posey
140
 
Mike Trout still gets the AL MVP, but we suddenly have a dog fight between Andrew McCutchen and Ryan Braun in the National League. David Wright and Michael Bourn actually finished ahead of Posey in the Total Runs leaderboard, but we’re not getting them involved.
 
Total Runs attempt the same thing as WAR, but it comes to a different conclusion, at least in the NL.
 
Then there’s Win Shares.
 
Whereas WAR measures players against replacement level players and Total Runs measures players as pure contributors, Win Shares measures a player’s contributions to the number of games a team wins. If a team wins 100 games, that team is credited with 300 Win Shares.
 
People who talk about MVP’s frequently talk about the importance of ‘team’…of how much a player’s efforts relate to the success of a team. I think this is a legitimate point. What I wonder is this: if you’re going to use any advanced metric to decide the MVP, why use a catch-all metric that sets the player against an imagined replacement player, when you can use a metric that measures the player against their team’s actual wins?
 
If we use Win Shares, the three MVP candidates look like:
 
AL
Win Shares
NL
Win Shares
Mike Trout
38.4
Andrew McCutchen
39.6
Robinson Cano
33.9
Buster Posey
37.9
Miguel Cabrera
31.7
Ryan Braun
28.4
 
Mike Trout is still ahead in the American League race…he is clearly the AL MVP, by any advanced metric.
 
In the National League, Pirates centerfielder Andrew McCutchen pulls to the front of the pack. Astonishingly, Andrew McCutchen rates as a slightly better player than the much-lauded Mike Trout…if we round his tally up, McCutchen becomes one of the very few players in history to post a 40-Win Share season.  
 
*          *          *

There’s nothing wrong with falling in love with a stat. I loved Runs Produced for a while, and I still hold some affection for it.
 
And it’s understandable why we fall in love with cool statistics: they let us see the game in a new way, in a way that challenges us. It’s fun to argue about Cabrera/Trout. And: it’s possible we’re getting closer to a truer way of seeing the game.
 
But...it seems hardly better to hold up a statistic like WAR to be the only line of discussion than it is to praise RBI’s as a sacred cow of hitterly greatness. Arguing that Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown automatically makes him the MVP is silly, but arguing that Mike Trout is the MVP because of his 10+ WAR is almost as bad.
 
(No, it’s not! Mike Trout all the way! TRRRRRROUT!)
 
Just to wrap this up: the MVP candidates, by Runs Produced:
 
AL
Runs
RBI
HR
Runs Produced
Miguel Cabrera
109
139
44
204
Mike Trout
129
83
30
182
Robinson Cano
105
94
33
166
NL
Runs
RBI
HR
Runs Produced
Ryan Braun
108
112
41
179
Andrew McCutchen
107
96
33
170
Buster Posey
76
103
24
155
 
My vote would be for Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen as this year’s MVP’s. But my eleven-year-old self says Miggy and Braun all the way!
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 

COMMENTS (15 Comments, most recent shown first)

Sinark
If Granderson had hit 2 more home runs would we even be having this debate?
5:45 AM Nov 22nd
 
hotstatrat
The argument is, KaiserD2 - and I don't necessarily endorse it - that the ultimate goal of the regular season is to get into the play-offs. So, it doesn't matter that the Angels won one more game, Detroit won as many games as they had to in order to get into the post season and the Angels did not. Right or wrong, we are partially measuring these players by their team's success. I do think it is fair to say that in 2012, Detroit had a more successful regular season than Los Angeles of Anaheim.
12:43 PM Nov 19th
 
guidedogjapan
Agreed that it's the MVP and not the Best Player, but if that's one's argument, then one needs to define those terms. Value could be taken in several different ways, while best is a can of worms.

So far, we've heard "A" is more valuable, but "B" is only best because what? He contributed to more wins for his team? If "A" is in a pennant race and "B" isn't, then the less meaningful context of the latter's contribution is an issue...
7:56 AM Nov 19th
 
Brian
I think I heard Jayson Stark say this and I agree- generally the test should be that the player is playing in meaningful games rather than the team actually wins.

Now that Cabrera has won, can I make a trade? I'll give up Cabrera's win if Alan Trammell is named the 1987 MVP...(they can just announce that there were some uncounted absentee ballots)
11:19 PM Nov 17th
 
KaiserD2
p.s. I'm pretty amazed anyone can argue that it doesn't matter that the Angels won more games. They won more games partly because their best player was better. The Tigers got to the playoffs because they played in an easier division. There's no reason to reward Cabrera for that.
12:00 PM Nov 16th
 
KaiserD2
This is an interesting commentary on the long-term influence of sabermetrics in the media world. Trout was clearly the superior player last year but he didn't have a chance. Of course, that's happened before.
In an early baseball abstract, the founder of this site made a critical point about Runs Produced. The stat contains a major conceptual flaw. Home runs should not be subtracted from runs + rbi. If you score a run, you are 50% responsible for it--the guy who drove you in is the other 50% responsible. If you drive one in the same thing applies. Thus a "run produced" is really half a run produced, as Bill pointed out decades ago, and a home run is two of those. So in fact, one should simply add runs and RBI and divide by 2 and that would be a legitimate measure of something, albeit one substantially affected by the guys playing around you. By my formula Cabrera produced 124 runs, Trout 106, Cano 99.5, and in the NL, Braun 110, McCutchen 101.5, and Posey 89.5.
11:58 AM Nov 16th
 
rgregory1956
It ended up not being much of a debate, at least according to the voters.
11:48 AM Nov 16th
 
Brian
WAR says that Trout's contribution was almost 60% more than Cabrera's. That's with no contribution in the first month. When the result is one that appears that absurd on its face, there should be an understandable explanation for the result. And we should look for flaws.

Here are the less obvious areas where Trout is picking up his lead (offensively) over Cabrera

1) GIDP for Cabrera, SB% for Trout - these are somewat hidden because neither category is in OPS and neither category is present in most Fantasy Leagues.

2) The ballpark. You think of Comerica as a pitcher's park, but it hasn't been for a few years now. Meanwhile, Trout plays in a strong pitcher's park.

3) Cabrera's counting stats are inflated because he played virtually every game. Especially when compared to Trout, who missed April.

But here are the flaws - what is not counted or overcounted.

1) September play - Cabrera is given no benefit for finishing stronger in a pennant race.

2) The position switch-already discussed

3) Defense - Trout is a great centerfielder, but in a league with Austin Jackson, Adam Jones, Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson, and Coco Crisp, among others, is he worth as many runs as advertised?
On his own team, Bourjos had a better range factor than Trout in CF. Not saying Trout isn't great - I just feel strongly that the impact on WAR is more than it should be.

Question - Does anyone know if you add up the WAR (any of the formulas) for everybody on the team does it give an accurate number for team wins?

In the end, it is hard to argue with Trout, but there is going to be a backlash against these metrics unless they are better explained to the public and their flaws more readily acknowledged.




12:52 PM Nov 15th
 
hotstatrat
I've never been one to believe the MVP needs to be from a play-off team, but the Angels winning more games than the Tigers is completely irrelevant. The point of favoring a play-off team's MVP candidate (and it is a weak one, I agree) is that he played well enough in a year he had to in order for his team to achieve that goal. The Angels' goal was not to win more games than Detroit, it was to win more games than Oakland and Texas.
12:48 PM Nov 15th
 
3for3
The argument for Cabrera, that he changed positions for the better of the team, not his own stats is one that just doesn't show up in ANY of the advanced metrics.

See also, Pete Rose, 1975​
12:17 PM Nov 15th
 
jwilt
77royals is exactly right. It's been completely glossed over in this debate, but Cabrera clinched the 2012 MVP in 1997. Back then, as a 14-year-old, he personally negotiated to have the Tigers placed in the AL Central, which of course set up the situation where the 2012 Tigers' 88 wins is more valuable than the Angels' 89 against better competition.
12:15 PM Nov 15th
 
77royals
Best player doesn't mean most valuable player.


It's the MVP, not the BP.

Trout on a stacked team couldn't get his team into the playoffs.

Cabrerra on considerably lesser team did.


10:24 AM Nov 15th
 
MWeddell
I very much disagree with this conclusion: "Arguing that Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown automatically makes him the MVP is silly, but arguing that Mike Trout is the MVP because of his 10+ WAR is almost as bad." WAR is a systematic attempt to measure a player's value when considering all aspects of his baseball production. The Triple Crown statistics are not.

That doesn't mean that WAR is 100% accurate. However, when Fangraphs's comprehensive statistic shows that Trout is the best AL player and Baseball-reference's comprehensive statistic shows the same thing and Bill James' comprehensive statistic shows that same thing and BaseballProspectus's comprehensive statistic shows the same thing and (to my knowledge) there are no widely recognized counter-examples of a comprehensive statistic measuring baseball productivity showing that anyone other than Trout was the best player in the AL last year, then there's MUCH better evidence that Trout was the best player in the AL last year then all of the pro-Cabrera arguments I've read.

Look, don't believe the uber-statistics. Work it out for yourself. I did, and that allows me to factor in the value of clutch hitting and the value of playing well late in the season for a team in the playoff hunt and the value of switching positions and anything else I like. If I can't find a statistic to measure a contribution, then I'll estimate how many wins it was worth. On my own private tally, Miguel Cabrera moves up to the second most valuable player in the AL in 2012, but Trout has too big of a lead for the extra factors to help Cabrera leapfrog past Trout (especially given the slight evidence that Cabrera was more clutch than Trout was).

Until a pro-Cabrera argument includes an analysis as comprehensive and analytical as fWAR, b-refWAR, Win Shares or WARP, then I'm personally not persuaded that there is more than one reasonable answer to the question of who was the most valuable AL player in 2012.

7:07 AM Nov 15th
 
MWeddell
Dave, there's an arithmetic error in your first paragraph that you might want to fix.
6:51 AM Nov 15th
 
mikeclaw
My vote would be for Cabrera. I think either one is a fine choice, but the fact is that Trout had zero value for the Angels for the first month of the season. It's not his fault, but that is immaterial. For a good part of the season, he had no value.

Plus, I will give Cabrera points for this: In order to make the Fielder signing work, Cabrera was willing and able to make the switch to a far more difficult defensive position that he had not played in many years. "Willing" means that he was ready to do this for the team's benefit. "Able" means that while he wasn't a great defensive third baseman, he wasn't a disaster either. I think everyone would agree that he played better at third base, probably FAR better, than anyone would have anticipated. If he couldn't handle the switch, if he had been a complete disaster, if the Tigers had to abandon that lineup strategy, it would have truly hurt the team. Because he put in the work and the effort to succeed there, because he had the physical skills to handle the position, it allowed the Tigers to go with their optimum lineup. That is very real value, I believe.

I love Mike Trout. I think he was the best player in the American League once he arrived. But I give the MVP to Cabrera because (a.) he was helping Detroit win games from Day One, and (b.) his move to third base at least partially offsets the advantage that Trout has in defensive ability.
5:02 AM Nov 15th
 
 
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