Why the 2012 AL MVP Race Will Forever Change the Way the Award Is Judged
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It's getting ugly out there, folks.
If you've wandered into a conversation or debate over who should win the American League Most Valuable Player Award, chances are, the tone of the discourse has gotten rather heated.
This has become so much more than a competition between the Los Angeles Angels' Mike Trout and the Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera. This is an argument over the fundamental differences between how certain factions of fans watch the game and assign merit to a star player. It's a clash between newer analytics and traditional views.
What has made the AL MVP discussion particularly contentious is that neither side is willing to cede any ground in their beliefs on how the current game should be judged.
Almost all of us were raised to look at batting average, home runs and runs batted in when assessing how good a player is. (For pitchers, it was about wins, ERA and strikeouts.) Over the past 10 years, fans, writers and analysts have all come to realize the important of on-base percentage and OPS (on-base plus slugging) in determining a batter's true production.
But analysis of the game is delving even deeper due to the massive amounts of data and metrics that are being created, giving us a greater variety of ways to measure the impact a player can make. The biggest innovation these metrics have allowed for is the ability to evaluate defense, something that was previously only judged by how many errors a player made.
Rather than assess defense by "the eyeball test," metrics such as FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating attempts to measure a player's range. How much area can a shortstop or center fielder cover? Most importantly, how many runs did a player prevent from scoring based on outs he made in the field? This has given us a whole new way of evaluating a player's merit.
Yet those numbers aren't on the back of a baseball card. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that those numbers aren't immediately available when you pull up a player's stats on ESPN.com, Yahoo or MLB.com. That information has to be sought out.
Yes, these newer statistics available rather easily through sites like FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference, but that can feel like work. For the hardcore fans who don't just want to passively watch sports and accept the information given to them, pursuing that information doesn't feel like work. It's a joy to expand their knowledge of the game.
But some people just want to watch a ballgame and forget about their day at work. They want to see a slugger crush a home run. They want to see a rocket-armed pitcher blow away a batter at the plate. They want to see their team win. It's even better if that win came over a hated rival.
And there is nothing wrong with that.
How someone prefers to watch baseball and view the merits of its players shouldn't be judged as inferior. Perhaps it can be seen as less informed. But again, some fans have grown up watching the game a certain way and see no reason to change from that.
Consequently, if a fan wants to really explore what makes a player so good, the different ways in which someone can impact the outcome of a game or perhaps determine why a particular skill set is woefully underappreciated, he shouldn't be dismissed as a numbers-crunching nerd either.
To me, it's similar to watching a movie. As a writer, I often enjoy talking about story points and character motivations after viewing a film. I like to get in elbow-deep and discuss why I really liked or disliked that movie. But others just want to be entertained. They want to see stuff blow up or creative forms of violence. Maybe they just like looking at beautiful people.
Is one way better or preferable than the other? We both either enjoyed the movie or were disappointed by it. Both reactions are perfectly valid, even if each viewer doesn't agree with the views of the other.
Perhaps that's not a perfect comparison. Whether the story of a movie holds together or the special effects look cool is different than judging how good—or valuable—a player is on the baseball field. One is more of an aesthetic opinion, while the other is based on information presented and feats of athletic achievement.
As of Oct. 2, Miguel Cabrera leads the AL with a .329 batting average, 44 home runs and 137 RBI. Those are the three stats that we were raised to believe properly measured a batter's value. How often does he get a hit? How many balls does he put into the seats? How many runs does he drive in for his team?
For many fans, writers and analysts—I'm going to presume it's a majority of them—Cabrera leading the league in "Triple Crown" stats makes him the AL MVP. The Triple Crown is something mythical, a feat that hasn't been accomplished since 1967. How can that not be rewarded with MLB's greatest individual honor?
But an increasing number of fans, writers and analysts have learned to look at numbers besides the traditional statistics we were raised to follow.
Advanced metrics show how much a player can contribute to a game defensively and how much that helps his team win. We can see the effect of baserunning on a team's ability to score. How often does a player go from first base to third and put himself into scoring position? How often does he score from second base?
This is what the AL MVP race between Cabrera and Trout has come down to.
If Cabrera wins the Triple Crown, the general consensus is that the achievement—along with the Tigers making the playoffs—cannot be overlooked and he will win the MVP. The traditional view of baseball will win out.
But if MVP voters look at Trout's numbers and the various ways he has impacted the game—best exemplified through his leading MLB in wins above replacement (WAR)—that will have changed how baseball's best players are judged from here on out. Just looking at batting average, home runs, RBI and team record will no longer be suitable.
Trout leads MLB in WAR as measured by both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. The fact that two separate outlets have different methods for calculating wins above replacements has been used to dismiss the metric. Even the geeks can't agree!
Yet both websites have rated Trout with a WAR total above 10. Even if a fan doesn't understand everything that is used to determine WAR, doesn't just looking at the number convey some sense of how much impact that player has? Why is Trout three wins better than Ryan Braun or Robinson Cano? There must be a reason for that.
But again, that takes some work to learn. Not everyone wants to make that effort, and there's no rule that says he or she has to.
If Trout wins, will that be seen as progress? Obviously, it will in some circles. Those who don't understand why he won will either be compelled to understand why or perhaps dismiss the new way the game is judged. The hope is that MLB doesn't lose fans because of a reluctance to embrace the newer numbers.
The thing both sides have in common, of course, is that each of them loves baseball. Each faction of fans just loves the game in different ways. In the years to come, sabermetricians and traditional fans learn to acknowledge the other side's view and baseball can bridge the widening chasm between them.
Perhaps Trout winning the AL MVP will be the event that triggers such a coming together.
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