Overrated Stats Could Give Miguel Cabrera an MVP He Doesn't Deserve
It's time for another article about Miguel Cabrera's candidacy for the American League Most Valuable Player award.
"Oh no. Not another one!"
Yeah, yeah. I know. We all went down this road more often than we cared to in August and September, and along the way, we all took sides. With the regular season over, shouldn't the matter be put on the shelf until the postseason is over?
I would say yes, but the AL MVP debate is still alive and well, and it's still very fascinating. The argument between Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera and Los Angeles Angels super-rookie Mike Trout is the closest thing to a generational conflict Major League Baseball can hope to inspire.
Traditionalists love Cabrera because he just had the league's first Triple Crown season—hitting .330 with 44 homers and 139 RBI—in 45 years while leading the Tigers to the playoffs. With these accomplishments on his resume, he's surely a slam dunk for the MVP.
The new-age crowd loves Trout because he led baseball in WAR and seemingly every other sabermetric stat, and the new-age crowd will gladly tell you that these stats measure a player's value far better than the old-school stats can.
If you've been following along with the situation, you'll know what happens as soon as everyone puts their cards on the table. Typically, loud yelling ensues. Trout supporters argue that Cabrera isn't all that great, and Cabrera supporters argue that the advanced stats are nothing but a bunch of mumbo jumbo.
From what I can tell, few people have actually bothered to discuss whether the stats that make up the Triple Crown are actually a bunch of mumbo jumbo in their own right. There's been all sorts of talk about what things like wOBA, UZR and, of course, WAR really mean, but there hasn't been much chatter about what batting average, homers and RBI are all about.
If you want the truth, here it is: These stats are even more overrated than all the sabermetric stats that Cabrera supporters are sick of hearing about.
Before you go racing to the comments section to give me an earful, I implore you to hear me out on this one.
To make it worth your while, I hereby promise not to use Mike Trout's name even once in the following discussion. Not dropping his name should help keep the focus on Cabrera.
And away we go...
What Is Batting Average?
For a second straight year, Cabrera led the American League in batting average with an average of .330. The next-closest player on the list finished at .326.
For many, the fact that Cabrera led the league in batting average this year is a clear-cut indication that he's the best pure hitter in the AL. Batting average is, after all, the purest means of determining a given hitter's skill with lumber in his hands. All you have to do is take how many hits a player produced and divide them by the number of at-bats he accumulated, and you've got batting average.
The perception among traditional fans is that sabermetricians hate batting average because they think it's a decidedly useless means of evaluating how good a hitter is at, you know, hitting.
And this is not true. Batting average has its uses, particularly as a handy reference point. Sabermetricians probably reference batting average just as much as traditionalist fans reference it.
The difference is that sabermetricians know the batting-average statistic is not without its flaws.
Chief among them is the fact that batting average holds singles in higher regard than walks. By now, we should all know that this should not be the case, as a walk and a single are pretty much the exact same thing. As long as a hitter gets to first base, it doesn't really matter how he got there.
This is why on-base percentage has become such a popular statistic over the last decade, as people have come to realize that hitters who get on base a lot are more valuable than hitters who simply get a bunch of hits.
If you buy into what OBP has to say (and you should), Cabrera actually had a significantly worse year at the plate in 2012 than he did in 2011. He posted an AL-best OBP of .448 in 2011, and his OBP checked in at a mere .393 this year.
The point: It was way tougher for opposing pitchers to get Cabrera out last year than it was this year. He may have won a batting title, but he actually regressed as a hitter.
And indeed, it doesn't look so good that he regressed as a hitter with Prince Fielder hitting behind him all year. Fielder, by the way, just so happened to finish second in the AL with an OBP of .412.
The other problem with batting average is that it assumes all hits are the same. As far as batting average is concerned, a single is the same as a double is the same as a triple is the same as a home run.
We know that this isn't the case, and this is precisely why slugging percentage has become so popular. It tells us many of the things batting average obscures.
There's no complaints to be made about Cabrera in the slugging department. He led the AL with a slugging percentage of .606, a figure just 16 points off the career-high .622 slugging percentage he posted in 2010. Hats off there.
However, there's more to just hitting than merely getting on base and hitting for power. OBP and slugging are great, but what they don't tell us is how good a given hitter is at doing the little things as well.
Perhaps the best stat we have for determining how good a given hitter is at doing all things is a stat called "true average," which you can find on Baseball Prospectus. It's a stat that incorporates things like situational hitting, strikeouts, errors made and whatnot, and turns them into a batting average-like figure that also happens to be adjusted for ballparks and league quality.
This year, Cabrera finished tied for third in MLB with Ryan Braun among players with at least 600 plate appearances with a TAv of .332. If you note that his TAv is two points higher than his actual average, you'll realize that Cabrera's .330 average doesn't actually do him proper justice. This is therefore an advanced stat that should please Cabrera's army of supporters.
What may not please them is that He-who-shall-not-be-named led the league in TAv this season at .357. Just behind him was Buster Posey at .350. Technically, the two of them were more well-rounded hitters than Cabrera (and Braun).
Now, there's another cool catch-all stat out there that tries to determine a player's true offensive value called weighted on-base average (wOBA). This is one that FanGraphs specializes in, and it too produces a batting-average-like statistic.
In 2012, Cabrera finished atop the AL with a wOBA of .417. He-who-shall-not-be-named finished just behind him at .409, which is quite the victory for Cabrera seeing as how wOBA is a stat that takes stolen bases and caught-stealing into consideration.
...But that doesn't mean that He-who-shall-not-be-named didn't have a better offensive season than Cabrera. True average tells us that he did, and the only reason Cabrera has him beat in wOBA is because wOBA is a stat that places a ton of value on home runs.
This is problematic because home runs aren't as great on paper as they are live.
What Are Home Runs?
There's nothing like a good home run. You hear the crack of the bat, and the next thing you know, the ball is flying high in the air towards an outfield fence that has no hope of containing it. In the process, the crowd generally goes wild.
Home runs are great, but in a statistical discussion such as this one, it behooves one to ask what a home run really is. What does a home run become once the ball clears the fence and the runner crosses home plate?
In essence, it's just another run scored. In this sense, a solo home run has the exact same value as a sacrifice fly that scores a run. In the end, they're both just runs.
In no small part due to his prowess in hitting home runs this season, Cabrera finished second in the American League with 109 runs scored. He drove himself in 44 times, and he also benefited from collecting so many extra-base hits in front of Mr. Fielder. Cabrera put himself in a position to cross home plate a lot, and he did cross home plate a lot.
However, he only scored four more runs than Ian Kinsler, a guy who hit 25 fewer home runs than he did. Cabrera also scored 20 fewer runs than He-who-shall-not-be-named, who hit 14 fewer home runs than Cabrera did.
I don't want to cheapen Cabrera's final home-run count too much, as home runs are indeed a pretty vital means of scoring runs. They make scoring runs a lot easier.
But the point here is that home runs are by no means the only means of scoring runs. Any player who can score runs in other ways besides hitting the ball out of the ballpark is inevitably going to generate just as many runs as a player who can hit the ball out of the ballpark.
This is a dilemma that Bill James tried to account for by coming up with the "runs created" formula, which has since been tweaked and generally perfected over the years to account for more and more situations.
Today, FanGraphs has a stat called "weighted runs created plus" that measures a player's offensive value by how many runs he generated in comparison to the rest of the league.
Despite his AL-high 44 home runs, Cabrera finished tied atop the AL in wRC+ with none other than He-who-shall-not-be-named at 166. Technically, both of them were the same kind of offensive upgrade over a league-average hitter.
This makes perfect sense if you actually sit down and think about it. Cabrera drove himself in with home runs and scored a lot of runs because he was on base so much, but there was little he could do to put himself in better position to score even more runs. Once he was on base, he was at the mercy of the next hitter in the lineup, totally unable to force the issue.
This is where you point out that RBI matter far more than runs scored. Particularly in his case, as Cabrera's station in life is not to score runs, but to drive them in. He's an RBI man. Not a runs-scored man.
Maybe so, but the problem with RBI is...
Well, there are a lot of problems with RBI.
What Are RBI?
From an RBI standpoint, 2012 was a banner year for Cabrera. In addition to leading the league with 139 of them, he also beat his previous career high by 12.
In the old days, Cabrera's high RBI total would have made him something akin to a god. The RBI used to be the stat for measuring a player's overall worth to his team.
We know better now, but a lot of people still stand by the RBI. Shoot, I overheard a conversation in the Oakland press box the other day in which an older writer was going on and on about how the RBI is the only stat that really matters.
It doesn't. In fact, it has very little to do with anything. Of the three stats Cabrera led the league in this year, RBI is by far the most meaningless.
The fundamental problem with the RBI is that it's a stat that gives a hitter credit for the hard work of others. In order to drive in runs, runners need to be on base. In the case of the Tigers, hitters like Austin Jackson, Quintin Berry and others needed to get on before Cabrera could drive them in.
He certainly drove in a lot of runs, but what people have to keep in mind where Cabrera is concerned is that he had a ton of opportunities to drive in runs.
Per Baseball Prospectus, Cabrera came to plate with runners on base more times than all but three other players. He came up with runners on base 40 more times than Josh Hamilton, who finished second in the AL with 128 RBI, 11 fewer than Cabrera. He simply didn't have as many chances to drive in runs as Cabrera did.
Especially not when it came to runners in scoring position, a situation that RBI men thrive on.
Per ESPN.com, Cabrera logged an AL-high 174 at-bats with runners in scoring position this season. By comparison, Hamilton logged a mere 135 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
This is not to say that Cabrera doesn't deserve credit for the work he did with runners in scoring position. He hit .356 in such situations, and 89 of his 139 RBI were the result of his hitting with ducks on the pond.
But if you're going to give credit to Cabrera for the work he did with runners in scoring position, you also have to take credit away from him for the work he didn't do with runners in scoring position. For example, he grounded into double plays 17 times in RISP situations, six more than the next player on the list.
The GIDP was not Cabrera's friend this year, as he racked up an AL-high 28 of them. This highlights one of the fundamental problems with the RBI statistic, as it doesn't tell us how many runs a player didn't contribute when he had chances to contribute them.
One stat that sheds more light on the matter is a FanGraphs stat called RE24, which is defined as "the difference in run expectancy (RE) between the start of the play and the end of the play."
And then the kicker: "Over the course of the season, each players’ RE24 for individual plays is added up to get his season total RE24."
So in essence, this is a stat that can tell us how many runs a player generated in light of how many runs he perhaps should have generated.
In 2012, the player who finished atop the AL leaderboard for RE24 was...Edwin Encarnacion?
He did indeed, and it makes perfect sense that he did. Throughout the course of the season, Encarnacion only hit into six double plays, and 23 of his 42 home runs came with men on base. He did an excellent job of living up to the moment, so to speak.
By comparison, only 17 of Cabrera's 44 home runs came with men on base, and he was also a rally-killer with those 28 double plays. Hence the reason Cabrera finished fourth in the league in RE24. He drove in a lot of runs, but technically not as many as he could have.
The point: Had he not gotten so many opportunities, Cabrera would not have led the league in RBI.
The fact that Cabrera did collect so many RBI is just as much a team accomplishment as it is an individual accomplishment. He had a ton of opportunities to score runs, but the credit for that belongs to his teammates more than it belongs to Cabrera himself.
Of course, Cabrera's RBI count isn't the only thing he's getting undeserved credit for...
What Else Does Miggy Have Going for Him?
Even after all this, I won't argue that the Triple Crown is not a special achievement. It most surely is.
My gripe is that the Triple Crown shouldn't automatically make Cabrera the MVP. In my mind, it's the same thing as arguing that the pitcher with the most wins should win the Cy Young. It's an obsolete way of thinking in this day and age.
To which Cabrera supporters say...
"Miggy led the Tigers to the playoffs!"
Did he really, though? I get that Cabrera was fantastic in August and September, but why should he get all the credit for leading the Tigers to the AL Central title?
Detroit's starting pitchers deserve just as much credit as Cabrera. Tigers starters finished with the second-best ERA in the AL behind the Tampa Bay Rays, and they went 13-8 with an AL-best 2.48 ERA in September and October.
So you see, it wasn't just Cabrera who stepped up when crunch time arrived. The club's hurlers stepped up as well, performing significantly better than a Chicago White Sox rotation that went 11-12 with a 4.26 ERA in September and October. Coincidentally, the White Sox were the team the Tigers overtook to win the AL Central.
To which Cabrera supporters say...
"Yeah, well, Miggy moved to third base so the club could sign Prince Fielder!"
This is the one argument I understand even less than all the others. If anything, this is an attack on Cabrera's character more than it is a compliment. It implies that Cabrera could have and would have blocked the signing of a truly great player if he wanted to.
What the heck was Cabrera supposed to do when Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski told him that the club was about to sign Fielder? Was Cabrera going to say no just so he could keep his post at first base, a position he had been playing on a full-time basis for only a few years? Was he going to say no because he wanted Delmon Young protecting him in the lineup instead of Fielder?
No way. Cabrera did what any sensible human being would have done. He moved to third because his choice wasn't really a choice. Saying no wasn't an option.
The argument that Cabrera did it for the greater good of the team holds no weight whatsoever. At the very best, his willingness to move to third base makes him something other than a selfish scumbag. It doesn't make him an MVP.
To which Cabrera supporters say...
"Yeah, well, the Tigers would not have even had a shot without Miggy!"
This is strictly hypothetical. Cabrera played in 161 of Detroit's 162 games, so we really have no way of knowing how the Tigers would have fared without him.
What we do know for certain is that the Tigers went 87-74 with Cabrera, a winning percentage of .540. The Tigers, of course, finished with a .543 winning percentage, lowest of any of the AL's five playoff teams.
By comparison, take the Los Angeles Angels for a nice counter example. They started the year 6-14—a mere .300 winning percentage. Then they called up He-who-shall-not-be-named and went 80-58 with him in their lineup, a .580 winning percentage.
That player clearly helped the Angels win games more than Cabrera helped the Tigers win games. He was clearly more valuable.
And I didn't even have to use WAR to make that point.
Cabrera had an excellent season in 2012. One of the greatest I've ever seen. One for the books.
But, he's only the AL MVP if you buy into misleading stats and bogus conjecture.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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