AL MVP Award 2012 Voting Results: Why Mike Trout Got Totally Screwed
Well, at least we can finally stop arguing about who should win the American League MVP award.
In an announcement that came as no real surprise, it was revealed on Thursday that the AL MVP has gone to Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera. He became the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years and helped lead his Tigers to a division title. That was good enough for the voters.
It wasn't even close either. Cabrera was listed first on 22 of the 28 ballots that were cast, and second on the other six. He didn't just win, he won in a landslide. So there's that. The choice has been made. Let's all accept it and go home...
On second thought, let's not do that.
You know where I'm going with this. I was a strong believer in Los Angeles Angels super-rookie Mike Trout's candidacy for the AL MVP award, and I still see him as the rightful winner even if the Baseball Writers Association of America went for Cabrera.
The voters got this one wrong. Plain and simple. Hands down. No doubt about it. Mark it eight, dude. Before you race down to the comments section, I fully realize that these are the words of a sore loser. Indeed, this is sore loser-ship at its finest, and I assure you it's quite genuine.
While I'm at it, I may as well also admit that you're listening to the grumblings of a stats nerd. No, I never played real baseball, so you've got me there too. As much as I'd love to blow off some steam in a batting cage somewhere tonight, I'll probably just end up drowning my sorrows in Yoo-Hoo and spending some quality time with my calculator.
Now that Cabrera supporters don't have to bother with the personal attacks (they will anyway), let's get on with why Trout got robbed of an MVP award that should have actually gone to him in a landslide, rather than the other way around.
The "why" for Trout's MVP case hasn't really changed since July. If you're a baseball fan and you've been anywhere near the Internet in the last few months, you'll know that Trout rated as the best player in baseball this season by a mile as far as key sabermetrics are concerned. Most notably, he blew Cabrera out of the water in terms of WAR regardless of whether you choose to consult Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs or Baseball Prospectus.
It's not all about WAR, though. The sabermetric debate over Trout and Cabrera has a metric ton of ins and outs. Since I've already done it on dozens of occasions, I won't bother going into specifics for the umpteenth time here. If you must have specifics for why Trout was so much more valuable than Cabrera, you can go check out the last major piece I wrote on the AL MVP race or any of the AL MVP rankings pieces I produced throughout the course of the season.
I'm obviously not the only one who ever wrote anything on the matter. The Insider piece that ESPN's Keith Law penned in late September still stands out as a good one. More recently, ace political analyst and former baseball geek Nate Silver took up arms for Trout in his "Five Thirty Eight" blog for the New York Times. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs recently re-posted a piece on how Trout was actually a better offensive player than Cabrera that's definitely worth reading.
Not going into the specifics for the umpteenth time may seem like a cop-out, but I'll repeat that we're not here to discuss why Trout deserved to win. We're here to discuss why he got robbed. That has little to do with what happened on the field and everything to do with what went on in the heads of the writers who voted for the AL MVP award.
The fact that Cabrera won tells us that the writers succumbed to tired old baseball rhetoric and a serious bout with Shiny Object Syndrome. In this case, they were mainly swayed by Cabrera's Triple Crown. Cabrera earned the Triple Crown by hitting .330 with 44 homers and 139 RBI, and he satisfied many gray-haired writers who probably figured Carl Yastrzemski's Triple Crown season in 1967 was the last they would ever see. The Triple Crown seemed to be a long-lost relic.
Here's the thing, though: It may no longer be long-lost, but the Triple Crown indeed is a relic. It's a novel accomplishment, but things have changed too much over the last half century for both writers and baseball fans to still believe that the Triple Crown is the ultimate measure of value.
Home runs are fine. Hitting home runs is the most efficient means of generating offense there is in baseball, and home run hitters definitely deserve to be placed on a pedestal.
But we know that batting average has its flaws, as it weighs all hits the same and it ignores other ways players have of getting on base. This is why OPS has become so common, as it combines on-base percentage and slugging percentage to give us a much more accurate depiction of how well hitters are actually performing. It's now as much a staple of broadcasted baseball games as batting average.
The RBI stat, meanwhile, has even more flaws than batting average. It's a stat that gives one player credit for the hard work of others, and saying the man with the highest RBI count was the best run producer isn't exactly fair. That's like automatically assuming that whoever had the most hits in a season was the league's best hitter, which isn't always true (it wasn't this year).
Actually think about where batting average and RBI come from. Batting average is almost as old as baseball itself, and the RBI stat isn't much younger. These are crude stats that were thought up to create baseball analysis, not to augment or revolutionize baseball analysis.
The revolution in baseball analysis is still a relatively recent occurrence and it's ongoing. In addition to OPS, we now have lovely things like OPS+, wOBA, wRC, TAv, aLI, RE24, UZR, DRS and, of course, WAR to evaluate ballplayers more thoroughly than ever before.
Things like OPS+, wOBA, wRC and TAv tell us things about hitters that batting average and RBI can't. Things like aLI and RE24 tell us which players qualify as being clutch and which don't. Things like UZR and DRS tell us who the best defensive players are.
As for WAR, it's true that it's not without its flaws and the formulas differ depending on who you ask, but it's the only stat that combines hitting, fielding and baserunning statistics and presents them in a way that tells us who the best all-around players are.
The Triple Crown doesn't do that. All it tells us is how efficient a hitter was when he decided to swing his bat, how many homers he hit, and how many men he drove across the plate. It gives no attention to myriad facets of the game, including various contexts hitters face and hugely important things like baserunning and defense.
As such, the Triple Crown really doesn't tell us all that much. As a means of determining total value, it is woefully insufficient. And "insufficient" is as good a word as any to describe the old-school stats. Bill James and others figured this out a long time ago, which is why we have sabermetrics. They explain so much about the game that was previously unexplained.
Many supporters of Cabrera—be they writers or fans—are quick to disregard what the sabermetrics say. Many view all these weird stats that aren't even on the backs of baseball cards as a bunch of BS thought up by a bunch of nerds in their mothers' basements, and they pay them no mind.
I have a problem with the quick dismissal of the sabermetrics for two reasons.
One: With over 100 years of baseball history and now decades of work with sabermetrics behind us, do you seriously think we don't know more about the game than the folks who thought up crude statistics like batting average and RBI? In other words, do you seriously think time hasn't made baseball analysts wiser?
Two: If you're not on board with sabermetrics, you should consider how front offices around the league feel about them.
As ESPN's Buster Olney noted in an Insider piece in late September, "advanced metrics are used now more than ever to pick players, to build teams, to structure decisions made in games every day." There's some skepticism in regard to WAR, but the things that go into determining WAR are very much being considered by general managers and other front-office executives whose job it is to evaluate players as thoroughly as they possibly can.
Yes, even the world champion San Francisco Giants use sabermetrics in their analysis of players, despite what Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle would have you believe. The Giants keep Yeshayah Goldfarb on staff, and it's his job to crunch the numbers and help Brian Sabean make personnel decisions. JWeekly.com did a whole article about him back in 2010.
What Goldfarb would tell you about the AL MVP race is the same thing that Keith Law, Nate Silver and 21 of ESPN's 28 experts would tell you: the stats all say that Cabrera was not as valuable as Trout in 2012.
Looking at the stats is the only way to look at any MVP race objectively. Before you make the complaint, we're not just talking about WAR. We're talking about WAR and all the stats below WAR. These things exist so we can know for sure how good or bad players are without having to consider subjective data and information.
The numbers don't always make it obvious who the MVP is, mind you. But in the case of the 2012 AL MVP race, it was beyond obvious that Cabrera was not as valuable as Trout. Cabrera had a great season, but Trout had a truly historic season.
To make up the difference between the two, or to just disregard that there was a difference, required writers and fans alike to pump up various subjective rationales for making Cabrera the MVP. They needed to conjure more shiny objects to drool over. The subjective rationales conjured by writers and fans included the role Cabrera played in getting the Tigers to the postseason and his apparently selfless move across the diamond to third base to accommodate Prince Fielder.
From an objective standpoint, each of these rationales is too easily shot down. The postseason factor is one we've come across numerous times before in MVP debates. Historically, writers have favored players who played on playoff teams over players who didn't play on playoff teams. That trend continued with Cabrera's victory.
It's not necessarily a bad tendency, but it made little sense to lean on it so heavily in this case. Cabrera's Tigers finished with a worse record than Trout's Angels despite the fact they were playing in a very weak AL Central. Trout and the Angels were playing in an AL West that was the toughest division in the American League, and they would have made the playoffs over the Tigers if MLB's playoff format was more like the NBA's.
While I don't want to take credit away from Cabrera for being a money hitter down the stretch in August and September, choosing to credit only him for leading the Tigers over the Chicago White Sox in the last couple weeks of the season is ridiculous. He was very good, but at least an equal amount of credit is owed to the Tigers' starting pitchers.
Per FanGraphs, Tigers starters had an MLB-best 2.48 ERA and they covered an MLB-high 189 innings in September and early October. Without them, the Tigers would not have had a chance of making the postseason, regardless of Cabrera's contributions.
Everyone must also realize that the Tigers should have never needed to come back and win the division in the first place. They had more talent than any team in the AL Central, yet they underachieved to a sub-.500 record in May and June, two months that happened to be two of Cabrera's lesser months.
Such is the problem of choosing to focus on a certain section of Cabrera's season that was particularly bright. It's like saying a student who aced the last three tests of the semester had a better semester than the student who aced the first three tests of the semester.
'Tis better to consider the whole rather than parts of the whole. Disregarding the whole is what led the writers to give Chipper Jones the NL MVP in 1999, and the same eagerness to focus on a hot finish definitely helped out Cabrera this year. Unwittingly, they repeated a past mistake.
Praising Cabrera for moving to third base, meanwhile, always struck me as a rather desperate attempt to tack another bullet point onto his MVP resume for lack of better ideas. To imply that Cabrera didn't have to make room for Fielder is to imply that he actually had a choice. Did he really? Any player who had a desire to win and to simply be a good employee would have done exactly what Cabrera did. His move to third is not a shining example of baseball selflessness.
This is to say nothing of the fact that Cabrera's defense at third base actually hurt the Tigers this year, as he posted a minus-four Defensive Runs Saved, according to FanGraphs. His fielding percentage was OK, but he couldn't make a lot of the plays that above-average and even average third basemen make on a consistent basis.
The whole selfless player argument is just another contrived storyline that helped the writers fall for Cabrera. Like the Tigers' postseason berth and Cabrera's Triple Crown, it was a shiny object that served to distract voters from the truly objective data.
These things were all oh-so-attractive for baseball writers because the general dogma of the sport says they are. The writers fell for exactly the kind of MVP candidate they would have fallen for decades ago. Therein lies the true shame of the end result of the 2012 AL MVP race. The new boss chosen by the voters is the same as all the old bosses. There was a golden chance for progress to be made, and it was blown.
Baseball has a reputation for being slow and resistant to change, as it's always trying its damnedest to cling to its roots rather than embrace the signs and wonders that are constantly coming along. Though people who work in baseball and many people who just plain watch baseball view the game much differently now, it's clear enough that many other people who watch baseball are just as afraid of change as the sport itself.
The perception of the game may be changing faster than the game itself, but the 2012 AL MVP vote is proof that there's still a lot of progress that needs to be made. Cabrera has benefited from the slow movement, and Trout was victimized by it.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have some Yoo-Hoo to get to, and my calculator is looking awfully lonely.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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