The 2012 American League Most Valuable Player (MVP) race was a classic.
Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers became the first player to win the Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967. However, while Cabrera bested Rookie of the Year winner and MVP runner-up Mike Trout in the triple crown categories, Trout was clearly the better baserunner and defensive player at a premium position.
On one side of the MVP debate were old-school writers who mostly believed the debate began and ended with the fact that Cabrera not only won the Triple Crown but also got his team into the postseason.
On the other side of the debate were new-school writers like myself who believed that Trout's vast lead in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) clearly showed him to be the more valuable player. According to FanGraphs' version of WAR, the real debate should have been between Robinson Cano and Cabrera for second place because Trout was nearly three full wins better than Cabrera (10 to 7.1 WAR).
Cabrera's team made the postseason, but that was in large part due to the futility of the American League Central. After all, Trout's team actually won one more game than Cabrera's despite playing in the tougher AL West.
Cabrera upped Trout in batting average (.330 to .326), home runs (44 to 30), runs batted in (139 to 83), slugging percentage (.606 to .564) and batting average with runners in scoring position (.356 to .324).
However, Trout stole more bases (49 to 4), produced more value on the bases (+12 baserunning runs to -2.8), had the better on-base percentage (.399 to .393) and saved more runs in the field (+11.4 Ultimate Zone Rating to -10). Thus, while the traditional stats pointed towards Cabrera, the advanced metrics gave a large overall advantage to Trout.
The old-school columnists often trafficked in ignorance and name-calling—relying on the cliche that the statistical community consisted entirely of geeks still living in their mothers' basements. One writer coined the phrase vigilante sabermetric brigade in reference to statistically inclined writers, though that comment was made during the similar debate over Jack Morris' Hall of Fame case.
Meanwhile, the new-school writers often chose arrogance to make their points.
Both sides were prone to group-think. Since too much ink was spilled to go through every single article on the subject, here's a sampling of the argument in favor of Cabrera courtesy of Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press:
Statistics geeks insisted Cabrera was less worthy than Angels rookie centerfielder Mike Trout. Not because Trout's traditional baseball numbers were better. They weren't...
But Trout excelled in the kind of numbers that weren't even considered a few years ago, mostly because A) They were impossible to measure, and B) Nobody gave a hoot.
Today, every stat matters. There is no end to the appetite for categories -- from OBP to OPS to WAR. I mean, OMG! The number of triples hit while wearing a certain-colored underwear is probably being measured as we speak...
Why not also consider such intangibles as locker-room presence? Teammates love playing around—and around with—Miggy. He helps the room.
And here's a sampling of the case for Trout, with Grant Brisbee of SB Nation tearing down Albom's argument with a heavy dose of satire:
ACRONYM JOKES. ALL OF THE ACRONYM JOKES. HAS ANYONE NOTICED THAT THESE STATS USE ACRONYMS? LOL. SAY, THAT'S AN ACRONYM! I WATCH BASEBALL WITH MY EYES. MY EYES. THEY'VE BEEN DESCRIBED AS BETTE DAVIS EYES, AND I USE THEM TO WATCH BASEBALL. I DON'T SWALLOW COMPUTERS AND PRESS MY NOSE TO TURN THEM ON TO WATCH BASEBALL, AS I'M PRETTY SURE THAT'S HOW DORKS USE COMPUTERS. I WOULDN'T KNOW BECAUSE I'M NOT A DORK. MIMEOGRAPH OR BUST, SUCKERS...This was an argument about the value of speed and defense. The numbers are almost superfluous.
In fact, let's turn the argument around.
Miguel Cabrera hit better than Mike Trout, but it was close.
Mike Trout fielded better (at a more important position) than Miguel Cabrera, and it wasn't close.
Mike Trout ran the bases better than Miguel Cabrera, and it wasn't close.
That's the argument. There wasn't a single number used up there, and the argument is airtight.
At this point, it seems like an open-and-shut case. The voters clearly got it wrong in giving the award to Cabrera.
As long as you think the MVP award should go the player who produced the most value, then Trout should have been the winner because Cabrera's offense was not superior enough to make up for the difference in the other categories. Cabrera might have been great in the locker room, but there's no evidence that Trout wasn't a great teammate, too. Cabrera's team made the postseason, but Trout's team won more games.
That was my belief until another pro-Trout writer, Joe Posnanski of NBC Sports, dropped this bomb:
[Oakland A's director of baseball operations Farhan] Zaidi and I were talking about this when he told me something that I found utterly staggering. He said that Oakland’s objective model for measuring a player’s value—remember now, we are talking about the Oakland A’s, the Moneyball people, Jonah Hill and so on—found that Miguel Cabrera, NOT Mike Trout, was more valuable in 2012.
Well, that’s not exactly right. He was quick to say that the difference between the two was so slight as to be almost invisible—they were, for all intents and purposes, in a virtual tie. But their system did have Cabrera ahead by the tiniest of margins.
I thought that was a pretty big deal. I know last year, a lot of people were spending a lot of energy trying to find a convincing statistical model that showed Cabrera was better than Trout. If there was one, I didn’t see it. Now, it turns out that Oakland (Oakland!) has such a statistical model.
Surprisingly, Posnanski's revelation that the organization that popularized sabermetrics in baseball by granting author Michael Lewis unfettered access to the team's operations back in 2002—producing the now infamous book and film Moneyball—has not led to a plethora of columns rethinking the vote. There was no shortage of articles arguing in favor of Trout's MVP case back in October, but now there's only silence on the subject despite the new evidence offered by Posnanski.
The famous economist John Maynard Keynes reportedly once said, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" In this case, the so-called vigilante sabermetric brigade appears to be ignoring the changing facts. Anything that shows Cabrera was actually better than Trout in 2012 doesn't conform to the case they've been making, even if the argument is made by someone as well-qualified as Zaidi. That is very troubling.
One would assume that Oakland's statistical measurements are more accurate than anything publicly available given that it's been at this for more than a decade. Oakland also used its numbers to help win 94 games last year on a shoestring budget. In light of that, statistically inclined writers should reinvestigate their assumptions, particularly about WAR.
The old-school columnists like Albom will continue to write their name-calling drivel. Those columns are probably part of the reason the newspaper industry is dying a slow death. However, one would expect that stats-based writers would adjust their thinking as new facts become available.
Miguel Cabrera won the AL MVP last year in one of the most hotly contested races in the award's history. Some of the voters clearly chose Cabrera for the wrong reasons, but in the end, they may have gotten it right.