As long as there have been baseball games, there have been baseball fans. People have taken a rooting interest in players and teams since the first organized games were played. As the game grew, and popularity rose, there was a need for the results to be published in newspapers, which led to the birth of something new: the beat writer who covered a team and a sport for a newspaper. There was a market for first-hand observers to relate the story of that day’s game to a curious–and increasingly knowledgeable and opinionated–public.
The public did not just become more knowledgeable and opinionated, the media covering the game did as well. In 1920 the Run Batted In became an official stat, right around the time that box scores began appearing in newspapers and the coverage of baseball games in newspapers began to focus increasingly more on individual players. Not coincidentally, this was also the time when baseball’s first mega-star, Babe Ruth, came to prominence.
As the discussion in newspapers evolved, and individual stats were published with some frequency, the conversation in the media and among fans continued to grow. In 1951, when Hy Turkin published The Complete Encyclopedia of Baseball, baseball fans for the first time had a compendium of statistical information, and the conversation continued growing.
The availability of statistics led to writers and fans using them to rank players and wield those stats in who’s better/who’s best discussions about individual players. Some stats gained more significance than others in the minds of fans and writers, and among those stats specific amounts or levels of a counting or rate stat became accepted as ‘good’ in the course of a single season.
Among columnists’ early writing and attempts at analyzing player performance a.300 Batting Average became the gold standard for a good-hitting season, and .400 became a mythological height that only a few greats would reach. A “Three Hundred Hitter” became a thing of note. It’s lasted through this day, as players like Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs reach enshrinement in the Hall of Fame based almost exclusively on their status as “Three Hundred Hitters.” (I doubt voters were savvy enough when voting for Boggs to consider he has the 12th-best OBP of all Hall Of Fame players. Or that they discounted Gwynn for playing replacement-level defense in his career.) No one stopped to question why .300, and not .310 or .290, was the yardstick for a very good year. It was a nice round number, drawn fairly arbitrarily, and it stuck.
One hundred became the yardstick number for RBI in a season. A player with 100 RBI was considered to have been productive and to have had a good year. No one stopped to measure if 100 and not 95 or 105 RBI was the best yardstick for a very good year. It was a nice round number, drawn fairly arbitrarily, and it stuck.
In the 1920s, with the advent of RBI and the spread of box scores, came the talk of baseball’s Triple Crown. I’m not sure who invented it, or made first mention of it. I’ve Googled it a bit and have not found an answer. The Triple Crown awards a player for leading his league in batting average, home runs, and RBI. Why RBI, HR and AVG were considered the three components of batting’s Triple Crown at the time, I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone does.
What’s important to note is that at some point it became agreed upon that those three categories were the three big ones on offense without there being any real research or explanation. Just as the round numbers .300 and 100 were arbitrary, the Triple Crown is entirely arbitrary because it was composed of three things that no one at the time knew to challenge. Why was driving in runs included in the trio but not runs scored? Why was there not a Quadruple Crown, made up of HR, AVG, RBI and R? A Quintuple Crown of HR, AVG, RBI, R, SB? There was no critical thought. Someone thought it made sense, named it, and it stuck.
If RBI are one of the three most important elements of baseball offense, why, again, are runs scored not? We should all agree at this point, in the 2010s with all the research and thought that has gone into measuring baseball events, that an RBI is not an entirely individual accomplishment, except in the case of a solo home run. So why do we value the player driving in the run in terms of a Triple Crown accomplishment more than we value the player who reached base–and typically reached scoring position–ahead of him? Is it truly more valuable to drive in a run than to get into position to be driven in? Player A hits a double, Player B hits a single that drives him in. Which was more valuable? Player A hits a triple, B drives him in with a sac fly. Who did the heavy lifting? There can be a run scored with no RBI–wild pitch, error, passed ball, balk, steal of home–but there can be no RBI with a run scored. No one defending the RBI as a better stat than a run scored has made that case convincingly, and I’m not sure it’s a case that can be made, though from a performance analysis perspective, we’re both forgetting both.
Batting average is a component of the Triple Crown because On Base Percentage was not a stat that was kept at the time. OBP did not come along until 1984, at which point Batting Average had been recorded and cited for a century.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with recording Batting Average, or RBI. Batting Average tells us something exact and real. How frequently a hitter gets a base hit. A high RBI count tells us that a player took advantage of driving in runners when he was presented with the opportunity–but not entirely. They’re not useless stats. They’re just not the best ways to gauge performance and are not the best things to use if we’re composing a holy grail of three stats for something we’ll call a Triple Crown and pretend it’s more meaningful than nicely notable.
Fans and the media still celebrate the Triple Crown, as evidenced this week when Miguel Cabrera became the first player in almost a half-century to achieve one. As something to celebrate, and as a piece of baseball lore, that’s great. But that’s where it should end: Miguel Cabrera achieved something that’s rarely achieved.
Beat writers with local audiences can’t talk about WAR and Weighted On Base Average (wOBA) and Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE) unless it’s in passing, like, “….the website FanGraphs credits Buster Posey with 8 Wins Above Replacement this year…”, before moving on to something else like how many home runs and RBI Posey accumulated.
The unspoken contract that exists between the mainstream sports media and mainstream sports fans says that the conversation will be kept on long-standing terms, using long-standing measures to judge player performance. Batting average, RBI, home runs, Earned Run Average, Wins and Losses, Stolen Bases, Saves. Despite now over 30 years of Bill James and those who followed finding better ways of measuring baseball performance, beat writers and fans largely do not use the new, better ways of measuring performance. We will write for you, and won’t challenge your ideas, because you might stop reading. We will keep reading, as long as you keep telling us the stories we want to hear, using the stats we’ve long held as important.
And that’s precisely why sportswriters and fans can’t analyze baseball players, and where the need for analysts comes in.
Analysts are objective. Bill James described sabermetrics as “a search for objective information about baseball.” That’s pretty dry. It’s far more boring that a New York Times Sunday edition piece detailing an 8th inning rally that catapulted the Yankees to a win over the Red Sox. But sabermetrics are not colorful like the narrative of a game. Just as most beat writers are not equipped to analyze, most sabermetricians are not equipped to narrate. It’s one of the biggest hurdles for sabermetrics, if not the biggest–the good analysts are not good writers, the good writers not great analysts. Bill James and Nate Silver were both, but Silver moved to politics and James does not write much these days due to his obligations to the Red Sox. While saberists might not be as good at entertaining as beat writers, they are objective and they don’t attribute things as important unless they can prove them so. That’s a higher ground that analysts hold, and regardless how hard the Murray Chass-es or message board straw man specialists of the world argue, they are lacking the intellectual higher ground, and make fools of themselves when they fail to stop, listen, and learn something instead of insisting on the old way of thinking or claiming performance measurement is subjective.
Where the fan will look for a way to work backwards, finding stats and information to support his case, typically preconceived, the analyst will work forward, asking a question and then doing the research to get a real answer. In analytical work, models are tested and re-tested until they can be determined to be meaningful, and if they cannot be determined as meaningful after re-testing, they have still determined something; there’s no correlation to be found. With fans, the preconceived notion is validated or the evidence in support of it is shifted until that notion has been thoroughly rationalized.
The person who understands sabermetrics can see both sides, can see the necessary W-L aspect of each game and congratulate a team on reaching the playoffs, while also seeing with clear eyes which team is better. The old-schooler cannot, because they are blinded by one or more of several things. The inability to be objective. Bad ideas of what constitutes quality passed down from dads, coaches, the media and others. A staunch prejudice against an idea that does not fit their preconceived notions of quality. Fear of their long-held belief being wrong. More. Mostly, fans don’t want to hear analysis that dispels their false notions, the same way Christians close themselves to the facts that dispel their beliefs or folks in the 3rd Century BC denied astronomers’ findings that the earth is spherical.
And that’s why we have a “Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout?” discussion with regards to the American League MVP this year. It’s not really a debate. Mike Trout’s quality, his total input, the value he gave his team this year, the overall production of his play, far exceeds that of Cabrera.
This is where the fan steps in and says “Yes but Cabrera won the Triple Crown and that has not happened in almost a half-century and it’s really cool and something hard to do and Cabrera is in the prime of a HOF career and Trout is young and still has a lot of time to win his MVP awards and he’ll get the Rookie Of The Year Award as a consolation and…”
And that’s all bullshit. Pure, unadulterated bullshit. It’s fan bullshit masquerading as analysis. It’s rationalizing a lesser player winning an award that is designed to be given to the best player, and it’s all meaningless fan bullshit. It’s their paradigm, and it’s a wrong one based in misunderstanding and stubbornness.
The Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), the body of sportswriters who vote on the MVP, Hall Of Fame, and other awards, says on it’s website, re MVP voting:
There seems to always be a debate about the definition of the MVP. What does the ballot say?
There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.
The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:
1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.
2. Number of games played.
3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.
4. Former winners are eligible.
5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.
You are also urged to give serious consideration to all your selections, from 1 to 10. A 10th-place vote can influence the outcome of an election. You must fill in all 10 places on your ballot. Only regular-season performances are to be taken into consideration.
Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters.
One could draw all sorts of meaning from that. The BBWAA directs writers to consider that “The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier” yet the writers will still, in print to their audience, justify making that a factor in their voting. One could rationalize that “need not” means it does not have to be, but the voters are welcome to consider it. I consider the inclusion of that line to be the BBWAA saying to its membership, with regards to favoring players on playoff teams: “stop it.” If the BBWAA didn’t care that members use that silly crutch to justify voting a lesser player for MVP based on the strength of their teammates, that line would be absent from the message to voters.
In short, the note is telling BBWAA members to vote for the best player. The one who played in a sufficient number of games, showed good character and effort on the field, and who provided the most “actual value” to his team. Beyond that, it’s left up to the voters to decide. Still, some will decide the lesser of Trout and Cabrera, because the lesser this year is on a playoff team and the better is not.
Many voters this year will decide that Cabrera’s Triple Crown means Cabrera was ‘most valuable.’ That’s a sign of just how bad the subjective opinions of writers are. If Josh Hamilton or Curtis Granderson had hit two more home runs, keeping Cabrera from the Triple Crown, would Cabrera then be taken down a notch in the minds of voters? I would say yes, considering Matt Kemp almost had a Triple Crown in 2011, was the best player in the National League, and did not win the NL MVP. A year later, we have Cabrera being talked about by some as a slam-dunk to win the MVP because he achieved the Triple Crown.
That’s a problem. The Triple Crown is a big deal. For fans, for writers, even for analysts who can appreciate how tough it is to achieve one. Albert Pujols never did it. Nor did Alex Rodriguez or Ken Griffey Jr or Frank Thomas or Jeff Bagwell or Barry Bonds. It’s a tough measure to reach, and it’s fun for fans when it does. However, the Triple Crown should only be an MVP qualifier if one is ready to make the claim that it’s components–AVG, HR, RBI–are the three most important measures of a player’s performance. And they are not.
Cabrera led the AL in RBI. Trout led in runs scored. What’s more valuable, driving in a runner, or being the runner who gets on base and gets into scoring position so he can be driven home?
Cabrera led the AL in AVG. That batting average was .004 higher than Trout’s. Trout led the AL in OBP, with an On Base Percentage that was .006 higher than Cabrera’s. What’s more valuable, making less total outs and reaching base more, or getting more hits but fewer walks and committing more outs?
Analysts know, thanks to careful study, that there is value in both things in both cases above. We can’t compare Cabrera’s RBI count to Trout’s RBI count. Cabrera hits in the middle of the order behind a couple good players who get on base a lot. Trout hits first in the order behind the couple players on his team who reach base the least. Cabrera has more opportunity than Trout.
We can’t compare Trout’s runs scored to Cabrera’s for the same reasons in the paragraph above–flip the roles and you see why one is way ahead of the other.
Both players have similarities in their offensive skill sets (seen in their very close AVG and OBP) and then then have some differences. Cabrera has the power to hit more home runs. Trout has the speed to turn outs to singles, singles to doubles, doubles to triples, getting himself in position to score more frequently. The average and on-base percentage are similar, but what they do beyond record base-hits and avoid outs is quite different.
We have a measure that tells a lot about overall offensive input, and that is wOBA. It’s close this year, but Trout leads Cabrera by a margin of .422 to .416. wOBA takes all of the player’s offensive input and gives it real value, and it says, Triple Crown or no, that Mike Trout’s skill set was a little more valuable than Miguel Cabrera’s this year. We don’t have to have the argument of whether Cabrera driving in runs is more important than Trout scoring runs, because wOBA ignores both measures, and looks at what the players did to create runs on the whole.
We have measures for defense. FanGraphs publishes Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Baseball Reference publishes Runs From Fielding (Rfield), and Baseball Prospectus publishes Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA). They are all a good start toward measuring defense, but they are inexact, unlike the way offensive stats are very accurate in measuring performance. UZR or any zone-based fielding metric that relies on human stringers is going to be unreliable, especially in small sample sizes even as large as a year.
We may need to be skeptical of defensive stats individually, but we should be attentive to them collectively. If all four of the above state that Player A is an asset on defense, and Player B is a liability, then regardless of what we think of the individual stats and their unreliability, we should not discount them on the whole. After that we should put the best tool we still have for judging defense into play: our eyes.
In the context of Trout or Cabrera for AL MVP, defensively there is no comparison. Trout is a plus-plus defender (both by metrics and to the eye) in a premium position that only a handful of MLB regulars can play above average. Cabrera is a liability (both by metrics and to the eye) at a position with a far lower importance and requiring a far lower amount of defensive skill. Trout is overwhelmingly better than Cabrera on defense.
And that should close the discussion. Trout was marginally better offensively by a tested and true measure of total offensive input. Trout was overwhelmingly better defensively by metrics and to the eye. The BBWAA instructs voters to consider “actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.” That describes Mike Trout, whether or not Cabrera reached an arbitrary landmark that was last reached when no one had to spell-check “Yastrzemski.”
Unfortunately, most of the people with the wrong paradigms are the ones who will make the MVP decision. The writers, who will be told “don’t vote for one guy over another because his team is in the playoffs” will do just that. They’ll vote for Cabrera because he accomplished something that they wrongly perceive to qualify him as “most valuable” offensively. They will vote for the wrong guy for the wrong reasons. And then they will write columns defending those positions, and most of their readers will agree.
Analysts and saberists and the more enlightened writers still in the minority have judged the two correctly. Keith Law wrote in ESPN Insider why Trout is the clear MVP. In the Baseball Prospectus staff ballot, Trout got all but one first-place vote and ran away with the faux-award. The lone dissenter was BP’s CEO/President, a business guy, who does almost zero baseball writing on the site. The Fangraphs staff voted Trout unanimously, with all 25 voters selecting him. Among the smartest baseball writers on the web, the vote is 54-1 for Trout. What those folks are voting on is total production, as requested by the BBWAA’s note to voters, and they’re finding it mostly in one place: WAR.
Per FanGraphs Trout was worth 10.4 WAR, 43% more than Cabrera’s 7.2 WAR. Per Baseball Reference, Trout was worth 10.7 WAR, 55% more than Cabrera’s 6.9 WAR. Per Baseball Prospectus, Trout was worth 9.1 BWARP, 49% more than Cabrera’s 6.1 BWARP. Everyone who measures total performance value rates Trout at least 43% better than Cabrera by pure value added…and he did it despite not being called up from AAA until the season was nearly a month old. 43-50% more value added, while only playing ⅚ of the season, equals a dominant, historic season. The kind of season that should be a no-brainer MVP win for Trout not just among saberists but among the general public. Like defensive metrics, the old-school guys who understand little of performance metrics will insist that WAR is some new-math hokum invented on a chalkboard by Billy Beane while he was writing ‘Moneyball’
Because of WAR analysts, smart fans, GMs, and anyone who can read and digest it’s simple logic, can see total value. Not arbitrary garbage like Triple Crown wins or only-semi-useful stats like RBI. Total value. It’s ignored or dismissed by old-school fans who fear the way it’s accuracy makes their outdated ideas look foolish, but that’s their problem. Mike Trout was the best player in baseball this year. It’s indisputable. But the writers and a lot of fans out of that fear will rationalize why it’s ok for him not to be awarded the game’s best player. And that will be for a lot of reasons that fulfill their need to defend their own bad ideas, and nothing that has anything to do with measuring who was better, or best, in 2012.
If Trout does win the MVP this year, then we can call it another great yardstick in BBWAA evolution, along with Felix Hernandez winning a Cy Young Award with a 13-12 record and Bert Blyleven entering the Hall of Fame. But because the guys with the wrong paradigm are allowed to make the vote, I’m not holding my breath.
Writers have a valuable place in the picture–relating the narrative of today’s game, the season, a career. The human-interest side and the narrative. But it’s time for them to acknowledge that there’s a wealth of information about player and team analysis that they are way behind on, open their ears to analysts’ writing as much as they do the players’ locker room comments, and grow. And it’s time for the fans to put their pride and preconceived notions aside and listen.
This post is dedicated to Keith Law, Bill James, and every other sabermetrically enlightened writer out there willing to say to the straw man specialists, the internet jackasses, the backwards traditional thinkers, and the like: “screw you pal, the world is round.” Our understanding of baseball is better because some people are not apologetic for being necessarily forceful against bad old-school opinions considered too long to be truths, and because they are willing to say it’s not a difference of opinion, it’s a matter of one side having a bad, and wrong, opinion.