Let’s start with a little bit of history: In 1942, Ted Williams won the Triple Crown, but Joe Gordon won the MVP. This was 70 years ago, so there basically were no other statistics of note after batting average, home runs and RBIs. Still, Gordon won the award. Why? Let’s allow the Associated Press story of the time to explain:
“(Williams) won the so-called Triple Crown,” the AP wrote, “by finishing on top in batting with .356, home runs with 36 and runs batted in with 137. No one had led in all three since Lou Gehrig in 1934, and few had ever done it before. ... It was a notable performance and achieved under considerable pressure.
“Williams always has been an individualist and his actions have provoked repeated taunts and ridicule from the bleacher customers. Williams’ attitude perhaps was taken into account in the voting of some members of the committee, and it may have been the deciding factor in the balloting.”
In truth, Williams’ not winning the award wasn’t the big story. The big story was that Gordon had just come off a World Series where many writers labeled him the goat because he hit .095 and was picked off second base in the final inning. So, the “World Series goat wins MVP award” angle was the one that seemed to resonate with writers and readers rather than “How does the Triple Crown winner not get named MVP?” Everybody seemed to at least understand why Williams didn’t win the MVP. He was an individualist or something like that.
And also, his team didn’t win. As Pittsfield, Mass., newspaperman John M. Flynn wrote in the oddly named column “The Referee’s Sporting Chat”: “Offhand, we would say young Ted Williams has a perfect right to stand right up in class and ask: ‘Just what does a bloke have to do?’ I suppose the answer is: Be with a pennant winner.”
You will note some irony here. It was the advanced stats people who were fighting for the Triple Crown winner in 1942. The establishment at the time was interested in things they deemed more important than stats. Gordon was a undeniably better defensive player. Gordon was faster and ran the bases better. Gordon did all those little things that seemed to elude Williams. Gordon was a leader! A man among men! Captain of the ship! And such things.
The trouble is, there really was no way to measure such things in 1942. Now, there are a lot of ways to look at it. Let’s go with some simple stuff: Williams’ on-base percentage was 90 points higher than Gordon’s. His slugging percentage was more than 150 points higher. He hit twice as many home runs, scored 53 more runs, drove in 34 more runs ... according to the Baseball Reference formula, he had 60 more runs created than Gordon while making 50 fewer outs.*
*By contrast, according to the same formula, Miguel Cabrera created exactly one more run than Mike Trout, but made 56 more outs in the process.
There is no way, in my mind, that Gordon’s defense and speed and leadership could have made up that enormous an offensive gap. But this was the beauty of 1942 -- they didn’t know the offensive gap, and more to the point they didn’t have to play by those rules. It was like a rogue card game where you make up the thing as you go along. What is Gordon’s defense worth? They might say it’s worth 348 green parapixels (the green kind are the best kind!). Add in 4,993 supralinis for his leadership and 84,382 chalklors for his base running and, well, Ted Williams isn’t even close.
The writers blew it in 1942, I think. Ted Williams wasn’t just the more valuable player, he was far more valuable. He should have won the MVP in 1941 too, and should have won it in 1947. But he didn’t. And he didn’t win in 1942 ... the voters decided the stats didn’t tell enough of the story. And so they voted for Gordon.
Now, we jump 70 years into the future, and this thrilling MVP race between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout, and it’s funny because everything is kind of upside down. Now it’s the establishment people making the arguments for the Triple Crown stats -- the arguments that would have been made for Ted Williams in 1942. And now it’s the advanced stats people making arguments similar to the ones that the traditionalists made for Joe Gordon in 1942. Weird.
Let’s go over the arguments for Cabrera quickly. I was in a long panel discussion with Harold Reynolds, Mad Dog Russo and Keith Olbermann on all this on the MLB Network, and the first two had a lot to say about why Cabrera should win. The MVP arguments for Miguel Cabrera, best I can tell, are these:
1. He won the Triple Crown. This made him a much more dominant offensive player than Trout.
2. He won the Triple Crown. It was the first one since 1967, making this a rare and historic achievement.
3. He won the Triple Crown. Did you hear me? He won the Triple Crown. I’m not sure you’re quite getting this. He WON THE TRIPLE CROWN!
4. His Tigers went to the playoffs while Trout’s Angels did not. This gave the Tigers the opportunity to win the pennant, which they did.
I’m going to throw out the last argument for now because I think it’s ridiculous. The Tigers did not make the playoffs because of Miguel Cabrera. The Tigers made the playoffs because the other four teams in the American League Central aren’t any good. The Angels had a better record than Detroit, they had a better September record than Detroit, they were quite a bit better with Trout in the lineup than Detroit was with Cabrera in the lineup even though they played in a much tougher division. The Tigers making the playoffs may have turned some voters ... but that doesn’t make this argument logical in any way. You shouldn’t vote Miguel Cabrera MVP because the Cleveland Indians stink and the Minnesota Twins collapsed and the Chicago White Sox were a five-month mirage.
So really the Cabrera argument comes down to the Triple Crown -- its power, its history, its awesomeness.
And Mike Trout’s argument? Well, it’s remarkably similar to the 1942 Gordon argument in this way: The argument is that when you take the entire package -- hitting, power, defense, base stealing, base running -- Trout was the better player. That’s the whole thing: Cabrera might have had the flashy Triple Crown numbers but Trout was better. Same case as Gordon over Williams in 1942.
The thing, though, is that unlike 1942, this isn’t some made-up thing where people are just guessing at value. There are numerous advanced stats that try to measure the whole player. All of them -- ALL of them -- say Mike Trout had the better year.
Baseball Reference WAR
Mike Trout: 10.7
Miguel Cabrera: 6.9
Mike Trout, 10.0
Miguel Cabrera, 7.1
Baseball Prospectus WARP
Mike Trout, 9.1
Miguel Cabrera, 6.1
Bill James’ Total Runs
Mike Trout: 173
Miguel Cabrera: 150
It’s worth looking a little closer at the Bill James formula.
One thing that should be pointed out here, because a lot of people seem to miss it, is this: Mike Trout had a massive offensive year. Massive. Repeat: Massive. It’s not like we’re talking about someone who only did the little things. He had a higher on-base percentage than Cabrera.* He hit 30 home runs, his .564 slugging percentage was third in the league -- behind Cabrera, who led the league, but not THAT far behind Cabrera -- and he led the league in adjusted OPS+, which tried to put regular OPS in context. These are power stats, and he was right there at the top. Then, ON TOP of that, he has the league leading 49 stolen bases and 129 runs.
*When I mentioned this during the round table, I was hammered by Harold Reynolds and Mad Dog about how Cabrera isn’t paid to walk, he’s paid to hit. I like both those guys quite a lot, but I have to admit one question popped in my head: People still think stuff like that?
Trout also played in a much tougher hitting ballpark than Cabrera. Their road numbers do tell a story:
Anyway, Bill has Cabrera creating five more runs than Trout offensively ... a little bit more of a gap than Baseball Reference.
Yikes. OK, well, that stings. Trout gains 25 runs on defense -- both for his own excellence for Cabrera basically fighting third base to a draw. Maybe you think it’s 20 runs. Or 15. Or even 10. But you have to give Trout something here.
Not a huge difference. Trout’s league leading 49 stolen bases are tallied in Runs Created, so here we’re just talking about Trout’s ability to go first to third, second to home and so on. Still, there’s something here too. Cabrera has pretty good instincts but he is not fast and so he’s a neutral base runner.
This actually gives Cabrera an extra run for playing more games at third base -- Bill has had third base as a slightly tougher position than center field on his defensive spectrum.
Now, you can look at all these numbers and shake your head and disagree. That’s good. That’s what this is about. But the point is: This stuff has been pretty well thought out. You can play around with the numbers if you like, maybe give Cabrera a little bigger edge on offense, a little smaller deficit on defense, push this number to that column and vice versa ... but it seems to me however you slice it, Mike Trout just had the better year. Cabrera was great. Trout was greater.
And if Mike Trout had the better year, then the only real way to give Cabrera the MVP is to find other stuff that gives Cabrera the edge ... and these things are usually about as imaginary as the 1942 green parapixels. People start talking about stuff like “clutch hitting” and “pressure performances” and “the historical nature of the Triple Crown,” and I just shake my head. These things have no set value ... so they can be worth anything. And to someone who wants a reason to vote for Miguel Cabrera, they are worth exactly enough.
I think Miguel Cabrera will win the MVP award today ... and while there will be some saber-backlash, I think two things:
(1) Cabrera had a great year. Trout had a better one, but this won’t be a case of an undeserving player winning the award.
(2) Keith Olbermann got it right. He said that, assuming Cabrera wins, this probably will be the last time the Triple Crown numbers alone will win someone an MVP award. Oh, those numbers will still be part of the discussion, but there are bigger and better ways to take the measure of a whole ballplayer. I think ten years from now, the consensus will be to look back and think Trout should have won the award.
* * *
It seems more or less unanimous that Buster Posey will win the National League MVP, and I think he should win it. But there is still an interesting question to ask: How much is catcher defense really worth?
I suspect just about everybody would agree that defensive stats -- while they may be improved -- are far from flawless. And this statement is probably doubly true for catchers. There has been an argument forever about how to measure a catcher’s contribution. How responsible is he for pitchers’ success? How valuable is a catchers’ ability to frame pitches? How many runs can a catcher save by being exceptionally good at blocking would-be wild pitches? How many runs can a catcher save by throwing out a high percentage of would-be base stealers? On and on.
There are people working on all these questions all the time ... but I think it’s fair to say that we don’t have anything close to a consensus on any of those things.
So when you compare the great-hitting Buster Posey with the magical defense of Yadier Molina, how do you do it?
Offense is clearer.
Posey created 117 runs and made 381 outs.
Molina created 96 runs and made 367 outs.
So you can start with that -- say Posey was 20 or so runs better on offense.
Does Molina make that up on defense? Whew, Molina is a breathtakingly good catcher. He threw out 48% of all base runners (Posey threw out 30%). Forty-nine more base runners stole a base against Posey than Molina.
But some of the other stuff is tougher. Posey actually had fewer passed balls and allowed fewer wild pitches. The Giants’ team ERA was slightly better than the Cardinals, and while much of that was probably due to the Giants playing in a pitcher’s park, it’s hard to give Molina a lot of points there.
I have friends who argue passionately that Molina’s defense more than makes up the offensive difference. I’m not convinced but I also don’t know that they are wrong. When it comes to figuring catcher’s value, I think we still have a long way to go.