In case you haven’t been following things: there is a heck of a race going on, to see who is really the most valuable player in the league. That league, of course, is the National League, where Ryan Braun, Andrew McCutchen, and Buster Posey are all having great seasons for playoff contenders (or former contenders, in the case of McCutchen). One could also make good cases for players like Chase Headley, David Wright, and Yadier Molina, among others.
Yes, perhaps MVP arguments are silly. Some will say that the awards really “don’t matter.” My reply to that is there are many things that don’t really matter, for exmample, sports. So argue away.
Given the excitement and debate (that should be) going on around the National League MVP, it is only fitting that topics of discussion (at least on my Twitter feed) have been dominated by the American League MVP. While Mike Trout is running away with the “stathead (to use Jerry Crasnick’s term) ballot,” there is dissent on others.
In a growing annual trend for this time of year, mainstream writers have commenced their cry against the oppression of the cruel and bullying “statheads.” Crasnick’s tweet is an example of that. To get into that silliness (and, obviously, calling people “idiots” is not a good way to have in intelligent conversations) would be to distract from my main point. I do, in fact, think that Mike Trout should be the 2012 AL MVP. Even if one acknowledges that fielding metrics are far less reliable than hitting metrics, I think simply watching the games will show you that if that is going to “break the tie,” then Trout is should win.
However, I am not somehow offended or angered if someone wants to make a case for Cabrera being the MVP. It is not just that fielding stats are imperfect. All of the components of the various WAR(P) implementations involve a degree of uncertainty, from the positional adjustments, to baserunning, and even to the linear weights values for hitting. Fielding is easily the most problematic, but all of the metrics, whether acknowledged or not, have error bars.
With that in mind, I am not going to argue for Trout being the MVP here. Nor am I going to get into any technical details about the various issues confronting the individual components of WAR. Instead, I want to conduct a little thought experiment. If the inaccuracies attributed to WAR are large enough that Cabrera should be considered roughly equal to Trout, who else is an viable American League MVP candidate this year?
Let me make this clear: this is not supposed to be anything like a technical exercise in statistical analysis. It is just a fun way of proving a point. If we want to accept that given the “margin of error” (not using that term in a technically correct way, really, thus the scare quotes), Cabrera is an equally good MVP candidate as Trout, then that margin has to work both ways, right?
Sticking with FanGraphs’ implementation of WAR for the sake of simplicity, one sees Mike Trout’s 9.4 WAR as basically the same as Cabrera 6.8, then the “margin” has to go both ways, right? You have about two-and-half wins on one side, so there must be two-and a half on the other. So let’s look at some of those other players. I’ll tell you this, it makes the 2012 AL MVP race a whole lot more interesting.
I am not going to deal with the Triple Crown issue (which really seems to be driving the push for Cabrera). But I will take another lead from John Paul Morosi, who totally acknowledges what a tough choice this is (check out that first line — if only statheads could aspire to that level of humility). Like him, I will not only look at the numbers, but try to tease out intangibles, like Cabrera being willing to move to third base for Prince Fielder (probably worth at least three wins by itself).
We already have plenty of stuff on Trout (9.4 fWAR as of this writing) and Cabrera (6.8), so we can jump right in and look at some (I can’t do them all justice!) of the other newly-viable AL MVP candidates (position players from the FanGraphs leaderboard within about two-and-a-half wins of Cabrera). I am not going to make it too obvious who my favorite of this group is, this is just to get you ready to confront the existential dilemma of your own (imaginary) ballot. Remember, all of the players listed below are closer to Cabrera in fWAR than Cabrera is to Trout. And, yes, if you just think fWAR is worthless, you aren’t going to enjoy this little stroll at all. Sorry.
Robinson Cano: 6.4 fWAR, only 0.4 behind Cabrera, easily within the field. Sure, a lot of that is fielding, but nothing is perfect. Cano has to get serious intangibles credit for doing what he has done in New York, which, as everyone knows, poses difficulties that have crushed many other players.
Adrian Beltre: 5.9 fWAR, 0.9 behind Cabrera. Those darn fielding metrics again. But fielding counts, right? Also, since September performance should apparently be isolated, Beltre has been better than anyone in the AL with the bat this month… well, other than Cabrera. However, I think he has to get serious intangible points for being so good while Inspiring Team Leader Michael Young has been in a death spiral at the plate.
Austin Jackson: 5.2 WAR, 1.6 behind Cabrera. Another guy that you will somehow have to buy as more valuable than Cabrera on the bases. But hey, Cabrera would not be accumulating all those RBI without Jackson getting on base. Jackson gets intangible credit for keeping his head up despite not getting press due to being overshadowed by teammate Cabrera and fellow center fielder Mike Trout.
Ben Zobrist: 5.1 WAR, 1.7 behind Cabrera. Sure, his fielding might be overrated (who knows?), but what about all those intangibles? You think Cabrera has provided value by switching positions? At various times, Zobrist has been moved from shortstop to second, then to right field, and this year he has been moved back to shortstop mid-season. That might push him over the edge right there.
Alex Gordon: 4.9 WAR, 1.9 behind Cabrera. Okay, you’re thinking that this is going to be biased because Gordon is my favorite player on my favorite team. While I will admit that I cannot aspire to the objectivity that Mr. Morosi shows in his occasional praise for the Detroit Tigers and their players, I do think Gordon has a case.
While much of his value comes from his defense, his fielding numbers are high in part because of his arm. Both outfield assists and holding runners are more easily measured than range. If you want to talk intangibles, Gordon has them through the roof. I mean, despite his success as a lead off hitter since last season, he willingly switched to the third spot because Ned Yost thinks he “fits” better there. The Royals just had to get Jarrod Dyson more at-bats. Add in a tears-inducing diet and, well, you get some pretty tangible intangibles. As the redoubtable Dick Kaegel put it: “The Gordon that his teammates see is a lean-bodied physical specimen, dripping with sweat in the weight room…”
Josh Hamilton: 4.9 WAR, 1.9 behind Cabrera. Yeah, Hamilton is a great hitter when he is on. But he has to get serious intangible points for working through his struggles in the middle of the season when pitchers figured out that he would swing at everything. Not only did Hamilton have to deal (like Beltre) with the sadness of Michael Young’s horrible year, but, like Miguel Cabrera, he has to deal with substance abuse issues. And if the press has taught me anything these last few years, it is that overcoming addiction makes one the greatest hero of all, unlike wusses such as Joey Votto and Zack Greinke who can’t deal with a touch of the sads.
Joe Mauer: 4.7 WAR, 2.1 behind Cabrera. Great comeback year for Mauer, who also generously switches between multiple positions, including catcher. He gets intangible points for dealing with a terrible season in Minnesota. Also for being a good-looking white guy who stars in shampoo commercials. I’m really impressed he’s able to deal with all of that.
Torii Hunter: 4.5 WAR, 2.3 behind Cabrera. He was a Gold Glove center fielder, we’ve been told, for years. I’m not sure why the Angels would move him to right field for Peter Bourjos and then Trout, so his fielding has probably been even better in right than the metrics say. He has a ton of veteran presence in the locker room. He is also the go-to man for MLB reporters looking for quotes on sensitive racial issues.
Prince Fielder: 4.4 WAR: 2.4 behind Cabrera. Sure, his numbers on offense are a bit down from last year, but hey, if we’re going to say that “Cabrera’s fieldling has been bad, but not as bad as we thought” as if it is really a compliment, we should do the same for Prince. Also, his kids are super-cute.
And there we have it. It’s a tough choice, no?. I could have made the list even longer (sorry, Josh Reddick!), but this is already a near-impossible task as it is, given all the uncertainty. But, hopefully this will really open the debate up. Let a thousand flowers bloom. On the other hand, forget all that. I mean, obviously, Alex Gordon’s sweat-drenched physique trumps everything else. “He’s the guy.” And you are an idiot if you think otherwise.