I think that there are two very, very different ideas which we, as a society, sometimes conflate. We believe everyone’s entitled to his or her own opinion, and the freedom to express that opinion in any way he or see sees fit, so long as it doesn’t physically harm anyone else or step on others’ own rights. That’s great, it’s fantastic, some feel it’s worth dying for — it’s one of the founding principles of my country.

On the other hand, it tends to lead to this sense that all ideas are equally valid, and that the fact that someone expresses an opinion means that we need to respect and support that opinion. And that’s…nothing at all, barely even an idea. There’s nothing inherently good about having an opinion, and I can’t imagine why anyone would ever think that, except as a mistaken overextension of the basic freedom of speech principle.

You can see this in things like Jemele Hill’s deeply weird David Tyree profile from last summer. More commonly, and probably more insidiously, you see it in news organizations bending over backward to present an even-handed, “balanced” view of an issue and allow both sides to be heard without judgment, even where, say, one side of the issue holds scientists or other experts in the particular field, supported by objectively verifiable fact, and the other side is just loonies and B-list celebrities.

I think what Buster Olney did on Saturday in regards to the A.L. MVP debate is a mild version of the latter type of this fallacy.

Olney’s post is Insider-only, though non-subscribers can see the headline (“The AL MVP debate, from the inside”) and the title of the page (“The split within baseball over the AL MVP debate”) and get the basic idea, which is summed up by Olney thusly: of approximately 50 people in the game he’s spoken to, “all but a very small handful of uniformed personnel — by small handful, I mean two — have told me they would pick Cabrera. And all but a very small handful of front-office types — as in, one — have told me they would pick Trout.”

It’s just another way of rehashing the bizarre Trout vs. Cabrera, stat geeks vs. old school folks debate of which you’ve probably become sick to death over the last two weeks or so, but Olney’s angle on it is that there’s a big difference in perceptions of the MVP race between players and coaches, on the one hand (guys who see Cabrera’s awesome presence in the lineup every day, and the RBI he racks up, and his veteran leadership, etc., and believe he’s the MVP) and GMs and other front office personnel on the other (guys who are into all your newfangled advanced metrics and whatnot, and believe that the stats dictate that Trout is the MVP). He even quotes one unnamed “veteran player” as saying, ”I would be really, really disappointed if Cabrera didn’t win,” and one pro-Trout executive as asking: ”Why is there even a conversation?”

It’s an interesting topic, and there’s no doubt the two groups of people approach this topic in two very, very different ways. But Olney describes it as “a massive gap of perspective between the on-field and off-field baseball folks,” as though it’s a legitimate clash between two competing schools of thought.

To that end, I’d ask you to remember two things: (1) this debate is over which of two players has been the most valuable player in the American League; and (2) of these two competing groups of people, one earns their livelihoods by discerning and making decisions based upon the relative value of baseball players. The other folks earn their living by being good at playing baseball — which involves tasks like hitting a thing with another thing, running fast, and throwing a thing to another person — or by formerly being good at playing it, and now coaching others at how best to play it.

So I’m wondering why they’re being treated as competing camps, groups of “insiders” on equal footing, rather than as what I think, on this particular topic, they are: one a group of qualified experts, the other essentially a group of laypeople. I don’t wonder why Olney presents them that way — he’s been on a crusade against WAR and other pointy-headed ideas (sample size is a big one, for some reason) for a few years now — but I wonder why this is the sort of position that can get any traction at all. One of these groups is coming from a position of knowledge on this particular point, and one is not. It’s that simple.

As you probably know, there’s a whole movement out there attempting to stop parents from getting their kids vaccinated against certain common diseases (or diseases that were common before we had, you know, vaccinations for them), on the theory that over-vaccination is the cause of what’s perceived as a recent autism epidemic. It’s complete lunacy, without a shred of evidence to back it up, and it’s led to increased instances of diseases in children that should’ve been effectively stamped out long ago. So on one side you’ve got every reputable physician and scientist and a mountain of peer-reviewed studies; on the other, you’ve got a former Playboy model who did not attain an undergraduate degree at the head of a group of reactionary and paranoid parents with severely misplaced anger. If you’re a journalist and treat both sides of this “debate” equally in the name of “fairness” or some such garbage, I’d argue that you’re failing utterly in your duty to present facts and the truth to your readership. There are definitely times to present both sides and avoid bias and all that; this isn’t one of them. There’s a right and a wrong here.

This isn’t at all to say that baseball players are as vapid and utterly contemptible as Jenny McCarthy, or, certainly, that the pro-Cabrera camp is harming anybody. On the contrary, a lot of players are brilliant, and there are countless decisions made by players and coaches on a daily basis that I’d be utterly unqualified to make (and, of course, nobody’s life is being put in danger here, it’s just baseball). Just that when the particular issue is the relative valuation of the seasons of two players, players and coaches have as much authority to speak as McCarthy and her disciples do on the science of vaccinations. The players and coaches, assuming they’re not on the Angels or Tigers, got to watch these two guys close up between zero and eighteen times this year, and, much like any casual fan  might, make judgments based on what they happen to see…and majestic home runs leave more of an impression than a walk and two stolen bases. They also, as many of us did, grew up with RBIs and the Triple Crown. These are what they’re making their decisions on.

Players and coaches have all kinds of knowledge of and insight into how the game is played, on a pitch-by-pitch, day-by-day basis, stuff I, having never worn a baseball uniform after high school, could never possibly understand. There’s simply no reason to think, however, that they have any special expertise that would allow them to evaluate two great players, whose greatness manifests itself in entirely different ways, and determine that one of the two is more valuable than the other. It’s not in their job description. They’re busy with better, much more interesting things.

So really, a better angle for passing Olney’s information along would be that players and coaches are still just as impressed as many fans are by RBI and stuff, while the people who are in a position to know what they’re talking about on this issue are overwhelmingly convinced that Mike Trout is MVP. That’s really what we’re looking at here. Can we stop pretending that having particular talent for hitting or throwing a baseball imbues one with expert knowledge of all things related to the game of baseball?

Comments (30)

  1. Also the triple crown thing is really annoying and not just because of its glorification of BA and RBI. It is annoying because people keep trumping its historical uniqueness. Trout is having a season that nobody has ever had before (SB, Runs, and HRs). He is in the territory of the 30 and 50 club. That’s so sick.

  2. Someone’s watched The Newsroom

  3. In the end it’s going to come down to what a bunch of baseball writers who each have their own criteria to determine who they are going to vote for. It’s an individual award in a team sport and really shouldn’t concern any of us that much. I agree debate is interesting given it’s pitting some ‘old school’ metrics vs. advance metrics to determine value but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter all that much.

    Quite frankly, I bet a significant percentage of voters are going to vote for Cabrera simply because the Tigers are going to make it to the playoffs and the Angels are not.

    • Which is equally dumb because the Tigers are sitting with 86 wins atop their crappy division, and the Angels are on the outside looking in with 88 wins in a far tougher division. Not to mention that whether a team makes the playoffs is so far beyond what a single player, no matter how “valuable”, can control that I can’t imagine how any rational person can still consider it unless as a tie breaker between two players.

      Not saying you don’t know this, just saying…

  4. Lucky that the Tigers seem to be making the playoffs…..because the morons who will only vote for a player on a playoff team for MVP.

    I’ve been a huge sabrometrics person since the days only a handful of people knew about it. I’ve argued defensive value with people when no one cared.

    That being said – Trout is having a great season, and even though Trout wins out in WAR, I would vote for Cabrera for MVP. But, if Trout won, I wouldn’t think it was a rip-off toward Cabrera ….Anyone who puts Trout or Cabrera 4th or lower on their vote should be banned from ever voting though (Hamilton is in discussion if you value playoff making high on MVP importance)

    • “Trout is having a great season, and even though Trout wins out in WAR, I would vote for Cabrera for MVP.”

      Why? Seems to me that with or without WAR, Trout has plainly provided more value.

      • Even if I can’t fully prove the logic – I believe Detroit is not a playoff team without Cabrera. That combined with the monster numbers edges out Trout ever so slightly

        • I’ll never understand why people want to make individual awards turn on team performance. Or in this case, even less than that: the Angels have a better record than the Tigers in a tougher division, and there’s no way Cabrera has contributed to more Tiger wins than Trout has Angel wins. So you’re awarding the MVP based on what division the players happen to be stuck in?

          • Exactly. Using the same example, without Trout the Angels go into these last few games dreaming of .500 instead of perfect world scenarios where they get to scrape into the playoffs despite another divisions winner having fewer wins than they do.

            And that’s not even talking about the fact that Detroit’s September has just as much to do with their pitching getting hot as it does Miggy.

    • I don’t know. It means that he came up with a bunch of runners on base. We don’t have anything that suggests that players have a lot of ability to adapt their performance to certain situations, and when you think about it, I don’t think we want them to–it’s not like pitching where you may benefit from conserving your energy, so don’t we want them to always do whatever they can to maximize run scoring, whether in a tie game with a runner on third or in a 7-0 game with the bases empty? So, no, I tend to think rewarding players for RBI alone means rewarding them for the results of a random distribution. There are a lot of other things to love about Cabrera’s season without messing around with that.

      Also, there have been some really awful 100-RBI seasons, years that really hurt the player’s team (all the more because he generally performed badly in a middle-of-the-order slot on an otherwise good offensive team). Joe Carter was king of those.

  5. I’ve been thinking a lot about RBI this season. I am fully on board with the idea that RBIs are largely a reflection of the batters hitting in front of you as well as luck that you get your hits with runners on rather than not. You can’t say “player x is a great player, look how many RBI he had last year”.

    However, that doesn’t mean that RBI don’t exist, that players simply don’t drive in runs. I don’t see how a player getting an insane number of RBI ISN’T a reflection of a great season, even if it isn’t reflective of his abilities as a player. Almost every stat is situational and even though a high RBI total doesn’t make Miguel Cabrera the best player in baseball period, it does mean that he’s had a pretty awesome 2012 season, doesn’t it?

    • An RBI is a great way to explain how a game occurred but that is all. Oh they Jays are up 2-0, how did they score the runs? Well Edwin hit a 2 run double.

      Contrast that with Edwin has 110 RBI’s this season (so far), how did he get those RBI’s? Were they 110 solo home runs? Was it 500 singles? 30 bases-loaded triples? How? It does not explain his skill level.

      What is better from evaluating a player a guy that hits a double, or a guy that hits a double with two on?

      If you can see the whole picture they are equal. Hitting a double is the skill, not having equally good team mates get on base before you is.

    • I agree, the concept of driving in runs should not be entirely discounted. For example, there is value in hitting a fly ball rather than a ground ball to bring a runner home.

      We need an RBI % stat of some kind.

  6. isn’t the mvp just the lady byng award for baseball?

    in other words: my opinion is that baseball should either clarify the wording for MVP balloting, or fix the hank aaron award to more closely resemble the cy young.

  7. i think this is a great article i really do.

    however, i wonder if you arent committing both the false analogy and the appeal to authority fallacy.

    i generally agree that GMs evaluate talent better than managers. as a general rule, that is demonstrably true in my opinion, and i think it is clear how it plays out (for example, jon daniels would consistently put together a better lineup than ron Washington, there is a little question. that may or may not make him more qualified to be a manager, depending on what you believe a manager does and should do.)

    however anecdotal evidence shows that this is not ALWAYS the case. In spring training, the braves front office wanted pastronicky and the bench wanted simmons to start the year. in hindsight, the bench was absolutely right and the GM et al. (including my personal opinion on the two players) were wrong.
    i would not want Fredi to put my team together, but he can be right (blind pig finds acorn etc).

    this is a long way of saying that i dont think just because the front offices believe x about a player and benches believe Y about the player, that it makes the front offices right because they are generally smarter. they generally are right but not always. this is why i think the argument is somewhat fallacious (and i dont think the vaccine analogy works. at least it doesnt in my opinion, just too different).

    i really did like the article and thought your criticism of olney’s approach (and broader media approach) is a good one.

    sorry about the shoddy grammar, i did this on my phone


    • Thanks. Here’s the thing: the point is emphatically not that “just because the front offices believe x about a player and benches believe Y about the player, that it makes the front offices right because they are generally smarter.” While I suppose it’s almost certainly true that the average front office employee has a higher overall intelligence, however you might measure it, than the average player or coach, that’s not the point at all. Rather, the point is that this sort of analysis — looking at two players’ seasons and determining which was more valuable — is VERY closely related to the very work front office personnel are brought in to do (and so this certainly doesn’t meet the “appeal to authority” fallacy, and I’d like to hear your explanation of where the “false analogy” comes in).

      The same is not true, arguably, with your Pastornicky example — there, the coaches very possibly do have a special perspective that would allow them to see things the nerds in the front office can’t. That’s about likely performance going forward, though; we’re talking here about analysis of two great players’ performance looking backward. I don’t see any reason to believe the field personnel have any special aptitude for that.

  8. i should also clarify that i think Trout is obviously the better player, and while i grow tired of award debates, i think he should be the mvp

  9. I happen to think Trout is the hands down MVP, but couldn’t disagree more with the idea that the opinion of players with regard to value is inherently less valid than front office types, especially when so many front office types are ex-players. Maybe there are intangible qualities perceived on the field when a team has an offensive player as good for so long as Miguel Cabrera? Old Yankee players used to talk about the comfort level of looking over their shoulder and seeing DiMaggio in center. Granted, that’s mostly because he was a great player, but when great players build an aura, who are we to deny that doesn’t add value to a team?

    Also, don’t discount the impact of relative experience and salary on each group’s answer. The players may be saying Cabrera is more valuable because he has done it before, while the front office may be saying Trout is more valuable because he costs pennies on the dollar. This isn’t simply a matter of the informed versus the uninformed.

    • William,
      The problem with this is that we’re not just trying to identify players who are particularly valuable — we have to actually make a judgment as between two players we already know are really, really valuable. So maybe Cabrera’s teammates have some special insight into unusual ways in which he provides value, the way DiMaggio’s teammates did, and maybe Trout’s have the same (or maybe they think he’s less valuable than he looks for one reason or another). There’s no way any one player — let alone the lot of them, collectively — has any special experience or insight that allows them to say definitively that immensely valuable player X is BETTER THAN immensely valuable player Y. The kinds of observations you’re talking about just don’t lend themselves to that kind of comparative precision. Even if the league as a whole can adequately perceive Cabrera’s “aura” in a way we cannot, there’s still that additional step of explaining how, considering all the other things that make Cabrera valuable and all the other things that make Trout valuable, that pushes Cabrera ahead. Players and coaches, as a group, just aren’t equipped to do that, at all.

      The suggestion that front offices’ opinions might be colored by the players’ relative salaries strikes me as pretty silly, frankly, without some evidence that that’s what’s happening. I think most front office personnel have to develop an idea of value independent of cost before they can do any sort of cost/benefit analysis.

      And I had to kind of laugh at the insinuation that my “hitting a thing with a thing” in some way belittled what ballplayers do for a living, as if any of us wouldn’t rather be playing professional baseball right now than whatever it is we ARE doing with our time. The point was to illustrate as clearly as possible that their unbelievably awesome jobs in no way prepare them to undertake the kind of evaluation Olney’s asking them to do here. And I went way out of my way to make it clear that it’s nothing against the players in any way — this just isn’t in their job descriptions. Of what must be much less than 1% of them who will one day move into the front office, I suppose they’ve got the aptitude for it and their opinion ought to hold a lot of weight. I don’t think we need to be polling the players as a group based on that tiny fraction, though.

      • I understand where you are coming from, but I think your position is as entrenched as the MVP debate is itself. I happen to think Trout is the MVP and subscribe to many sabermetric theories. However, I also realize that this is a game played by human beings with emotions, so actually being on the field provides a unique perspective. Does that mean players win in the appeal to authority? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean their perspective should be belittled.

  10. How many current gms are former players?

    • Off the top of my head, it looks like about 3 GMs played in the majors and at least another 3 or 4 were minor leaguers. However, I would guess there are a fair amount of ex-players in support roles that do not require the CEO type skills being thrust upon GMs now.

      I don’t think we need to rely on generalizations. Characterizing a player’s awareness as “hitting a thing with a thing” is the kind of exaggerated position that gets thrown in the face of “baseball geeks who live in their mother’s basement”. The perspective of being on the field and understanding what it takes to perform is not one that should be so easily dismissed when debating nebulous concepts like value as encapsulated by the MVP award.

  11. Cool article good sir

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  13. I think that this article really reflects your own bias. Just because you like to watch and analyze baseball from a certain perspective does not mean that players are unqualified. To think that a professional in any occupational field is unfit to classify what is most valuable to people in that field is ludicrous. While you may disagree with their opinion, that is your own bias sneaking through. Players know what is valuable to a team in how it performs in the field as a team better than anyone.

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