Miguel Cabrera, WAR, and Triple Crown MVP Snubs

It is official- Miguel Cabrera has won the 2012 American League MVP award. The debate this season over who should be the 2012 American League MVP often became bitterly contentious, with people in favor of Miguel Cabrera and those in favor of runner-up Mike Trout each getting exasperated at the arguments made by the other side and each group declaring the choice as painfully obvious. Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown, becoming the first player since 1967 to lead the league in batting average, RBIs and home runs. It is impressive feat and to many, it means he is the clear MVP. Mike Trout leads the league in Wins Above Replacement by all three major systems that calculates this metric (Fangraphs, Sean "Rally" Smith’s baseball-reference system and Baseball Prospectus’ WARP), basically meaning that he has been the most valuable player by any all-inclusive calculations. Now that the results are in, the tired and largely irrelevant narrative of the battle between the traditionalist of the baseball world and the spreadsheet-toting sabermetric geeks is once again being played out on twitter, in blogs and on airwaves everywhere.

It is probably pretty obvious that I fall in the pro-Trout group. I am a geek, I tote spreadsheets, and among my ilk, it isn’t really close. I do, however, understand the pro-Cabrera group. I think one particularly prevalent argument is well summed up by this quote from Tyler Kepner of the New York Times Baseball Blog from the final days of the season.

If Miguel Cabrera wins the Triple Crown, he should be the American League’s most valuable player. To lead the league in batting average, homers and runs batted in and not be named M.V.P. simply does not feel right.

Kepner is absolutely right. For a player to win the Triple Crown and not the MVP feels very wrong. Historically, it has almost always been wrong. Almost. There have been fourteen Triple Crown winners since 1900* and all but four of those have won the MVP. In retrospect, only one of those four cases is even remotely justifiable.

* This is revisionist; RBIs were not an official statistic until 1920, so Nap Lajoie (1901) and Ty Cobb (1911) would not have been referred to as Triple Crown winners at the time, only in retrospect.

-- In 1394 Lou Gehrig hit 49 home runs, drove in 165 runs and hit .363, all marks were the best in the league as was his 10.1 WAR* He finished 5th in MVP voting. Mickey Cochrane won the MVP, primarily because the Tigers upset the Yankees and won the American League pennant. This may be the single worst MVP choice in history.

-- In 1942 Ted Williams won the Triple Crown with 36 HR, 137 RBIs and a .356 average. He was also the lead the league in runs, walks, OBP, Slugging, total bases, and you guessed it WAR, with 10.2. Williams had a terrible relationship with Boston sport writers and the Yankees beat out the Red Sox for the pennant, so Yankees second baseman Joe Gordon, who lead the league in striking out won. It was a terrible choice and it has been held up as one of the great MVP injustices, but at least Gordon was a good hitter that season and an excellent defender at a premium position. It wasn’t in the same league of stupid as the Gehrig case.

-- Poor Ted Williams was similarly robbed when he won the Crown in 1947, hitting .343 with 32 HRs and 114 RBIs, good for a league leading 9.6 WAR a He lost to Joe DiMaggio, who had an off-year for the first place Yankees. Though the Gordon example is usually mocked as ridiculous, this one is far more egregious. This was the fourth worst year of the Yankee Clippers career, and while his team did win another World Series and he was less than half as valuable by WAR as Williams (though obviously that was not discussed). Apparently, even saving the world from fascism was not enough to make people like Teddy Ballgame.

-- In 1933, Chuck Klein lead the National League with 28 HR, 120 RBIs and a .368 average and lost the MVP to Carl Hubbell won lead the league in Wins, Inning Pitched, Shutouts and WAR, his 8.6 was firmly above Klein’s 7.6 and though no voter at the time would ever have imagined using those number, they clearly internalize that information, with Hubbell receiving 96% of the vote. I have never heard anyone cite this as bad choice and it would be hard to make the case that it was. Certainly, it is nothing like the other three cases.

* Of the three WAR systems only Smith’s version rWAR uses a defensive metric that can be applied to past players.

The only two players to lead the league in all three Triple Crown categories and not in WAR are Chuck Klein and Miguel Cabrera. Klein was third in WAR; both of the players above him were pitchers (Cubs pitcher Lon Warneke was also more valuable by WAR). Cabrera is the fourth most valuable player by WAR and two position players are above him (Trout and Robinson Cano). His own teammate, Justin Verlander also beat him out.

Historically, the arguments against making the Triple Crown winner the MVP have been his team’s poor finish (in the case of Gehrig and Williams in ’42 and 4'7), defense (in both of Williams’ loses, possibly in Gehrig’s as well) and position (Williams both times and Gehrig). This might make the amount of emphasis placed on Trout’s defense seem suspect, but it is important to note that while voters felt those things outweighed the offensive value of the Triple Crown winner, in those cases, unlike in Trout’s case, WAR, which actually quantifies such things, did not.

It feels wrong to give the MVP to someone other than the Triple Crown winner in large part because it is extremely rare to win the Triple Crown and not be the best player in the league (by WAR, specifically). This is why I find the narratives of traditional vs sabermetric thinking so frustratingly hyperbolic and counter-productive. There is far less disagreement between relatively new metrics like WAR and the internalized notions of baseball men, writers, and avid fans than battles in the media like this one might lead you to believe. In a few extreme cases, the disagreement typically comes down to details often easily overlooked. Miguel Cabrera vs Mike Trout is such an extreme case. No one in the sabermetic community is dismissing the glory of Cabrera’s 2012 season. Leading in three offensive categories just didn’t happen to make him as valuable overall as Mike Trout. The most oft-cited of traditional numbers might generally favor Cabrera, but less iconic and noticeable ones, like Ground-Into-Double Plays, stolen bases, extra bases taken, position, and, most importantly, defense all favor Trout.

In a perfect twist of irony, WAR actually sees Mike Trout’s season as even better than Ted Williams 1942 Triple Crown season and Cabrera’s 2012 Triple Crown season as less valuable than Joe Gordon’s MVP campaign that year. Few people on the either side of the fence will see the choice of Cabrera as egregious as Joe Gordon’s 1942 award, but that is simply a matter of perception. Mike Trout did more to help his team win than Miguel Cabrera by virtually every calculation other than those Triple Crown numbers. It is easy to make the mistake of believing that history teaches us that not giving a Triple Crown winner the MVP award is a path to embarrassing folly, but that is simply not the case. The errors of the past share the same logic as a vote for Miguel Cabrera. The real mistake has not been snubbing Triple Crown winners, but rather a failure to quantify players’ contributions accurately. Simply following a dictum that calls every Triple Crown winner an MVP does not prevent that possibility.

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