If you’re reading Beyond the Box Score, you have most likely been privy to the ongoing debate among baseball people over the past month or so regarding voting for the Most Valuable Player award.
The arguments have been curious since they don’t necessarily follow some of the long-held stereotypes about which type of players are "stats guys" and which are not – in particular, Mike Trout is the typical "five tool player" that scouting types rave about, but he is at the forefront of the "Sabermetric Case" in the American League. On the other hand, the "old guard" have backed Miguel Cabrera based on his chances of winning the Triple Crown for a potentially playoff-bound team (although Trout’s Angels also still have a shot at the postseason).
The debate has raged over Twitter, ESPN, and the blogosphere, with the line being drawn in the sand pretty distinctly. For my money, Trout is the MVP for myriad factors, one of which is his league-leading rate in Wins Above Replacement, but some would counter that since Cabrera has him beat in HR, RBI, and AVG, and since he played a full season whereas Trout missed April, Cabrera has the leg up. Arguers on both sides have dug in, with some Cabrera-supporters extending their arguments to dismiss defensive metrics that are captured by WAR stats or suggesting that positional adjustments are not necessarily valid in award discussions.
I was curious to see just how much of a difference there actually was in the MVP standings, so to speak, if you are a believer in a particular set of assumptions or stats. In order to try and capture many sides of the argument, I came up with four different cases one could make for an MVP candidate using stats alone, depending on which you choose.
fWAR - the Fangraphs version of Wins Above Replacement. fWAR uses Ultimate Zone Rating for defensive values and Ultimate Base Running for baserunning values. Using a WAR metric is more on the "saber" side of the argument, and the choice between fWAR or rWAR comes down mostly to personal preference.
rWAR - the Baseball-Reference version of Wins Above Replacement. rWAR uses Total Zone for defensive values and a linear-weights-based system for baserunning values. Using a WAR metric is more on the "saber" side of the argument, and the choice between fWAR or rWAR comes down mostly to personal preference.
For more on the difference between fWAR and rWAR for batters, check out adarowski’s piece from Nov 2011.
Triple Crown Index - this is a new metric I believe I created. To try and have a way of summarizing the more old-school stats argument based on HR, RBI, and AVG, I indexed each stat for each league. So, for home runs, for example, the league leader would have a score of 100, while everyone else’s score follows as a percentage of the leader’s total. I did this for RBI and AVG as well, and then summed across the three categories to create a total "Triple Crown Score" out of a possible 300 points (a Triple Crown winner).
The chart below shows the leaders in the American League MVP Race through September 26.
It becomes readily evident by looking at these lasts where different measures value different elements of the game. Obviously Batting Runs and Triple Crown Index value sluggers more heavily, introducing defensive zeroes like Encarnacion and Fielder to the equation, whereas the WAR-based stats put increased value on defense, baserunning, and position.
Some may look at this and see Miguel Cabrera in the top-3 among each and basically default to him, since there seems to be no way to argue against him. Then again, it also takes away some of the ammunition against Mike Trout, since the WAR metrics and Batting Runs are all cumulative counting totals, and Trout’s missed April still doesn’t harm his rank. In fact, if you buy into either form of WAR, there’s almost no doubt that Mike Trout is your MVP.
At least the baseball world has gotten the two top candidates correct, it seems, though given how far we’ve come in terms of valuing baseball players, the Triple Crown Index sure seems archaic.
If you’ve wondered why we haven’t heard much argument on the National League side of things, it’s because whatever the metric, the MVP and the runner up are more or less unanimous. Ryan Braun leads in all four categories while Andrew McCutchen trails narrowly in each, meaning Braun is likely to repeat as the MVP unless there is some steroid-related voter backlash. Beyond those two, David Wright, Buster Posey, and Chase Headley come up repeatedly with all three having been terrific at positions on the more difficult end of the position spectrum.
If anyone is interested, I can re-run these charts at the end of the season to see how some of the tighter races wrap up.