Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Triple Threat or the Flying Fish

Defining Value:
Let's get something straight. Especially in recent years there has been a lot of debate in the Baseball community over the Most Valuable Player Award. I have previously written about the Cy Young Award, given to the best pitcher, which is assumed to mean the pitcher with the best statistics, no matter which stats one utilizes.  The two sides of the argument surrounding the MVP award are as follows.  One side claims that the MVP award should go to the player who has been the most valuable to his team.  The other side claims that the award should go to the best overall player because by being the best it follows that the player would be the most valuable.

Fortunately, most of the people who argue about this do not have a vote. The Baseball Writers Association of America votes on the winner of each leagues Most Valuable Player. Here are some recent winners of the award:

Albert Pujols
Dustin Pedroia
Albert Pujols
Joe Mauer
Joey Votto
Josh Hamilton
Ryan Braun
Justin Verlander
Miguel Cabrera
Let's turn to 2012. While the National League is interesting, it deserves its own article, thus, moving on to the American League.  In the AL, the race for the MVP has come down to 2 players in particular, Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers and Mike Trout of the Angels. In all honesty, no one should forget about Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, but for the purposes of this article he is forgotten, POOF!  For all intents and purposes, until recently the race for the AL MVP was similar to the tortoise and the hare. One player was ahead of everyone, with another player or two far behind, but not completely forgotten. Mike Trout is the hare, and Cabrera the tortoise. In fact, as you will find out later, comparing the Angels outfielder to a hare is not unreasonable.  

On August 31st, Miguel Cabrera had an OPS (on base% + Slugging %) of .984. As of September 19th, he has an OPS of 1.008. In order to raise his OPS those 24 points, he needed to have a better month in September than he had had in any month in 2012 that preceding it. So far this month, Cabrera's OPS is 1.223. By all standards, Cabrera is having an outstanding month, without which he would probably not be a member of the conversation concerning the AL MVP. In fact, due to Cabrera's 2 home runs last night against the Oakland A's, he finds himself only 2 home runs away from the American League lead. This piece of information is important because he already leads the league in batting average and runs-batted-in. If one player leads their respective league in those three categories, they are said to have won the Triple Crown, an achievement last accomplished by Carl "Yaz" Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox in 1967. Was Cabrera to win the Triple Crown, it would be difficult for some not to consider him the de-facto MVP.   
Mike Trout

I consider a team's success to be of some importance when determining an MVP recipient. For a player's stats to contain the utmost value, his team must reap the benefits. The Tigers find themselves 3 games back of the Chicago White Sox in the AL Central, not an insurmountable disparity. In fact, one major reason for the Tigers' small distance from 1st place is the play of their third baseman, Miguel Cabrera. In fact, Cabrera's fWAR (batting, not pitching) makes up about 31% of the entire Tigers' fWAR. Nonetheless, the Angels have won more games than the Tigers have this season, even though they find themselves 6.5 games out of first in the AL West. According to, the Angels still have a better chance at 28.6% of making the playoffs than the Tigers, at 20.8%, do.  

The Comparison:
When comparing two players, we must compare them on a number of levels. Baseball is not merely an offensive game, it involves base-running, defense, intuition, etc... Fortunately, modern analytic tools allow fans, pundits, players, managers, and yes, even writers to evaluate a player in all of these categories. 

Let's first look at both players' hitting statistics.

Trout Cabrera
Games Played 125 146
wOBA 0.420 0.420
OPS 0.954 1.008
BABIP 0.380 0.335
Hits 166 189
wRC+ 174 169
Runs 118 110
BB% 9.9% 9.4%
K% 21% 13.8%
BB+HBP 65 77
Strike Outs 121 88
The first thing that might pop out to you is that Trout has played in 21 fewer games than Cabrera. This gap is due the fact that the Angels did not bring Trout up from the minors until April 28th, almost a full month after the season began. Nonetheless, Trout's statistics compare favorably to Cabrera's. Both players excel in getting on base, as is seen by their identical weighted on-base averages (for a full explanation of wOBA see this link: wOBA explained). Trout draws walks at a higher rate than Cabrera, and hits for a higher average on balls he puts in play, despite having a higher strikeout percentage. Each player has compiled a number of hits, but when you look at hits per game, Trout has a distinct advantage at 1.3 hits/game compared to Cabrera's 0.8 hits/game. Trout also creates more runs overall than does Cabrera, and since no team can win without scoring runs, that statistic, wRC+, is not to be taken lightly (for an explanation of wRC+ see this link: wRC+ explained. Cabrera's lone shining star is that he strikes out far less than does Trout. This is an admirable quality, and one that often comes with years of experience, something Cabrera has in spades over the 20-year-old Trout. (Just to note, in Cabrera's first two MLB seasons at the ages of 20 and 21, his K% were 21.3% and 24.6% respectively.) While not striking out is a good thing, it can mean that the player grounds into more double plays. Cabrera has bounced into 28 double plays this year, or once every 5 games, while Trout has grounded into only only 7 double plays, or 17 games. 

Next let's look at power hitting statistics. Producing a run combines getting on base with the ability to knock in a run as well. That's why OPS is such a nice statistic. Here are some power statistics to look at: 

Games Played
Home Runs

As you can see, Cabrera leads in most of the power hitting statistics. He has more home runs, runs-batted-in, a higher isolated power (slugging % - batting average), a higher slugging percentage, and hits more home runs for every fly ball he hits. Interestingly, according to ESPN's home run tracker, Miguel Cabrera leads the major leagues in lucky home runs. A lucky home run is described as a homer that would not have cleared the fence in the park it was hit on a calm 70-degree day. Trout has had 0 lucky home runs. Nonetheless, we can easily see that Cabrera is the better power hitter, albeit, not by that much. On the other hand, Mike Trout bats lead-off and Cabrera bats 3rd. Trout's job as the 1-hitter is to get on base so that the power hitters in the 3-hole, cleanup spot, and 5-hole can knock him in, thus scoring a run. So, Cabrera's job is to be a power hitter while Trout's is not. Trout still compares closely to Cabrera in every power hitting category other than home runs and RBIs, showing just how valuable he truly is. 

Next, let's look at speed:

Games Played
 This is not a fair comparison. Miguel Cabrera is 29 years old, 6 foot 4 inches tall and weighs in at a liberal 240 lbs. Trout is 20 years old, 6 foot, and 200 lbs. Also, Cabrera has never been fast, thus no manager in his right mind would ever ask him to steal a base. On the other hand, even slow players can be smart base runners. BsR is a statistic factored into's version of WAR that attempts to calculate the contribution of a players' base running abilities. As you can see, Trout leads the way in both stolen bases, no surprise there, and more importantly, in base running. A player who gets on base, but gets thrown out due to poor base running earns his team more outs and thus costs his team runs. Advantage here clearly goes to Trout.

So far all of the metrics used to determine Trout and Cabrera's value has been from an offensive perspective. Although defense is not as important for a player, other than pitchers, than is offense, it still counts. Here are some defensive numbers: 

Games Played
 UZR or ultimate zone rating is the defensive metric used by when determining a player's defensive rating. The stat centers on a players range, but incorporates other factors as well. I use UZR/150 because it allows us to compare two players who have played a different amount of games, like Trout and Cabrera. The statistic takes into account difference in position difficulty. According to his play this season, Cabrera would cost his team 12 runs at third base while Trout would save his team almost 15 runs playing a mix of the three outfield positions. This illustrates another point. Trout can play all three outfield positions as well as the DH spot, but Cabrera has played almost the entire season at third base. Miguel can play at 1st; a less defensively valued position, but has only filled in there twice in 2012. The ability to play multiple positions and do so incredibly well, gives Trout a serious edge defensively. If you want to know more about each statistic listed above, click on it to be directed to an explanation.
The AL MVP Award

Finally, while we have looked at numerous individual statistics covering a variety of categories, most analysts look at already created value measuring statistics that encompass all facets of the game. "Wins above replacement" is the commonly used metric for measuring a player's overall value. Each major website calculates it a little differently, usually depending on the fielding metric that site likes to use. 

Games Played
Value Salary
$42.1 Mil
$29.8 Mil 
 No matter how you look at the numbers, every form of WAR shows that Trout is the more valuable player to his team. In fact, Fangraphs even computes a players WAR into the amount of money they would be worth. Trout's season is worth $12.3 million more than Cabrera's. I only showed how much money they are making this year to underscore the fact that both players are easily out performing their 2012 salaries.  

So, in the end, the comparison leads me to conclude that Mike Trout is not only the better overall player, but the more valuable player. His team has won more games this season, and he has been a bigger part of that. His fWAR/win is .11 while Cabrera's is .08. Trout adds more every game than Cabrera, and has statistically helped his team win more games than Cabrera. Oh, Cabrera may be on the precipice of history, but just because no player has won the Triple Crown in 44 years, does not automatically make him the most valuable player. In fact, if I were to do a comparison between Cabrera and Robinson Cano (remember him, we made him disappear earlier in the article,) the two players would not be very far apart. As far as the Triple Crown goes, Ted Williams won the Triple Crown twice, in 1942 and 1947. Neither year did he win the MVP. Even more so, in 1934 Lou Gehrig won the AL Triple Crown and came in 5th in the MVP voting. Even in the 30's and 40's voters had more on their minds when determining the MVP than home runs, batting average, and runs-batted-in. No matter what happens this season, Mike Trout deserves to become only the third player all time to win both the rookie-of-the-year award and he MVP in the same season (Ichiro Suzuki and Fred Lynn being the others). 

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