Saturday, October 6, 2012

Old School vs. New School

The latest raging debate in baseball concerns who should win the American League Most Valuable Player Award. The choices, Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout. One side claims that Miguel Cabrera must win the award. He won the Triple Crown for heaven's sake. No, I'm not talking about the horse racing Triple Crown, this is a baseball blog after all, and Miguel Cabrera isn't the name of the most recent jockey or thoroughbred coming out of the gates at Pimlico. This is a feat unaccomplished by thousands of Major Leagues over the last 45 years. Home runs, runs batted in, and batting average make up the three categories in which a player must at least tied for the lead in his respective league in order to claim the glorious Triple Crown. On the other side, we have Mike Trout. 20 years young, and already a phenom. Trout put together a Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle-type season. He posted a wRC+ of 175, wOBA of .422, a DRS of 21, and the highest WAR in the Major Leagues at 10.4. Wait, what in God's name are those hokey looking new-age statistics? WAR? Does that mean Trout is the best chance we have at beating ze Germans on the Western Front? I don't trust that garbage.

This is the debate:

For the last 30 or so years, Baseball has been evolving. Yes, we added the designated hitter, interleague play, and supposedly got rid of steroids, but I'm talking about a revolution. Bring out the guillotine and start chopping off heads. No, not a revolt, but a radical transformation. We didn't bring muskets and a declaration of war (I know the irony is killing me too), instead we brought our slide rules, statistical regression textbooks, and maybe a computer or two. Starting with the father, Bill James, and moving on to greats like John Dewan, Earnshaw Cook, and Tom Tango, the way we look at the game of baseball has changed. Change can often sound like a bad thing, especially for a game characterized as the National Pastime. But stories like the The Natural and tales of the great boys of summer, brought Baseball only so far. The key to moving baseball out of its archaic shell was science. Yes, pesky old science, that class in high school you so royally skipped except when you were set to dissect a frog or a guinea pig. Science crept into Baseball, just as it does with most aspects of life that have yet to be analyzed in depth.

This isn't a new concept. Originally, we as humans thought that the world was flat. In fact, some of the most brilliant minds of the ancient generations, not only assumed, but also proved the world flat. Eventually, around the 6th century BCE, with the help of the great Pythagorus, the ancient Greeks agreed that the world was not flat, but spherical. On the other hand, it took the Chinese until the 17th Century to change their minds, and even some during the time of the great explorer Christopher Columbus thought the earth was shaped like a discus.

Next came the idea of heliocentrism, a concept originally developed by the great Polish scientist and Catholic cleric, Nicolaus Copernicus. Copernican theory stated that the sun stood still while the other bodies in the universe, the earth included revolved around it. This idea was almost the complete opposite from religious doctrine. From the Bible, we can make out that the Earth was the center of the universe, but according to the Pole Copernicus, the sun was at the universe's center. Galileo, the great Italian scientist reproved all of Copernicus' theories concerning heliocentrism, and using his influence in the Catholic Church attempted to sway the Pope to allow him to publish this knowledge as fact. The Pope even asked Galileo to give arguments for both sides in his writings, but Galileo would not allow his name to be associated with false information. In the end, Galileo was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. Not a great endorsement for the Church. 

Finally, science budged its way into the classical idea that God created the world in 7 days. Along came a guy named Charles Darwin who proved, scientifically, that humans evolved through natural selection, which had been going on for millions of years. Even to this day, many religious earthly citizens believe that the world was created in 7 days. Some believe a middle ground called creationism, but the concept of evolution is the only theory ever to be proven, similar to how heliocentrism and the earth being round were previously proven. Much like those other theories, great debates had to be waged in order for the general public to accept them as fact. In the case of evolution that debate was the Scopes Monkey Trial. The trial was between the modernists and the fundamentalists, and while the details of the case concerned a specific law called the Butler Act, the main argument to be made on both sides concerned which was the correct theory, Evolution or Biblical scripture. 

Now, let's jump to the Cabrera vs. Trout debate. Much like the debate between Galileo and Pope Urban, and the State of Tennessee vs. John Scopes, the decision of who wins the MVP won't change every baseball fans' mind, but it serves as a necessary part of the process towards progress. In the years since Billy Beane used the concept of on-base percentage to take pennies and turn them into a playoff team, sabermetrics has claimed many Baseball fans, but hasn't changed the minds of most. The mere fact that the "new-school" sabermetric point of view makes a significant appearance in the discussion for the MVP award gives it more validity than ever before. 

I've heard numerous older pundits and sports people talk about how ludicrous it is to consider anyone but Miguel Cabrera for the MVP award because he won the first Triple Crown in 45 years, and his team made the playoffs. When making this argument all of these sports guys, including Mike Wilbon, Tony Kornheiser, Mike Greenberg, and Mike Golic, always mention that they don't believe any new statistics like WAR means very much in comparison to winning the Triple Crown. This may sound like an ornery and entrenched perspective, but by even mentioning statistics like WAR on national television, these respected sports minds give the sabermetric idea more credibility. 

The winner of the old school vs. new school debate does not depend on the winner of the AL MVP award because no matter the outcome, sabermetric believers have already won just by participating in the discussion. Cabrera may win the award, and while he isn't a bad choice, he is not the right one. New statistics are not scary; they just allow us to analyze the inner workings of the greatest game on the planet. A planet, that we know is spherical, revolves around he sun, and that has supported ever-evolving life for millions of years. 


  1. Great article, Ben. The MVP is awarded by the Baseball Writers Association. Anyone who reads the New York Post can tell you that there are lots of baseball writers who don't know squat about baseball. Why can't the sabermetric community issue its own awards? It would be similar to the Oscars, voted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, versus the SAG awards voted by the Screen Actors Guild. The Oscars may get more publicity but I have a feeling that the SAG awards are more respected by movie community insiders.

  2. It could. A few reasons why it doesn't or might have difficulties doing so. We don't agree on everything as uniformly as the BBWA has for many years. There is fWAR, rWAR, WARP, FRAA, UZR, DRS,etc... It is somewhat agreed upon that all these are important and we should use all of them in evaluations, but some people think one is far superior to another. Also, metrics are constantly being updated, changed, manipulated, as more data and analysis is performed. Every team has their own set of statistics on which to judge players.

    Now, that being said, you aren't wrong. This could happen. It would take a lot of effort though. What is more reasonable is for the writers association to include in its voting block people who take sabermetrics into greater account, and allow them to vote using ALL of the information.