Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout have vied for the last two American League MVP awards, but the real battle has taken place off the field. Not only have sabermetricians and old school members of the BBWAA gone to war over which criteria best measure a player’s value, but they can’t even agree on the definition of the word.
Using WAR as the barometer, Trout was the hands down MVP in both 2012 and 2013 (and Robinson Cano and Josh Donaldson were the rightful runners-up). However, Cabrera was the runaway winner each time, thanks in large part to his offensive prowess (exemplified by OPS), which helped disguise subpar defense and poor base running. As a result, the Tigers’ third baseman took home the hardware despite posting a WAR that was only 67% and 78% of Trout’s league leading total in each respective season. Clearly, the decision to overlook Trout’s all around excellence was a travesty of justice. Or was it?
From the standpoint of WAR, it’s impossible to argue against Trout’s MVP candidacy. However, WAR is not definitive. Many reputable sabermetricians acknowledges the metric’s limitations, especially the uncertain accuracy and interpretation of defensive data as well as the logistics of properly quantifying an all-in-one statistic. In other words, WAR is an excellent concept with flawed inputs. It is a statistic that should neither be ignored nor taken at face value because, while it does a very good job framing a comparative analysis, it doesn’t come close to painting the whole picture.
valu·able: adjective \ˈval-yə-bəl, -yə-wə-bəl, -yü-ə-\
: worth a lot of money
: very useful or helpful
: important and limited in amount
In order to shift the battle from the sabermetrician’s home turf to the comfort zone of a writer, many members of the BBWAA have taken refuge in linguistics. At the crux of their argument is the meaning of “valuable”, not the method used to quantify it. According to this segment of voters, the record of a candidate’s team should not only be considered, but weighed heavily. After all, how could a player have been “worth a lot of money” or “very useful or helpful” if his team did not contend all season? That line of thinking was summed up perfectly by Pittsburgh Pirates GM Branch Rickey in response to Ralph Kiner, who was seeking a raise after leading the league in home runs for seven straight seasons. “We finished in last place with you,” Rickey told the slugger. “We can finish in last place without you.”
Top-10 MVP WAR Discrepancies in AL and NL, 1931-2013
*Team made postseason.
Note: In 1979, Willie Stargell was co-MVP with Keith Hernandez, whose WAR was 7.6.
Source: Baseball-reference.com (data) and proprietary (calculations)
Does giving a player extra credit for being on a winning team represent a recent shift in voting philosophy? Not according to the chart above, which ranks the 10 largest WAR gaps between each league’s MVP and season leader. In 16 of the 20 cases, the MVP just so happened to play for a team that made the post season, and in three others, the honoree’s club had a much better record. Also, with the exception of Maury Wills’ award in 1962, which was literally and figuratively stolen from Willie Mays (that season, Wills stole an unprecedented 104 bases), the only times the best player on the best team was snubbed was when the MVP was given to a teammate.
Should the MVP be based solely on a player’s performance? And, if so, what metrics should be used to quantify his value? Or, should the performance of a candidate’s team also be taken into account? Finally, what constitutes a contender? Should only players on teams who make the playoffs be considered for the MVP? Is there a cut off in terms of team wins or games behind? If it seems like there are a lot of questions, that’s probably by design. The rules provided by the BBWAA are ambiguous, and there’s little reason to clarify them. As long as uncertainty exists, interest in the award will prevail and spirited (albeit irrational at times) debate will continue.