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A Tired WAR

By Mike Silva ~ November 18th, 2012. Filed under: MLB.

I think Eric Wilbur summarized the hysteria over the MVP award this week in his post at Boston.com. Wilbur used the poster children for the new age vs. old school writer in his piece by highlighting Keith Law of ESPN and Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News. Law represents the new-age sabermetrician and Grant the traditional BBWAA writer. Both made good point, but came off looking awfully bad in a discourse over the American League MVP that became increasingly uncivil. At times, downright rude.

In case you haven’t heard, the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera won the American League MVP after producing a Triple Crown season, the first since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Cabrera hit 44 HRs, drove in 139 runs and hit .330. Ironically, it wasn’t even the best year of his career since 2010 produced a higher OPS (1.042 versus .999) and his OPS+ in 2011 was 179 versus 165. It was enough to help propel Detroit into the playoffs and erase a 3-game deficit the final two weeks of the season. Clearly, someone who played like an MVP.

Some of you are probably scratching your head as to why Cabrera winning the award is so controversial? After all, it’s not like this was given to an intangibles player (see the Rangers’ Michael Young) or an overhyped media darling like Bryce Harper. It’s Miguel Cabrera, who arguably might be the best offensive player in the sport; perhaps the best of this generation. The reason is Anaheim centerfielder Mike Trout, and what Trout stands for in the modern baseball media.

Trout had an equally good offensive year hitting 30 HRs, driving in 83 runs, stealing 49 bases and playing gold glove defense in centerfield. An MVP vote for Trout certainly is nothing to be ashamed of. In the past, Trout’s speed and defense were hard to quantify when evaluating performance, but sabermetricans have been able to create a stat called WAR (Wins Above Replacement) that incorporates all that into one neat number. This is where Trout beats Cabrera, a man without a real position, handily: 10.7 to 6.9 (source Baseball Reference).

This has created a baseball holy war amongst those that subscribe to new age statistics (aka sabermetricians) and the traditional members of the BBWAA, who don’t understand or subscribe to the new-age thinking. Both sides have taken verbal and written shots over various mediums. In the end, both are arguing over two completely different types of players. Cabrera is a pure hitter – a DH if you will – while Trout is the prototypical five-tool player that brings elite performance to both sides of the ball. You can’t go wrong with either, but probably can’t win with nine of them.

What makes baseball so much fun to write about versus the other sports is its ability to spark debate on a daily basis. Statistics are easily followed and make it possible to compare players of different positions and eras. The problem is that both sides of the media spectrum have come across unlikeable in their attempt to be “right.” In essence, they showed all that is wrong with the sabermetric movement and the BBWAA.

There is no strict definition of what a Most Valuable Player should be. The term “valuable” is left open-ended for the voter to interpret. For all intents and purposes, one could vote for Derek Jeter this year since they could argue the Yankees wouldn’t have made the playoffs without him. Statistically he doesn’t bring the same package as Cabrera or Trout, but he brings value to the Yanks.

The problem isn’t whether a voter uses sabermetric or traditional stats; it’s the need for both sides to perpetuate ideology. Sabermetrics should have never been a movement. It became one because the leaders of what I would call the “club” were angling for jobs in the game. When I wrote this three years ago I was attacked, but since then you have seen members of Baseball Prospectus join the front offices of big league ball clubs. The Houston Astros have gone all-in on the sabermetric movement with their new front office regime. Good for these individuals. They marketed a skill and are part of the 92% that are employed. We need more people earning and working in this country.

The problem is sabermetrics isn’t infallible, although those that subscribe to it would like you to think it is. It’s a tool, not a cult, and its evaluations are based on anecdotal triggers. Wins Above Replacement will never be kind to a reliever because the ideology is that a player that pitches one inning is never as valuable as a middle-of-the-rotation starter. There is merit to that argument, but I wouldn’t say it’s absolute in every case (see Mariano Rivera). Centerfielder and shortstop will always be more valuable position than first base. Again, there are arguments for and against this depending on the player, team and situation. In the end, it’s a tool, and one that should be taken into the equation when making a decision.

On the flip side there are flaws to traditional stats like batting average, home runs and RBI. Trout had 83 RBI, but hit leadoff a majority of the season. How can you expect someone to drive in runs if there isn’t anyone on base? Players in naked lineups (see David Wright) will naturally drive in less runs than someone who plays for the Yankees. Isn’t it better to have a player get on base instead of just hitting for a high average? Again, sometimes a walk is as good as a hit; other times, maybe not. I rather my third hitter drive in that runner from second with two outs, then walk and leave it up to the next guy. That is, if he gets a good pitch to hit. See how hard it is to evaluate performance just on a number?

There is no right or wrong answer. Just like there isn’t one Wins Above Replacement calculation (see how different both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference are). Until we know exactly what is the “right” way to evaluate a ballplayer, we will have to use different tools to come to a decision. After all, we are human beings and, by definition, aren’t perfect. If you find a perfect person, let me know. But if you do, I doubt it’s someone who describes themselves as a sabermetrician or member of the BBWAA.

The way to solve this- and I talked about this earlier in the year – is to create two awards. Establish a statistical standard for the best overall player in the league. Figure out what MLB’s official WAR calculation will be and make it part of the league leaders. Make the Most Valuable Player award something the BBWAA votes on, or better yet, do a weighted vote between the writers, fans, coaches and players. That might make it interesting.

We aren’t debating global warming or economic policy. No nation will crumble because Mike Trout failed to win the American League MVP. The only people hurt are members of the sabermetric community who want to enforce an ideology over the game. Instead of being a tool, they want to be a cult. Sometimes I wonder if the real socialists aren’t politicians but mathematicians.

As for the BBWAA, lighten up. You are writing about baseball, not splitting atoms. Your industry values the craft so much they are pushing for people to write for free. Last time I looked, free means the supply outweighs the demand. When it comes to sports journalism, there certainly isn’t a shortage of individuals who want to get their opinion out there. What that means is you are not as important or invaluable as you may think. The employment figures in the industry clearly state that.

Both sides have great points, but are too caught up in being important and right that they have lost perspective on what this is all about. In the end, I wonder if we are dealing with a bunch of frustrated wannabe White House Correspondents.

Use WAR to evaluate players, but let’s not go to war about it.

It’s just a game.

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Mike Silva has hosted sports shows on 107.1 FM Champions ESPN Radio Long Island ,1240 AM WGBB , Blog Talk Radio and live from Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant. He’s also built and maintained two popular social media hubs: New York Baseball Digest and Sports Media Watchdog. Mike has broken national and local stories, as well as been mentioned on the YES Network, SNY.tv, WFAN, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, NY Daily News, New York Magazine, Journal News and the NY Post. Contact Mike professionally at mikesilvamedia.com

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