I'm sure everybody is sick of the baseball debate over the the American League Most Valuable Player award going to 29-year-old veteran Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers over 20-year-old wunderkind Mike Trout of the California Angels. But, I've think I've come up with a subtle but useful distinction.
Personally, I would have voted for Trout. But I think I can come up with a better defense of the sportswriters voting for Cabrera than they can.
Ironically, Trout is a classic Five Tool Player that the pre-Moneyball old school scouts would have drooled over because he Looks Good in a Uniform. Cabrera is the kind of pudgy Ken Phelps-like power hitter who whom Bill James drooled over.
But, leave that aside because here's something that I've never really grasped before in all the years I've been thinking about baseball statistics (since 1965 when I was six).
A pervasive distinction between sabermetric statistics and traditional statistics is that the new statistics (such as Wins Above Replacement [WAR], in which Trout did best) are generally intended to predict the future better by removing as much as possible the impact of luck, while the old statistics (such as Runs Batted In [RBI], which favored Cabrera) are intended to describe the past, which includes the impact of luck. MVP awards are handed out based on performance in the season just past, so a case can be made that the backward-looking statistics make sense in MVP voting.
Think of it as the difference between scientists and historians. The former are obsessed with replicability, the latter with narrative.
To illustrate this, compare Cabrera's 2012 season not to Mike Trout's 2012 season, but to Cabrera's own 2011 season. Cabrera has been highly consistent as a hitter over his ten year career, peaking over the last three years.
Cabrera actually had a higher WAR in 2011 (7.3) than in 2012 (6.9), but he only finished fifth in the MVP voting a year ago. Why? Because his RBI total in 2011 was only 105, compared to 139 in 2012.
In the 20th Century, the RBI championship notoriously correlated with winning the MVP award, although that connection has faded in this century as the sabermetricians have increasingly had their say.
Sabermetricians have long argued that RBIs are over-emphasized in discerning excellence because they are so context sensitive (you want guys ahead of you in the batting order getting on base, but not hitting homers that clear the bases) and dependent upon luck.
Moreover, past clutch hitting performance seldom accurately predicts future clutch hitting performance. The whole notion of clutch hitting in baseball seems pretty dubious: trying hard in four at bats per day just isn't all that physically or mentally debilitating, so it seems likely that major league baseball players try pretty hard most times they come up to bat. Moreover, the typical major leaguer has come up to bat in clutch situations thousands of times since he was a small boy and if he were inclined to choke when the pressure is on, he probably wouldn't have made it to the majors.
So, maybe Cabrera's relatively low RBI total in 2011 was just bad luck, and regression toward the mean would suggest it was likely to go up in 2012, which it did.
And, he's likely to drive in fewer than 139 runs in 2013 due to regression toward the mean. Heck, if they replayed the 2012 season in a computer a million times, Cabrera probably wouldn't average 139 RBIs. He had to be lucky in 2012 to drive in that many. Maybe he only "deserved" to drive in, say, 125, and then he wouldn't have won the RBI race and thus wouldn't have won the Triple Crown and probably wouldn't have won the MVP award. You could run a million computer simulations of the season and check this out.
One of Cabrera's sabermetric critics Keith Law of ESPN raised the question of alternative universes, Twittering:
No. #narrative RT @theknapsackkid: do you think in an alternate universe where Hamilton hits 2 more homers, Cabrera still wins mvp?
Indeed, much of what sabermetricians do is try to estimate what would happen in alternative universes.
But, here's the thing: Cabrera really did drive in 139 runs in 2012. That is what happened in this universe That doesn't mean he was the best player of 2012, or that he would have been the most valuable player if you could average across infinite alternative universes, but it does suggest that he was a really valuable player in this universe.
You can see the difference between an MVP Award and a statistically sound analysis of ability more easily when thinking about World Series MVP Awards. Consider the famous 1986 World Series between the Mets and Red Sox. Out of all the good players on those two teams (Roger Clemens, Gary Carter, Jim Rice, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Evans, Keith Hernandez, Doc Gooden, Don Baylor, etc.) was World Series MVP Ray Knight really the best one?
Of course not. Indeed, the Mets let their World Series hero go during the offseason. But, he really did have a valuable World Series.
Say a player in the World Series crushes a lot of balls, but most of them right at somebody and winds up batting .231 as his team gets swept (a little bit like Cabrera in 2012 World Series). A statistical system even better than WAR would predict that he would do much better if that World Series were replayed a million times. It might even predict he'd be the MVP more often than anybody else.
But, they don't play the WS a million times, they just play it once, and in World Series that was actually played, Cabrera wasn't the WS MVP.
Conversely, it's not ridiculous to argue that Cabrera was the most valuable player in the AL in the 2012 season, even if Trout was the best.
P.S., Also, there's the Career Achievement aspect: Cabrera is 29 and has come close to the MVP before, finishing in the top 5 five times. He's headed toward the decline phase of a highly respectable career, the kind that usually wins an MVP award.
Trout is only 20 and if he's really as good as he appeared to be in 2012 (i.e, like a mid-career Mickey Mantle), he ought to win several when he's older and even better.
Career Achievement isn't supposed to play a role in MVP voting, but it's reasonable that it does to some extent, especially since the advent of steroids.
In short, 29-year-old Miguel Cabrera has passed more PED tests than 20-year-old Mike Trout has.
That doesn't mean he's clean, but Cabrera's career arc looks reasonable. And that may well be unfair to Trout, but that's the world we live in.