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Jacobsen: Old school vs. new school (Nov. 19)

By Vicky Jacobsen | Monday, November 19, 2012

 

I know that most of us are currently wrapped up in the excitement of football season, but those of you who still remember that sport called baseball will probably be aware of last Thursday’s announcement that Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants and Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers had been named the 2012 National League and American League MVPs, respectively.

As far as I’m concerned, the biggest news to come out of this year’s voting was the fact that not a single vote went to a Red Sox player, which was a first in the history of the MVP award. When you consider that the award has been around since 1911, this is an embarrassment of historical proportions. (Not as embarrassing as the team’s 93-loss season itself, but pretty close.)

But the segment of the baseball-following population that isn’t made up of hopelessly myopic Boston fans seems to think that the most important part of this story is the victory of Cabrera, the king of the triple crown and traditional stats, over Los Angeles Angels’ rookie of the year Mike Trout, the favored son of the sabermetrics crowd.

I wish I had a convincing argument for why Cabrera or Trout was clearly the best player in the American League, but in reality I’m not sure who I would have voted for. If I’m going to be completely honest with myself, I think I would’ve voted for Cabrera simply because Trout is barely old enough to drink legally and has plenty more chances to put together an MVP-caliber season (and yes, I do realize that kind of logic is the reason why the Baseball Writers Association of America doesn’t give voting privileges to random college kids).

Now, if you read a baseball blog or watched “Moneyball” at any point last summer, you would think the “old guard” statistics – batting average, RBIs and wins – were devices of the baseball devils created to lead scouts down the path of darkness and despair that ends in signing Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year deal. Thank goodness we have OPS+ and WAR to show us the light, right?

But here’s the shocker: Players who lead traditional statistical categories tend to look impressive in terms of advanced metrics. Team Trout’s favorite argument in favor of the rookie was his 10.7 wins above replacement, a figure calculated by the magical number cruncher in the press box that decided the Angels would have won nearly 11 fewer games with an average Triple-A call up in the outfield. But Cabrera’s 6.9 WAR is nothing to sneeze at. Trout’s OPS+ just barely outpaced that of the Tigers’ slugger (171 to 165), while their on-base percentages were nearly identical (.399 for Trout, .393 for Cabrera). Trout scored 20 more runs, but Cabrera knocked in 56 more. And let’s not forget that Cabrera was the first player to lead the league in homers, hits and batting average in 45 years.

My (not so-)expert analysis? Both had pretty darn good seasons. You could pretend that you favor one or the other based on the box score in the newspaper or the sabermetrics, but let’s get real: most of us watch the game, decide whether we prefer the home run-masher or the dashing rookie, and then find the stat line we want to bolster our argument.

And lest you think that advanced metrics and a holistic approach to MVP voting is a new idea, let’s take a look at the 1941 AL MVP race: Ted Williams hit 37 homeruns, had 120 RBI, a .553 on-base percentage and .735 slugging percentage, not to mention a .406 batting average. You know what he didn’t have? The MVP award. That went to Yankee Joe DiMaggio. (He had a pretty good season, too, with a nice little hitting streak in the middle.)

We have the same fundamental problem 70 years later, and probably will 70 years from now: There are a lot of valid ways to evaluate a player, and they won’t always give us one favorite.

So congratulations to Miguel Cabrera. As for Mike Trout, the kid has plenty more chances.

 

Contact Vicky Jacobsen at vjacobsen@nd.edu

    The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.