Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire
Miguel Cabrera, MVP? Only if you ignore two-thirds of a player's total contributions, which is what we used to do back in the day.
Miguel Cabrera has three games left against the Kansas City Royals, a team that happens to be filled with Royals pitchers. Josh Hamilton has three games left against the Oakland A's in Oakland. Both are tied for the American League lead in home runs at 43.
The circumstances favor Cabrera for the home run title. He has an excellent chance that the Triple Crown. And as we discussed a couple of weeks ago, that means he'll win the American League MVP. And that means the streets will run red with the blood of sabermetricians and traditionalists alike.
That, or we'll have to read a bunch of tedious columns.
So, it's the columns, is it? Okay.
They've started already, you know. Bill Madden had one with a headline that literally included "THIS MEANS WAR!" Jerry Green of the Detroit News actually includes the term "Balderdash" in his. Every anti-stats screed should include at least one "balderdash", though I'd also accept "horsefeathers" or "poppycock."
But while the end-of-season anti-stat screed is something of a tradition when there's a close race for a major award, the difference here is the target of their ire. This isn't Javier Vazquez getting Cy Young votes because of his FIP. This isn't Juan Gonzalez failing to get votes because of his low OBP. This is Mike Trout, who did everything better than 99 percent of his peers this year. That's the target.
Here’s a guy having one of the greatest offensive seasons in history, on the cusp of being the first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, and yet there is this clamor from the sabermetrics gallery that Cabrera must be penalized for his slowness afoot and supposed defensive shortcomings.
WAR — and there are versions disseminated by both websites Baseball-Reference.com and fangraphs.com — includes more skills than pure hitting and hitting for power. Stolen bases are considered, a number that actually can be counted.
Fielding likewise counts.
That last passage is supposed to be read with something of a sneer. As if fielding is something of a newfangled sabermetric construct. And that's when it hit me. The Miguel Cabrera supporters have morphed into the Moneyball stereotype from the turn of the millennium.
We're not selling jeans here.
That's the famous Billy Beane quote from Moneyball, and it was uttered about Jeremy Brown. It's the part of Moneyball that's aged the worst -- only caring if a player could hit as an amateur, regardless of his shortcomings in every other area. In the movie version of Moneyball, Brown is portrayed by a guy who looks like Kingpin, and he's used as the coda of the movie. What was glossed over was that Brown accrued all of 11 plate appearances in the majors over his career. The other stuff -- the defense, the baserunning, the athleticism -- mattered.
This was the stat-loving stereotype that was true once upon a time. There was a tendency for the sabermetric orthodoxy to value hitting over everything else. Low-OBP middle infielders were junk, regardless of their defensive aptitude. High-OBP corner infielders were golden, regardless if they ran or fielded as if their shoelaces were tied to their mitts.
It was the old Bill James maxim flipped on its head. The definition of mismanagement was supposed to be looking at what a player couldn't do instead of what he could. The over-correction was to ignore what a player couldn't do.
WAR is supposed to adjust for that. It's an imperfect stat, partially based on single-season defensive numbers, which can be fluky and unreliable. But it's an attempt to correct for the earlier snubs of fielding and baserunning. It purports to show that a player who can field like a superstar, run like a superstar, and hit like a superstar is more valuable than a player who fields like a manatee, runs like an especially fast manatee, and hits like a super-duper star.
Which feels like something the old school was trying to tell us a decade ago.
The Trout/Cabrera slap fights have over a month to go. Until they're over, it's fascinating to see the odd bedfellows the Cabrera supporters have made. They're snuggling up with the Jack Cust aficionados from way back when. It takes a weird kind of cognitive dissonance to ignore that Trout and Cabrera are as far apart when it comes to running and fielding as Justin Verlander and Barry Zito are when it comes to preventing runs. And running and fielding matter.
Baseball people have always known that. But different factions of baseball people tend to forget that every so often. This time, it's the traditionalists' turn. At least, the ones who are arguing for Miguel Cabrera.