Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Mike Trout MVP Discussion

Foregone conclusions as recently as two weeks ago have been upended. The American League wild  card race will go down to the last day absent dramatic performances (read my thoughts here) and the AL MVP race has become very compelling for two reasons:
1. Miguel Cabrera has cooled off significantly in the past two weeks, batting .136 with 0 home runs in September (all data through Wednesday, September 11th)
2. Mike Trout, already having an outstanding year is having an explosive September, batting .417 with an OPS of 1.118. He achieved that OPS without hitting a single home run, but with an otherworldly .563 OBP.

I'm already on record stating I believe Miguel Cabrera will win the MVP, but I didn't know Cabrera was going to get dinged up and might be slow in recovering any more than I knew Trout was going to up the ante on the season he was already having. I'll also NOT bury the lead--I STILL think Cabrera will win the MVP, but that doesn't mean an analysis between Cabrera and Trout isn't worth undertaking.

My  primary measure is adaptations of Baseball Reference (B-R) and FanGraphs (FG) WAR values for both players:

I'll do a more in-depth discussion of the differences between the B-R and FG values in the offseason, but will define what I THINK these values mean. I'll state up front I have no idea how they're calculated but I don't have to know to interpret them.

Rbat is the number of runs the formulae state Cabrera and Trout delivered with their hitting--the differences in the values is far less important than the fact both sets of equations have Trout and Cabrera delivering similar runs. Trout hits for far less power than Cabrera (as does anyone else not named Chris Davis or Paul Goldschmidt) but makes up for it by leading the majors in hits. B-R Runs Created shows Trout creating 144 runs and Cabrera a major league-leading 146--essentially a wash. 

I like a simple little metric that shows the runs a player created:
Runs  +  RBI  - Home Runs
For Trout and Cabrera it looks like this:
Over 70% of Trout's plate appearances were in the #2 spot in the lineup, not typically a RBI slot. I use this number to see if top-of-the-lineup players overcome the lack of RBI opportunities by scoring runs themselves, and in Trout's case he has, but Cabrera has had a remarkable season--driving in runs AND scoring them as well. It's an idea I'll return to later.

Tne next two WAR factors, Rbaser and Rdp measure how well the players perform on the base paths. Rbaser measures stolen bases and caught stealing, advancing on passed balls or wild pitches, taking an extra base (i.e., going from 1st to 3rd on a single) and reaching on errors. All these items are measures of not only speed but savvy and it should surprise no one Trout receives value in this category and Cabrera doesn't. Rdp is how well players stay out of a double plays, another proxy measure of speed, and these two measures taken together give a thumbnail as to how well a hitter does once he actually gets on base.

The next two factors measure defensive capabilities. The first, Rfield is what it seems, how well the player actually fields his position. I hesitate when I discuss any player's fielding because fielding metrics (with apologies to John Dewan) are downright archaic compared  to the advances made in measuring offense. Trout's fielding percent isn't bad but his UZR/150 is down significantly from 2012.

Rpos is an attempt to normalize WAR so that cross-position comparisons can be made, very much like I'm doing here. Cabrera is a third baseman, a position the modern era considers an offensive position in which good defense is a nice bonus but not crucial. Center field, on the other hand, is considered a critical defensive position and rightly so since balls that aren't flagged down become extra-base hits. Therefore, the Rpos number is simply that, a number assigned to a player based on his position (and the percentage of innings he plays at that position). This is how both WAR calculations value each position:

To use an extreme example, compare David Ortiz to Joe Mauer, the catcher FG has with the highest WAR (5.0)--right from the start Mauer would have an approximate 2.5 points of WAR advantage over Ortiz just because of the positions they play and NOT due to any other hitting, base running or defensive factor. I understand why this is done, but are MVP voters really going to say "Well, that Trout didn't hit as many homers as Cabrera?" I doubt it, and if they're smart enough to be entrusted with an MVP ballot they should be able to account for differences in position when making judgments. They seemed to be able to do that in 2008 when Dustin Pedroia won with offensive numbers that were good but not stunning--but REALLY good for a second baseman.

The last value, Rrep is the familiar value over a replacement player. I'll include both B-R and FG exact definitions:
B-R--Rrep is the value of an average player over a replacement player given the player's playing time. Replacement level is set at around a .320 team W-L percentage. AL's is 22 runs per 650 PA and NL's is 18 runs per 650 PA. A player's PA is the smaller of actual PA and 4PA/G*G in order to not overvalue leadoff hitters.
FG--Replacement Runs set at 20 runs per 600 plate apperances
Allow me to distill these definitions down--these players are BAD BAD BAD BAD BAD. Be sure you haven't eaten before you see this list--it shows recent players with 600+ PA and a WAR less than 0:
Alejandro De Aza 2013 619 -0.7 29 CHW 139 558 77 147 26 4 15 57 44 133 8 19 7 .263 .320 .405 .725
Starlin Castro 2013 633 -0.5 23 CHC 144 598 55 144 30 2 9 39 26 116 20 8 6 .241 .280 .343 .623
Michael Young 2012 651 -2.0 35 TEX 156 611 79 169 27 3 8 67 33 70 26 2 2 .277 .312 .370 .682
Jeff Francoeur 2012 603 -2.3 28 KCR 148 561 58 132 26 3 16 49 34 119 14 4 7 .235 .287 .378 .665
Rickie Weeks 2012 677 -0.4 29 MIL 157 588 85 135 29 4 21 63 74 169 9 16 3 .230 .328 .400 .728
Carlos Lee 2012 615 -0.2 36 TOT 147 550 53 145 27 1 9 77 58 49 13 3 0 .264 .332 .365 .697
Delmon Young 2012 608 -0.8 26 DET 151 574 54 153 27 1 18 74 20 112 20 0 2 .267 .296 .411 .707
Jason Bartlett 2011 618 -0.1 31 SDP 139 554 61 136 22 3 2 40 48 98 13 23 10 .245 .308 .307 .615
Danny Valencia 2011 608 -0.3 26 MIN 154 564 63 139 28 2 15 72 40 102 15 2 6 .246 .294 .383 .677
Casey McGehee 2011 600 -0.9 28 MIL 155 546 46 122 24 2 13 67 45 104 19 0 3 .223 .280 .346 .626
Juan Pierre 2011 711 -0.7 33 CHW 158 639 80 178 17 4 2 50 43 41 7 27 17 .279 .329 .327 .657
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/12/2013.

Add all these factors up and both Trout and Cabrera end up adding around 80-90 runs with their overall performance. Since sabermetricians state that about 10 runs equals one win, that's how both Trout and Cabrera arrive at their WAR values. FG adds another fun twist by assigning a dollar value to the performance of a player, which is the last column--any time a player delivers $35+ million in value, they're having a very good year.

As long as there are alternate versions of WAR formulae used there will be arguments over which is more accurate. I don't care--I use them not to see that Trout has a 9.4 or 9.9 WAR depending on which site you prefer, but to understand two things:
1. Either value is VERY special--both sites consider WAR values much over 7 to be historic
2. It's special because NO ONE ELSE DOES IT. I don't care what the number is, I care what it tells me, that it's unique and uncommon.
But there is a major difference, one that accounts for most of the discrepancy between the two sites. FG has Trout down as a positive fielder, B-R as a negative. As a result, the difference between Trout and Cabrera in fielding is magnified--both have Cabrera as a terrible fielder (because he is), but B-R has that account for about .6 WAR points, where FG has it at around 2.2 points of WAR, both around 2/3rds of the WAR difference between the two.

Defense is important, but is it THAT important? In both player's case (and just about every other player this side of Ozzie Smith or Mark Belanger) their offense accounts for around 75% of their WAR value, and this is completely logical for reasons I've described before and will again. Cabrera's offense is a primary reason for the Detroit pitching staff success--three of the top eight MLB pitchers in run support are Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, and Cabrera hasn't had much help from the rest of the Tigers lineup in providing that support.

And with that I leave the realm of objective analysis and wade into the murky waters of opinion, a place I have no problem visiting but very rarely share due to my belief that no one really cares what I think, including me. What I attempt to do in this blog is put out the facts to allow people to reach their own conclusions. 

Winning matters. I understand it's not Mike Trout's fault that Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols had disappointing seasons for any number of reasons or that the Angels foolishly traded Jean Segura as part of the 2012 trade for Zack Greinke or that Joe Blanton is 2-14 and other than C.J. Wilson their starting pitching has been average at best. It's not Trout's fault the Angels are stunningly weak at short and third. It IS due to Cabrera that the Tigers have been able to overcome so-so offensive production from the rest of the lineup and that the pitchers have been able to outperform what cold hard numbers suggest. Trout couldn't overcome his team's shortcomings--Cabrera did.

Put Trout in the National League and he wins the MVP hands-down since even though I've picked Andrew McCutchen, part of that is subjective since his numbers aren't great. Joey Votto has surged, but if Trout were a Diamondback, a team that isn't bad but won't win the playoffs, I could comfortably vote for him as MVP, just as I'm sure Paul Goldschmidt will receive significant MVP support. But I can't do it in the AL--the year Miguel Cabrera is having is nothing less than historic, and any deficiencies caused by his lack of speed or defense are far less than people think. Baseball is NOT 1/2 offense and 1/2 defense in terms of value, which WAR demonstrates dramatically--it's more like 80/20 tilted in favor of offense. For that reason, while it may not be FAIR to Trout, I understand and support any voter who puts the MVP check mark next to Miguel Cabrera's name on the ballot.

And if Mike Trout wins, you won't hear a peep from me. I'll understand it and even agree with the assessments, since they're down there in black and white with measures in which I have great faith. "What does Mike Trout have to DO?" the people will wail in unison if Cabrera wins--my answer is NOTHING. It's OUR job to educate everyone into how well he's playing and take the time to explain not only the makeup of the WAR equations but why they're relevant. Until that happens, it might be a long time before Trout stops being the bridesmaid...

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