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November 16, 2012

BP Unfiltered

Why Mike Trout Matters

by Russell A. Carleton

I suppose that we ought to be used to this at this point. Noted author, columnist, sportswriter, and Detroit resident Mitch Albom wrote about the obvious big story involving the city of Detroit and the game of baseball: yesterday's naming of Miguel Cabrera as American League MVP. But his sub-headline proclaimed the award as a victory over "the stat geeks." For the most part it followed the same cliched form that these pieces tend to, complete with the veiled and not-so-veiled insults that somehow keep being peddled as journalism. Albom pulls out two old favorites in his column: that the "stat nerd" crowd never sees the sun and that we are not fans and probably don't actually watch games. 

It's good to see that even 15 years after I graduated high school, it's still okay to publicly put down nerds. I have to wonder if the Detroit Free-Press would be so forgiving if I wrote a column in which I suggested that Mitch Albom and other big dumb jocks like him couldn't pass a third-grade math test and probably think that it's magic that there's a thingy that can make bread come out crunchy. No? Because that would be an ad hominem attack? How horrible that would be to insult big dumb jocks like that!

The rest of the article is pretty predictable. Miguel Cabrera a) won the Triple Crown and b) has intangibles such as:

  • Watching him day after day, he did a lot of things that helped the Tigers win, including getting several clutch hits. This is true. Although there are people who saw a lot of Angels games this year and would point out that Mike Trout also did some amazing things this year too that helped the Angels win.
  • Teammates liked being around Miguel Cabrera. I assume that this is true, and I'm actually a believer that this could have a real effect. So, did everyone in the Angels clubhouse hate Mike Trout?
  • He had "an effect" on pitchers. You may recognize this from previous arguments such as "pitchers feared him." Again, I will happily stipulate to this. Were I a big league pitcher, I'd be afraid to see Miguel Cabrera coming to the plate. I wouldn't be thrilled to see Mike Trout either.
  • The Tigers had greater confidence from being in the presence of the awesomeness of Cabrera. Apparently, members of the Angels did not notice Trout. Further, Cabrera's heroics deflated the other team's morale. The half dozen guys from whom Mike Trout robbed a home run all happened to be students of Stoic philosophy, so it doesn't much matter. Also, when Mike Trout hit a home run, the other team did not notice.
  • He moved from first base to third base at the beginning of the season so that the Tigers could sign Prince Fielder. It marked one of the few times he went first to third all year.
  • He hit better in August and September when the pressure was greater. As Joe Posnanski wrote this morning, he did this while feasting on poor AL Central pitching. But even taking that away, being a better hitter is not the same thing as being a better all-around player. Trout continued to provide value with his defense and baserunning, and yes, when considering this, was the superior player in both months.

As a trained psychologist, I'm probably more willing than most of my stat-head brethren to embrace the "human side" and the "intangibles" that a player can bring to a team. What always amazes me about these types of arguments is that they uniformly ignore a very elementary rule of comparing things. If you examine something for one man, examine it for the other. If your definition of value includes intangibles, then that's your right. Fine. Apply the definition uniformly. Even assuming that all of these effects are 100 percent real, would a fair-minded assessment show that Miguel Cabrera really outpaced Mike Trout by that much on these intangibles?

***

There are a couple of an unintentionally brilliant paragraphs in Mr. Albom's article that sum up exactly why these sorts of columns worry me. Quoth Mr. Albom:

Which, by the way, speaks to a larger issue about baseball. It is simply being saturated with situational statistics. What other sport keeps coming up with new categories to watch the same game? A box score now reads like an annual report. And this WAR statistic -- which measures the number of wins a player gives his team versus a replacement player of minor league/bench talent (honestly, who comes up with this stuff?) -- is another way of declaring, "Nerds win!"

We need to slow down the shoveling of raw data into the "what can we come up with next?" machine. It is actually creating a divide between those who like to watch the game of baseball and those who want to reduce it to binary code.

For one, a lot of the people "who come up with this stuff" work in MLB front offices now. There's a laundry list of people who started out writing on the internet who have sometimes publicly, sometimes quietly, been hired by teams to work for them. And they get input into actual decisions. And paychecks.

Second, if by "reduce to binary code" you mean model the game mathematically, then please understand something: I like watching baseball. The reason that I study it statistically is because I want to understand the game more deeply. I will happily concede that statistical models aren't the only way to do this, but wow, they are powerful and they have provided some wonderful new understandings of the game. Mr. Albom, may I suggest that while, after a game, to make sense of it, you open up Word, I open up Excel. That's the real dividing line between us, and it's not that thick a line.

I worry when I read arguments like the one Mr. Albom wrote this morning for a very simple reason. Mr. Albom's criteria for value in the game of baseball appear to be "the best hitter in the league, to the exclusion of defense and baserunning, combined with perceptions and behaviors that conform to societal expectations of an alpha male in the United States. And under that definition, that's Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera excelled in hitting things a long way, "being there for his teammates," being part of a winning team, and being perceived as strong, awe inspiring, and dominant. His case is visible to anyone who looks, because that's what United States culture and every single movie ever made trains people to look for. Mike Trout's contributions to the Angels were not as obvious. As Mr. Albom so graciously pointed out, no one really "gave a hoot" about the areas that Trout excelled in and that made him so valuable. It took some time, thoughtful and reflective questioning, and yes, mathematical ability to highlight them.

And this is why Mike Trout is important. I neither expect nor favor the thought that any organization would be run completely through numbers. Numerical models need to be questioned too. But without simple scientific curiosity, backed up by some good grounding in research methodology and mathematical know-how, all that's left is falling back on a brutish, alpha male definition of value in baseball, or as many seem to like to call it "tradition." The #Trout4MVP movement is what happens when you ask the question of whether this actually works as a definition and find it lacking. By rejecting Sabermetrics out of hand, what's really being rejected is the idea of critical inquiry, or Mr. Albom, as you prefer "the what can we come up with next machine." And living in a world without critical inquiry is a scary scary thought.

You might still come up with a definition of value that places Miguel Cabrera over Mike Trout in 2012, but if you're going to be intellectually honest, you have to be prepared to have that definition examined. That's what sabermetrics does.

Russell A. Carleton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Russell's other articles. You can contact Russell by clicking here

Related Content:  Mike Trout,  Miguel Cabrera,  Mitch Alborn

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