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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.

Thank you for reading

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tombache
11/16
You left out the greatest line in the whole article: "But Trout excelled in the kind of numbers that weren't even considered a few years ago, mostly because A) They were impossible to measure, and B) Nobody gave a hoot."
cdt719
11/16
Since when has nobody cared about baserunning or defense? If anything, the non-stat types tend to overvalue that stuff when talking about mediocre players. "Player X may only hit .240, but he saves 100 runs a year with his gloves" or "He stole 52 bases" (leaving out that he was caught 24 times.) It's strange to me that the things I thought were overrated 7-15 years ago are now seemingly underrated.
cdt719
11/16
If it wasn't clear, that reply is to the sentiments from knuckledraggers like Albom, not you.
dethwurm
11/16
I know, I feel like we're through the looking glass somehow. Stat nerds love defense! Jocks love the fat guy! Up is down! Left is right! Dogs and cats living together! This thing especially kills me: "But Trout excelled in the kind of numbers that weren't even considered a few years ago, mostly because A) They were impossible to measure, and B) Nobody gave a hoot." On what planet are extra-base hits, stolen bases, and robbing home runs things that nobody gave a hoot about?
dethwurm
11/16
Or impossible to measure?
tombores99
11/16
"It marked one of the few times he went first to third all year." Brilliant.
Michael
11/19
I actually didn't like that line because it felt like Russell was stooping to Mitch's level, seeing who could craft a clever snide line instead of dealing with the facts. I don't know about in 2012, but in 2011, Miguel Cabrera was one of the leaders in going from first to third. (Remember it's a counting statistic and Victor Martinez in 2011 batted something like .402 with runners on base.)
lentzner
11/16
It's not a nerds vs. jocks thing at all. It's nerds vs different nerds. I'm not worried about any of these sports writers taking my lunch money. The actual jocks, the guys playing the games, may say they don't understand the advanced stats, but I've rarely heard them denigrate them. I don't know why I even responded. Don't feed the trolls, right?
duck4169
11/16
You are overqualified for the job of proving Mitch Albom an idiot.
ofMontreal
11/16
Mitch Albom is a popular writer and tv personality who makes his spending cash covering sports. Does anyone who knows anything about baseball care what he thinks?
JimmyJack
11/16
Anyone seen Albom? He looks like the love child of Leonard Nimoy and Jay Leno.
tannerg
11/16
I can't think of a sportswriter who looks more nerdy than Mitch Albom. OK, Mike Lupica, but other than him, no one.
deeswan
11/16
I find it laughable that Albom accuses us "nerds" of supporting a player who we never saw play. He was suspended in 2005 for writing that he saw people at the Final Four who were not actually there. He's a Detroit writer, I understand him pandering to his readers. That said, Russel was correct, the "you nerds are losers" argument is childish. It's also unproductive and, worst of all, not funny.
juiced
11/17
Trout matters because his 2012 performance was the best in baseball by a fairly large margin yet the voters voted for someone else. The voting is improving over the years (see King Felix' cy a couple years back in spite of the 13-12 record) but its not perfect. Every time I hear the nonsense "but Cabrera was more 'valuable' because he was on a better team" nonsense I want to punch his defender in the mouth. Nonsense, absolute nonsense.
briankopec
11/17
So... Traditional writers award the MVP based on HR, RBI, AVG...while complaining that people who vote for another candidate only care about numbers. I think I got it.
mattseward
11/17
I think the High School argument is the most important here. People have egos and the reason why the jocks pick on the smart kids is because they feel inferior to them in learning so they want to feel superior to them in something else. To me this article appears to be exactly the same thing, Mitch could have wrote about what a wonderful player Cabrera is and how important he was to Detroit without denegrating other people with a different opinion to his own. I have learnt in life that one of the most important way to learn things is to look at someone that has a different point of view from you. Often my views have changed on things as a result, other times I still think i'm right but I feel better for understanding. There's nothing wrong with someone wanting to enjoy the game simply by watching it and there's a place for writers who do that. What's wrong is making sweeping statements about people you don't know, who's motivations you don't know, who's love of the game you don't know and presenting it as fact.
brownsugar
11/17
I have a hard time getting worked up about articles like Albom's. As you mention, it's all been written before. Honestly, I would never even realize that so many articles like this are still written until I read a saber-leaning author cite the article and then refute the arguments. One of the greatest gifts that sabermetrics has given me is the realization that someone who attacks the messenger because they can't refute the message is someone whose opinion has no valid basis. Instead of using the title "Why Mike Trout Matters", perhaps a more appropriate title would be "Why Mitch Albom Doesn't Matter".
MFBabyFeets
11/18
I get the whole idea that Trout is a better all around player because he is. He is more valuable to his team then Cabrera. I would have a hard time voting for him though when you consider he was an average player with the bat from September until the end of the season when the Angels lost out to the surging A's and the Rangers. The Angels missed out on the wild card play in game by 4 games. If Trout was better in those games they could have won it. Cabrera came up big in the last months of the season and his team came back to win their division. That counts for a lot with me whether it was against poor competition or not.
dpease
11/18
Typically my thinking about questions like this stops after your second sentence.
craigburley
11/18
Right, and not everyone's does. That's why you take a vote on these things to decide them. Although paying attention to the BBWAA's vote in particular really isn't a good idea, since I don't much care for self-appointed gatekeepers.
noonan
11/18
Not to mention how amusing it is that you think that Trout could have improved his team by 4 games over one month. Josh Hamilton was worth less than 4 wins all season.
pizzacutter
11/18
This falls into the "hitting is the only way to help a team" fallacy. In fact, if the award were best hitter in general, it would (and should) go to Miguel Cabrera. But, a good chunk of Trout's value was in his baserunning and defense. During the months of August and September, when you look at Trout's contributions to the Angels including these other areas, he actually outperformed Cabrera in the last month of the season. As to not making the playoffs, had Detroit been located on the West Coast and Anaheim in the Midwest, then the Angels would have won the AL Central.
cdt719
11/18
I've seen some really ridiculous statements about Trout's late season performance, and it's a complete myth that he slumped late in the season. He hit 289/400/500 in Sept/Oct, and 308/413/615. Those are ridiculously good numbers for a good defensive CF and nowhere near "average." He also outperformed Cabrera the last two weeks of the season in hitting alone.
jintman
11/18
I was surprised how much the Trout/Miggy debate brought up the fear of Sabermetrics or just math in so many writers and radio personalities(not analysts). Is it really that fearful to have tools to help find the real value of a player? Pretty much every pitch and event in a baseball game is now captured and analyzed in numerous ways. It's sad that some feel that this info cannot be a real tool, and have large audiences to share there nonsense. I know I'm preaching to the choir but I just don't understand the deathgrip some have on so called "tradition", in spite of the evidence.
EricMeeker
11/18
Excellent article when it was needed Russell A. Carleton; you are clutch. Excellent comments & discussion from the BP readers.
BurrRutledge
11/18
I'm sure this has been done elsewhere, but just for my own notes, here are the side-by-side comparisons of some various stats from B-Ref, FanGraphs, and BP. Apologies in advance for the formatting. Stat . Cabrera . Trout Hitting PA . . . 697. . . 639 Avg . . .330 . . .326 OBP . . .393 . . .399 SLG . . .606 . . .564 OPS+ . . 165. . . 171 TAv . . .352 . . .359 oWAR . . 7.4. . . 8.6 VORP. . 59.4 . . 76.6 Running SB . . . 004. . . 049 CS . . . 001. . . 005 SB%. . . 80%. . . 91% GIDP . . 028. . . 007 BRR. . .-5.5. . . 8.7 Fielding FRAA . .-2.3. . . 8.6 UZR . .-11.2. . . 11.0 1-number stats WAR. . . 6.9. . . 10.7 WARP . . 6.1. . . 9.1
Michael
11/19
Albom's article reminded me of another series of articles in the mid-1990s. I remember the last time I read a columnist in the USA Today write an article calling fantasy baseball players "geeks." It was odd because the same company published a weekly magazine on baseball that openly catered to that audience. It was odd because the Tuesday and Wednesday editions of the newspaper sold uncommonly well and eventually someone connected the dots and realized that fantasy baseball players were buying like crazy the issues with the weekly statistics in those pre-Internet days. The business guys probably told the stodgy columnists to stop insulting a big chunk of the customer base. So Mitch Albom thinks he could insult all baseball fans who enjoy new statistics? I predict in just a few more years, rather quickly, that these articles will cease. Writers like Mitch will be firmly told that those new wave baseball fans who like baseball analysis also might be buyers of our product and it's incredibly stupid to write screeds insulting a significant portion of the customer base. Oh, by the way, they also see the sun and watch baseball games too.