WAR is Right, But Cabrera Can Still Be MVP

Over the past few weeks, the debate over the MVP race in the American League has reached a fever pitch, with two camps quickly emerging and the baseball debate once again devolving into the statheads vs. traditionalists debate, with both attacking the other for their point of view.

The reality is that neither side is wrong, and would be best off embracing all viewpoints, so we can have a real, healthy debate about each CANDIDATE, rather than the storyline that best makes their case.

When Jerry Green of the Detroit News took to the Sunday paper and made a feeble attempt to discredit Mike Trout's season and his WAR performance, it was just the latest in a long line of attempts to discredit advanced metrics that try to better solve the game of baseball that we all know and love.

But trying to poke holes in WAR in an attempt to discredit its value is akin to sticking one's head in the sand and pretending you can ignore the progress being made in the rest of the world. Many incredibly smart individuals have spent decades developing metrics that better measure the true value of a player. WAR is the closest attempt at a single metric of a player's overall value.

To be clear, WAR is not perfect. And the developers of those metrics acknowledge as much. You can read Baseball Reference's complete disclosure of About WAR here. It acknowledges all the attempts at improving the metric; it attempts to explain why their version can differ from FanGraphs' and others. And it acknowledges its inherent flaws. Defensive metrics are still very much a work in progress. Adjusting for league parks helps get closer to performance, but it can't measure how a specific park plays to a player's strengths and weaknesses.

But, overall, it's a pretty sound metric. Why the traditionalists want to discredit their work is beyond me. Some assert it's because they're scared. Others claim it's because they value the olden days of the game when men were men, etc., etc. And even others will claim that it's because the metrics have gotten so complex that unless you have a PhD and dedicate hours every day to learning all of the inputs, it can't be understood, and if they can't see it happen on the field, then it's too abstract to be correct.

Regardless of the reason, it's unfortunate. Embracing the evolution of the game is important, and the advent of wRC+ and WAR and FIP is important to understanding what's happening in the game. Trying to justify Miguel Cabrera and his MVP candidacy by claiming WAR isn't valuable or doesn't reflect what they see with their eyes is simply a horrible argument.

And looking at WAR, Mike Trout has had a better season than Miguel Cabrera. Period. End of story. The number will vary depending on which service you use, and in some cases they are closer than others. But Trout has been better, and it's not close enough where you can even claim the margin of error. Trout has been a better overall ballplayer this season than Cabrera.

And if this were the best overall player award, or the WAR award, Trout should win. In a landslide, in fact.

But it's not.

Here are the criteria for considering the MVP, as stated by the ballot;

(1) actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense;
(2) number of games played;
(3) general character, disposition, loyalty and effort;
(4) former winners are eligible; and
(5) members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

So, based on WAR, Mike Trout takes point 1. And points 4 and 5 are basically just FYI's and not actual criteria to evaluate based on since Trout and Cabrera aren't on the same team, and neither has won the award before. That still leaves us with 2 and 3.

On Point 2, it's fairly straight forward statement, but actually very complex. The number of games a player has played matters. And as we are all likely aware, Trout wasn't called up to the big leagues this year until April 28th. Miguel Cabrera has played the entire season. This argument, as I see it, can go both ways.

Trout played in fewer games, but was arguably still more productive in aggregate despite missing the first few weeks of the season, lending more credence to how great a year he has had. On the other hand, Trout's team went 6-14 before he came up. He also missed road trips to New York, Minnesota and Cleveland, parks in cold weather cities that could have very easily dragged his performance down. Plus, wouldn't he have been more valuable to the team by making the case in spring training to be on the team on day one and helping them avoid that early season swoon that could end up costing his Angels a playoff spot? Trout while impressive physically hit just .220 in his cameo in 2011 and hit .167 this spring. Argue it from all angles, there's no easy answer.

Finally, we get to point 3. "General character, disposition, loyalty, and effort." As subjective as it gets. Does Mike Trout try hard? Certainly. What about Cabrera? You bet. It's all about the intangibles here, and those are much more challenging to quantify.

For example, Cabrera voluntarily moved to third base so the organization could sign Prince Fielder. I could argue that the Tigers wouldn't have Fielder if Cabrera hadn't selflessly made the move to switch to third base, a move that required him to re-shape his body and learn a different, more challenging defensive position in his prime.

Others would counter that Cabrera could have moved to designated hitter, preventing any bad defense, but that would have pushed Delmon Young to the bench and inserted Don Kelly or Brandon Inge at third, which, crazy as it sounds to those Delmon bashers, is a pretty large offensive drop-off. Plus, Victor Martinez returns in 2013 to be the team's designated hitter, so a move to DH for Cabrera or Fielder would have just kicked the can down the road.

So, should Cabrera's WAR value get credit of the increased value the Tigers got from adding Fielder? Just adding the two WAR's together is extreme, but Fielder would not be a Tiger if Cabrera said "No, I'm staying at first base." It was a selfless move, for the good of the team. That sure sounds like loyalty to me.

But, we also know Cabrera has had issues of his own in the past, with multiple incidents involving alcohol that got the legal system involved, including a 2011 DUI that resulted in him being assigned a companion (Raul Gonzalez) by the MLBPA through their substance treatment program. He hasn't had any issues since, but when it comes to being a good teammate, obviously Cabrera let his challenges get the best of him.

All in all, I think it's a very interesting debate and can make for a great discussion. But not if the traditionalists work to vilify WAR, and the statheads respond by vilifying their stupidity and ignorance.

WAR matters. Who they are matters as a player and a teammate. Their willingness to do what's best for the club matters. It ALL matters. Debate that. Not each other.

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