Because Mike Trout is currently hitting a superhuman .346/.496/.581 in the second half, it seems we’re poised for another inflammatory MVP debate in the American League.
Through much of the season, it appeared Miguel Cabrera was going to run away with the award. He had somehow improved upon his impressive Triple Crown campaign from 2012, and most reasonable people agree that Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter on the planet right now. Period. Mike Trout’s skills with the bat cannot rival what Cabrera is currently doing. End of discussion.
Thus, it’s not surprising that people get miffed when statistics such as WAR (wins above replacement) do not value Cabrera as the absolute best. This came from NBC’s Joe Posnanski this morning:
Miguel Cabrera now third or fourth in AL in WAR, depending which version you prefer. Man, that stat just doesn’t like him.
— Joe Posnanski (@JPosnanski) September 19, 2013
It’s true. Using FanGraphs’ version of WAR, we find that Miguel Cabrera currently ranks behind Mike Trout (+10.2 WAR), Andrew McCutchen (+8.0 WAR) and Josh Donaldson (+7.6 WAR). In other words, the statistic is essentially saying that Cabrera is not as valuable as the other three players. And that’s uncomfortable. How can the best hitter in the game — one could then open the discussion of whether he is baseball’s best hitter since Barry Bonds — be surpassed in value by three other position players?
Quite simply: position players do other things, too. Position matters. Defense matters. Playing time matters. Base running matters. WAR values those aspects of baseball for a position player, and Miguel Cabrera happens to play below-average defense at third base and also doesn’t offer anything with his legs on the base paths.
Now, this isn’t about getting into a philosophical debate over the MVP award. It’s an award that doesn’t define “value,” and reasonable people can disagree about value. Some people believe the MVP award should go to the best hitter. Some believe intangibles should be taken into account. Some simply look at the WAR statistic and close the book. Some value defense, but believe it’s overvalued by many sabermatricians.
Different definitions exist, and that’s fine. I’m not here to rail against the old-school establishment or attempt to convince anyone that their valuation systems are faulty. As most people, I like the way I value players, but that’s obviously open for debate.
Instead, I wanted to focus on what Posnanski said at the end of his tweet. Man, that stat just doesn’t like him.
The implication is the statistic somehow incorrectly measures Cabrera’s value. Or more specifically, WAR doesn’t understand how good Cabrera is at the plate. To me, that’s the message that Posnanski is attempting to convey when he laments the fact that the best hitter in baseball does not also possess the best WAR total.
However, the hitting component of WAR does say Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter in the league, and it’s not very close.
WAR isn’t undervaluing Cabrera’s performance at the plate. The hitting component of the WAR statistic says no one in baseball is better. Beyond that, the same metric ranks Cabrera’s 2013 campaign as the 28th-best season at the plate since the 1950 season. In the past 63 years, only 27 performances have been better — and that includes the steroid era, for what it’s worth, so feel free to take that into consideration when hearing that statistic.
Furthermore, Miguel Cabrera has a +7.5 WAR this season, which is the best of his career. He’s essentially been an eight-win player and subtracts value with his defense and base running. In that case, the WAR statistic is saying he’s such a crazy great hitter that his ability at the plate far outweighs his weaknesses in other areas. The difference, though, between some valuation systems is that WAR does take into consideration his weaknesses, and rightfully so.
If Miguel Cabrera receives the MVP award once again this year, he’s a deserving candidate. He’s absolutely tremendous. In many ways, though, voters would just be transforming the MVP award into the Most Valuable Hitter award, which is ultimately fine. But let’s not make the mistake in saying WAR doesn’t like Miguel Cabrera or WAR doesn’t value Miguel Cabrera properly. The concept of WAR is not devaluing his accomplishments at the plate. It clearly says he’s special and the most special in the league.
Again, WAR is just saying that other factors matter when evaluating a baseball player, and I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. Anyone who has watched Carlos Gomez in a Brewers uniform — especially this season — understands that defense, position and base running matter.
That doesn’t take anything away from Cabrera’s otherworldly skills with the bat. Because he’s the best hitter in the league, and WAR agrees with that.