Walkoff Woodward

Concerning Detroit Baseball
November 15, 2012

The MVP Debate: A Philosophical Discussion

Judging by all the discussion on Twitter, Facebook, and various sports sites, it’s almost impossible to tell which has been more vicious: The 2012 U.S. presidential election, or the 2012 American League MVP debate. Based on the comments I’ve seen, all Mike Trout supporters are a bunch of sabremetric hipsters who have no concept of the “reality” of baseball, while all Miguel Cabrera supporters are brainless, “get off my lawn” grumpy old men who cling to an ancient relic of a bygone era.

Here’s a novel concept: Maybe both sides have valid arguments to make, and that the decision of MVP rests not with the numbers themselves, but with what each person places importance on and their own philosophy of the game itself. Personally, I support Miguel Cabrera because I honestly believe that he is more important to the Tigers than Mike Trout is to the Angels and that you cannot entirely assess a player’s value to his team with a single, agreed-upon statistic (I do feel that both sabremetric and traditional stats are pieces to the puzzle, but there are other important factors that can’t be quantified).

However, I am not here to argue my case beyond that, because at this point, I am not going to change the mind of any of the Trout supporters out there, and they are not going to change my mind (I will delve a little further into my line of thinking, but only as a means of providing an example of what I am discussing). Instead, I would like to make a couple points regarding the philosophy of the MVP selection, and honestly, the points I make could be valid arguments for either candidate, but I wanted to share what I think the thought process should be in making a decision.

First, the MVP vote is meant to be subjective. If it was supposed to be objective, then they would just feed all the numbers into a computer and have the computer decide the MVP. Different people value different things. In that way, it is sort of like a political election. Some people vote on the basis of the economy. Others base their vote on social issues.

Perhaps a more apt analogy would be differing tastes in art or music. Do you value aesthetics over emotional response or vice-versa? And if I may take the art analogy a step further, that may explain why it’s difficult to judge between Cabrera and Trout. They are meant for different functions. Trout is a leadoff hitter. Cabrera is a run producer. It’s like asking an art critic to decide which is superior: A Greek vase or an Impressionist painting. As such, it’s up to each individual person to decide what is important in picking an MVP. That might be statistical in nature, or there may be other factors involved (as a matter of fact, the BBWAA criteria includes games played and character in addition to team value). This ties in somewhat to how you think the game should be played, and in that respect, each candidate is a good reflection of his team’s approach. The Angels emphasize speed and defense, while the Tigers rely on power and run production. Which approach is better? That’s a matter of opinion, just like the MVP vote.

Second, players do not exist in a vacuum. Any player’s numbers will be affected by their teammates and their opponents, to some extent. While there are some stats that attempt to eliminate or at least limit this, you can’t completely isolate a player. There are complicated cause-and-effect scenarios in pretty much every single play, which lead to numerous hypothetical situations. Even factors such as defense and baserunning are at least somewhat influenced by the coaches, the hitters, and the pitcher. The point is that just about everything that is cited by supporters on both sides is dependent on outside factors. For example (albeit a simplistic one), Mike Trout can steal as many bases as he wants to, but unless he steals home 130 times (now that would make for an interesting MVP argument), someone is still going to have to drive him in. Likewise, short of a solo home run, Miguel Cabrera needs baserunners to drive in. Because there is a lot of inter-dependency involved, it’s hard to determine each player’s actual impact on his team, and that leads us back to the “matter of opinion” argument. However, it is still possible to discuss each player’s impact in context. I’ve tried to avoid discussing WAR up until now (because I am admittedly far from an expert; however, while I don’t regard it as the holy grail of stats, I don’t completely disregard it, either), but I would like to briefly like to bring up the subject of real-world context. Dave Hogg of Fox Sports Detroit made this point on Twitter back in September, but I think it’s worth throwing it out there again.

If Mike Trout had suffered some sort of season-ending injury, his replacement would likely have been Peter Bourjos.

If Miguel Cabrera was taken out of commission, the Tigers would have had some combination of Don Kelly and Danny Worth in his place.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide the actual relevance, but my point is that a lot of stats are based on the assumption of “all things being equal” (which I don’t fault them for; they’d be impossible to calculate otherwise), but in reality, they rarely are equal. Another way of looking at a player’s impact is regarding team record and standing, although again, I believe that it should be played in context with their teammates’ contributions. In past years, I have rather disliked the argument of voting for someone as MVP because his team made the postseason, while the second place player’s team did not. However, a big reason why I have disliked it is because in many cases, said MVP played for a really good team that would have made the postseason with or without him. I doubt there are many people who believe the Tigers would have made the postseason without Cabrera. As far as Trout is concerned, given the final standings in the AL West, the Angels probably would have still finished in third place even without him (Thank you to Mike Bauman for pointing that out). In fairness, I will point out that the Angels finished with a better record than the Tigers and may not have without Mike Trout. You could also make an argument that his play influenced his teammates to play better. Again, this is where the intangibles and hypothetical situations come in, and that in turn leads us back full circle to this being a subjective vote.

Regardless of the outcome, I really hope we can at least realize that both players had really good years. And maybe it’ll end in a tie. Then perhaps both sides will be happy? Probably not, but one can always hope.

  • cestma

    Best piece I’ve read on this subject yet! Huzzah!

    And it turned out nowhere near a tie, surprising a lot of people, including Miggy himself, according to the NYT.
    Boy that Cy Young was close, though!

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