The (Hopefully) Ultimate Post On Trout v. Cabrera: Alternative Universes v. What Actually Happened

I'm sure everybody is sick of the baseball debate over the the American League Most Valuable Player award going to 29-year-old veteran Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers over 20-year-old wunderkind Mike Trout of the California Angels. But, I've think I've come up with a subtle but useful distinction.

Personally, I would have voted for Trout. But I think I can come up with a better defense of the sportswriters voting for Cabrera than they can.

Ironically, Trout is a classic Five Tool Player that the pre-Moneyball old school scouts would have drooled over because he Looks Good in a Uniform. Cabrera is the kind of pudgy Ken Phelps-like power hitter who whom Bill James drooled over.

But, leave that aside because here's something that I've never really grasped before in all the years I've been thinking about baseball statistics (since 1965 when I was six).

A pervasive distinction between sabermetric statistics and traditional statistics is that the new statistics (such as Wins Above Replacement [WAR], in which Trout did best) are generally intended to predict the future better by removing as much as possible the impact of luck, while the old statistics (such as Runs Batted In [RBI], which favored Cabrera) are intended to describe the past, which includes the impact of luck. MVP awards are handed out based on performance in the season just past, so a case can be made that the backward-looking statistics make sense in MVP voting.

Think of it as the difference between scientists and historians. The former are obsessed with replicability, the latter with narrative.

To illustrate this, compare Cabrera's 2012 season not to Mike Trout's 2012 season, but to Cabrera's own 2011 season. Cabrera has been highly consistent as a hitter over his ten year career, peaking over the last three years.

Cabrera actually had a higher WAR in 2011 (7.3) than in 2012 (6.9), but he only finished fifth in the MVP voting a year ago. Why? Because his RBI total in 2011 was only 105, compared to 139 in 2012.

2011 28 DET AL 161 688 572 111 197 48 0 30 105 2 1 108 89 .344 .448 .586 1.033 179 335 24 3 0 5 22 *3/D AS,MVP-5
2012 29 DET AL 161 697 622 109 205 40 0 44 139 4 1 66 98 .330 .393 .606 .999 165 377 28 3 0 6 17 *5/D3 AS,MVP-1,SS

In the 20th Century, the RBI championship notoriously correlated with winning the MVP award, although that connection has faded in this century as the sabermetricians have increasingly had their say.

Sabermetricians have long argued that RBIs are over-emphasized in discerning excellence because they are so context sensitive (you want guys ahead of you in the batting order getting on base, but not hitting homers that clear the bases) and dependent upon luck.

Moreover, past clutch hitting performance seldom accurately predicts future clutch hitting performance. The whole notion of clutch hitting in baseball seems pretty dubious: trying hard in four at bats per day just isn't all that physically or mentally debilitating, so it seems likely that major league baseball players try pretty hard most times they come up to bat. Moreover, the typical major leaguer has come up to bat in clutch situations thousands of times since he was a small boy and if he were inclined to choke when the pressure is on, he probably wouldn't have made it to the majors.

So, maybe Cabrera's relatively low RBI total in 2011 was just bad luck, and regression toward the mean would suggest it was likely to go up in 2012, which it did. 

And, he's likely to drive in fewer than 139 runs in 2013 due to regression toward the mean. Heck, if they replayed the 2012 season in a computer a million times, Cabrera probably wouldn't average 139 RBIs. He had to be lucky in 2012 to drive in that many. Maybe he only "deserved" to drive in, say, 125, and then he wouldn't have won the RBI race and thus wouldn't have won the Triple Crown and probably wouldn't have won the MVP award. You could run a million computer simulations of the season and check this out.

One of Cabrera's sabermetric critics Keith Law of ESPN raised the question of alternative universes, Twittering:


No. #narrative RT @theknapsackkid: do you think in an alternate universe where Hamilton hits 2 more homers, Cabrera still wins mvp?


Indeed, much of what sabermetricians do is try to estimate what would happen in alternative universes.

But, here's the thing: Cabrera really did drive in 139 runs in 2012. That is what happened in this universe That doesn't mean he was the best player of 2012, or that he would have been the most valuable player if you could average across infinite alternative universes, but it does suggest that he was a really valuable player in this universe.

WAR is slanted toward inputs, while RBIs is a measure of outputs. Famously, one of the inputs valued by sabermetricians is walks. Cabrera only walked 66 times in 2012, down sharply from 108 in 2011. All else being equal, across a million alternative universes, that big decline (which was reflected in his On Base Percentage) is a bad thing. 
But, that decline in walks and on-base percentage was actually part of the Tiger management’s grand strategy. In 2011, Cabrera had batted fourth (clean-up), but hadn’t cleaned up as much as they’d hope because other teams had pitched around him because they weren’t all that afraid of the #5 hitter. Cabrera made the best of this situation where he wasn't getting that many pitches that he could really drive, accepting a lot of walks, hitting 48 doubles (but only 30 homers) and leading the league in On Base Percentage. Sabermetricians love On Base Percentage because in random situations, it's very valuable on average. But the Tiger management didn't think Cabrera was as valuable to them in 2011 as he ought to be because he was walking and doubling too much and homering and driving in runs too little.
The Tigers figured that they weren't really paying Cabrera $21 million to deliver power statistics of 30 homers and 105 RBIs. So, they spent $23 million in 2012 salary to land Prince Fielder so they could move Cabrera up to the #3 spot in the line-up and protect him with a famous home run hitter in the clean-up spot.
Fielder is even fatter than Cabrera, so he would need to play first base. (The Tigers’ designated hitter spot was filled by Delmon Young, who is a complete oaf.) This, by the way, reflects the influence of the sabermetrics revolution of the 20th Century: Cabrera is listed at 240 pounds, Young 240, and Fielder 275. Before Bill James' time, it was rare for a team to put out a lineup with 3 guys who look more like semipro slow-pitch softball players, but the first generation of sabermetricians proved that baseball was overrating elegant defense, baserunning, and line-drive hitting compared to homers and walks. So, now, baseball is full of guys who look like offensive linemen.

So, Cabrera lost weight over the offseason and worked hard on fielding and throwing so he could move back to third base to open up first for the poor-fielding Fielder.

And this strategy worked well. Free to swing away, Cabrera upped his homers from 30 to 44 and his RBIs from 105 to 139. His On Base Percentage dropped from .448 to .393 and his Runs scored from 111 to 109. But, all told, Cabrera delivered exactly what the Tigers had been hoping for.

Now, you could say that if you used your computer to randomly assign Cabrera to a different team, on average in your alternative universe simulations, his 2011 season would be more valuable than his 2012 season. But we don't live in infinite alternative universes, we live in this highly continent single universe.

You can see the difference between an MVP Award and a statistically sound analysis of ability more easily when thinking about World Series MVP Awards. Consider the famous 1986 World Series between the Mets and Red Sox. Out of all the good players on those two teams (Roger Clemens, Gary Carter, Jim Rice, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Evans, Keith Hernandez, Doc Gooden, Don Baylor, etc.) was World Series MVP Ray Knight really the best one?

Of course not. Indeed, the Mets let their World Series hero go during the offseason. But, he really did have a valuable World Series.

Say a player in the World Series crushes a lot of balls, but most of them right at somebody and winds up batting .231 as his team gets swept (a little bit like Cabrera in 2012 World Series). A statistical system even better than WAR would predict that he would do much better if that World Series were replayed a million times. It might even predict he'd be the MVP more often than anybody else.

But, they don't play the WS a million times, they just play it once, and in World Series that was actually played, Cabrera wasn't the WS MVP.

Conversely, it's not ridiculous to argue that Cabrera was the most valuable player in the AL in the 2012 season, even if Trout was the best.

P.S., Also, there's the Career Achievement aspect: Cabrera is 29 and has come close to the MVP before, finishing in the top 5 five times. He's headed toward the decline phase of a highly respectable career, the kind that usually wins an MVP award.

Trout is only 20 and if he's really as good as he appeared to be in 2012 (i.e, like a mid-career Mickey Mantle), he ought to win several when he's older and even better.

Career Achievement isn't supposed to play a role in MVP voting, but it's reasonable that it does to some extent, especially since the advent of steroids.

In short, 29-year-old Miguel Cabrera has passed more PED tests than 20-year-old Mike Trout has.

That doesn't mean he's clean, but Cabrera's career arc looks reasonable. And that may well be unfair to Trout, but that's the world we live in.