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AL MVP debate got unnecessarily rude
At last, a voice of reason.
After winning one of the most hotly debated baseball awards in history, Miguel Cabrera was asked where he stood on the new school/old school statistical donnybrook.
“Both ways can work,” he said.
But I thought, as our dogmatic commentaries kicked into overdrive, that the baseball world was simply not big enough for the both of us, that the loser of this transformative election would be spiked into a different sports universe to follow Jeffrey Loria’s new Quidditch franchise (which, I understand, just traded its highest-paid keepers for a couple of secondhand brooms).
Thursday’s announcement on MLB Network had the feel of another night earlier this month, when many Americans sat before television sets waiting for another set of election returns equally certain that their view was correct and the other completely illogical.
In sports, I would like to think we are better than that.
Cabrera, the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years, is a great baseball player. Mike Trout, undisputed heavyweight champion of most sabermetric categories, is a great baseball player. Shockingly, those statements are not mutually exclusive.
The American League Most Valuable Player discussion was memorable, entertaining and all-consuming. Cabrera said Trout’s historic candidacy — and the debate it inspired — was good for baseball. He’s right, although we would have been better off if the surrounding snark had been dialed back from incendiary to just plain titillating. (Some may say we’re merely more aware of the invective that’s always existed, because it’s catalogued on Twitter rather than muttered to the nearest cocker spaniel. Sadly, I suspect not.)
I love a good sports argument. If you’re still reading this column, I assume the same goes for you. But I do not believe patrons of 1950s New York watering holes finished their nightly Willie, Mickey or the Duke polemics by setting down their pints, picking up their smartphones and tweeting, “guy next to me says Duke is better in cf than Mays. Ever hear of uzr? #moron #smh”
Let me tell you what the 2012 AL MVP vote was not:
• It was not a decisive battle between the New School and Old School. Both survived and are undoubtedly holding classes today.
• It was not a question of whether Cabrera or Trout is the better player. The award goes to the most valuable player, not necessarily the best.
• It was not a referendum on the usefulness of sabermetrics in evaluating players. We’re way past that.
Here is what we learned from the 2012 award season, writ large:
• Sabermetricians are not yet kingmakers in the Baseball Writers’ Association of America award balloting. Trout (MVP) and Justin Verlander (Cy Young) were the clear favorites of the statistical community in contentious AL votes. Neither won.
• The BBWAA membership (rightly, in my view) recognizes MVP candidates who make the greatest impact on a team’s effort to reach the postseason — which remains the foremost goal of all clubs over 162 games. The ballot distributed to MVP voters says we must consider the “actual value of a player to his team.” Is there any higher form of value to a team than becoming the biggest factor in that team earning a playoff berth? In a sense, Cabrera’s contribution to the Tigers’ division title might have been more important than the Triple Crown itself.
• Context matters. I can tell you that with complete certainty, because the context surrounding David Price’s season — winning the AL ERA title while pitching in the rugged East Division — was the reason I put him ahead of Verlander on my Cy Young Award ballot. (If had flipped the two, Verlander would have won.) Context was a similar consideration in the MVP balloting. Cabrera saw fewer hittable pitches than Trout and had the better performance in pressurized September games; both factors were mentioned in post-race analysis.
• Teams use sabermetrics to evaluate players for the purpose of acquiring them; that is not the same thing as deciding which player, in a given season, made the greatest contribution to his team. The ballot raises questions that no statistic, however avant-garde, can fully answer. Trout is probably the game’s best all-around player, with his 30-homer, 49-steal season to go along with superb defense. Cabrera was the foremost run producer (139 RBI), led the majors in OPS (.999) and learned a new defensive position (third base) in order to improve his team.
Which contribution was more valuable? That’s inherently subjective. And, for the record, I like it that way. (If I had an MVP ballot, I would have voted for Cabrera.)
Fortunately, the BBWAA does not engage in groupthink. If we did, we would write identical stories and fill out matching ballots. The reporters who make up the electorate should talk with managers, coaches and players about the award candidates, and they should consult statistics new and old. The process is familiar to us: gather all of the available information, analyze it, and reach a conclusion. That is how we work every day. And that is how we approach these awards.
We are, at our best, the ultimate swing voters. On the question of whether my future selections will be swayed by numbers or narratives, my riposte is a bald-faced equivocation: It depends. In some years, I will probably agree with the sabermetric orthodoxy. In other cases, I won’t.
My best hope is that I will have the chance to cast a ballot like the AL MVP voters did this year, with two deserving candidates and no wrong answers.
“A lot of players told me I’m going to be the MVP,” Cabrera said. “I said, ‘I bet you’re saying the same thing to Trout.’ I always tell them to give credit to Trout. He’s the first rookie to do what he did. He’s great for baseball.”
He is. So, too, is Cabrera — the first MVP from baseball-obsessed Venezuela. All of this is a boon for the sport, really, to the extent that baseball columns are on front pages in November and the half-life of this radioactive debate seems to be about 3,231 years.
But I’ll admit to a little fatigue, too. It’s time for a social media ceasefire, so we can better direct our efforts to divining where Josh Hamilton will play in 2013 (not to mention our reporting on Loria’s efforts to secure public funding for that Quidditch stadium).
Au revoir, Old School stalwarts. So long, New School provocateurs. Until we meet again — next year.
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