I used to think of myself as a baseball nerd, then I spent a morning (this one) reading through the comments over at Fangraphs. Now, not so much.
The comments in question were on a piece by Dave Cameron debating the potential MVP cases for Texas’ Josh Hamilton and Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera. The article, while I don’t necessarily agree with it, is well worth reading, but the comments are where the real gold lies.
Let me start this by saying that I am not nearly well-versed enough in advanced metrics to speak intelligently on the subject. I am and have always been more of a “back of the baseball card” type fan. That the new metrics are becoming so prominent is exciting to me, but I worry that there are too many people trying to devalue what for long long has been valuable, at least to most baseball fans. Let’s get into it after the jump.
This is a scary piece for me to write, because I know I am opening myself up to criticism. I also know that in order to better understand the more nerdy stats (for lack of a better term), I must be willing to engage in thoughtful discourse about them, which I am happy to do.
When debating the American League MVP award, there are certain things that immediately jump into my head. The first and most important to me is the “V” which stands for value. How valuable has each player been? I would like to note where my definition of value may differ from others here. To me, value, as it is used in this discussion, means how much did player A do for HIS team, not some hypothetical league-average team comprised of replacement-level players. This is where I think we may have the biggest discrepancy between the factions that favor Hamilton versus the ones that favor Cabrera.
Generally speaking, I would like to see the MVP award given the a player having an outstanding season that has put his team into playoff contention. That team doesn’t need to make the playoffs, but if they finish last, how much value could the player really have added? In the case of both Hamilton and Cabrera, I think it’s clear that they have added value to their teams, how much is up for debate.
To simplify my thoughts, what I generally like to do is to imagine the team without the player for an entire year, as if they had suffered a season-ending injury during Spring Training. What would the Rangers look like without Hamilton, what would the Tigers look like without Cabrera?
The Rangers without Hamilton would still have Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, and Vladimir Guerrero in the heart of their lineup. They would have David Murphy playing full-time as Hamilton’s replacement. This would still be an excellent team and would still probably win the AL West.
The Tigers without Cabrera would feature Don Kelly at first base. Even if you include a full-season of Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez in your hypothetical, the Tigers would be a bad offensive team and probably be battling the Royals and Indians for last place.
As it stands right now, I’d be inclined to cast a vote (if I had one) for Cabrera over Hamilton. The biggest reason, beyond what I stated above, is that Cabrera has been much more durable than Hamilton, who has all of six September plate appearances. In addition to that, while Hamilton was the best hitter in baseball for the months of June, July, and August, Cabrera significantly outperformed him in the other three months, and certainly was no slouch in the middle of the season, either.
The center of Cameron’s argument is surrounding Cabrera’s 30 intentional walks and it is Cameron’s contention that those walk actually make Cabrera less valuable. This belies logic to me as it would seem that if a batter is so good that opposing managers would rather walk him than risk the damage he could do with the bat, that would be a rather valuable player to have.
Cameron’s piece (and the comments) goes into great detail about the “value” assigned to intentional versus non-intentional walks and says that because intentional walks are out of a player’s control, the player is penalized when it comes to calculating his wOBA.
In other words, Cabrera is less valuable, according to Cameron, than Hamilton because he has been walked intentionally 30 times. Sure, Cameron throws in the defensive capabilities of Hamilton, citing position premium (Hamilton has played 39 games in centerfield, not exactly an everyday guy there) as well, but the crux of his argument, as I understand it, is the IBB. By Cameron’s standard, Hamilton is more valuable, at least in part, because he has been pitched to in situations where Cabrera has not.
It seems to me that the fact that Cabrera has been pitched around so often, would show that he is the more valuable player. Hamilton has Guerrero hitting behind him, while Cabrera has had a rookie batting fifth all year. If you were facing a situation where you had the choice of pitching to Cabrera or Brennan Boesch, which would you choose? The answer is obvious. Now imagine a game-on-the-line situation where you have to pitch to Hamilton, or walk him and pitch to Guerrero, a sure-fire Hall of Famer. The decision is much more difficult.
And for that reason, more than any other, Cabrera is more valuable to his team than Hamilton is to his. While I agree that having a better lineup around him is no more Hamilton’s fault than Cabrera being pitched around, this award isn’t about the most outstanding player, it’s about the most valuable. The Tigers, without Cabrera, would be a terrible team. The Rangers without Hamilton would still be pretty darn good.
So let the debate begin. I invite all the fans of advanced metrics to chime in in the comments, let me know where my assumptions are wrong, or if I’m misunderstanding the stats. I’m here to learn.