Source: Justin Block/JLBSports.tv
By Justin Block, 2015
“They hate what they don’t understand.”—Sean “Diddy” Combs
I’ve never been good at math. Or at least that’s the attitude I’ve carried with me since 1st grade. In elementary school, my parents sent me to a tutoring center two times a week. I’d do endless sheets of arithmetic problems for an hour, and then go home and do more. My mental math was on point, but it always took me longer than the rest of the class to “get it.” I needed individual attention, but was often times too ashamed to ask for it. To this day, I still can’t do long division problems.
When you grow up with an affliction towards numbers, you get nervous whenever they’re presented in a decision-making situation. Adding up the change in your pocket at the deli counter isn’t easy. Simple accounting problems are stressful when they shouldn’t be. Deciding whether Mike Trout deserves to be MVP based on something called WAR, or choosing between Luis Suarez and Robin van Persie by comparing Chance Conversion rates equates to rocket science.
Although I’m never excited to do a math problem, I enjoy analyzing sports statistics. In 6th grade I started carrying a Baseball Prospectus in my backpack. I would pour over the annual additions of the mammoth book in my spare time—the book felt as close to the truth about baseball as any analysis could be. Full of advanced baseball statistics and player projections, it felt like the end all be all of the upcoming baseball season. Why even bother with watching games? Basebsall Prospectus already projected them. In my thirst for the truth about baseball, the “outsider’s” knowledge and perspective found in the Baseball Prospectus books felt indisputable, and it was all coming from guys who had never been on a scouting trip.
I believe there are plenty of sports fans and writers out there who take their “I’m bad at math” attitude and flip it into a dismissal of baseball’s sabermetrics, and soccer’s opta statistics. People are just afraid of the numbers.
Sabermetrics, which is a term derived from SABR (Society for American Baseball Research), have endured a decade-long battle for acceptance in baseball’s mainstream consciousness, starting with their grand introduction through Michael Lewis’ 2003 bestseller Moneyball. (Not forgetting the two decades of work Bill James did before Moneyball was even drafted though.) Over the years, more telling statistics rooted in sabermetrics such as On Base Percentage (OBP) and On Base Plus Slugging (OPS) made their way into box scores and programs. These statistics are easy for any fan to understand and calculate, but still give more insight into a player’s performance than just batting average and home runs. More complicated sabermetrics were left for Baseball Prospectus books and blogs.
The crossing over of sabermetrics into the sporting mainstream peaked with a movie adaptation of Moneyball, and finally hit SportsCenter through the debate over the 2012 American League MVP award.
The 2012 AL MVP came down to two candidates: Los Angeles Angels rookie outfielder Mike Trout, and Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera. Through no fault of their own, each player symbolically represented two different schools of thought in baseball—two schools which were infamously pitted against each other in Lewis’ Moneyball.
Trout or Cabrera: Who should’ve won MVP?
In one corner were “old school” baseball traditionalists. These writers and fans believed that Cabrera was the natural choice for MVP, because in 2012, he was the first player since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to lead the league in batting average, home runs, and RBIs. That made him the first Triple Crown winner in over four decades, and in old school circles, a deserving MVP. He was the best player on a playoff team (Trout’s Angels failed to make the playoffs, despite only winning one game less than Cabrera’s Tigers), and achieved a season of historical proportions.
Across the debate were the nerds. Baseball’s statistical revolution, popularized by Moneyball
, had revealed a bevy of telling metrics to analyze players with. The statistic at the center of the argument for Trout was Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which is a calculation for how many more wins a player contributed to his team than a “replacement level” player would’ve. According to FanGraphs, Trout posted a 10 WAR (the highest WAR by a center fielder since Willie Mays in 1964), meaning he was worth 10 more wins to the Angels than say, the Baltimore Orioles’ Mark Reynolds, who posted a WAR close to zero. Cabrera’s 6.9 WAR lagged behind both Trout and New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, who’s 7.8 WAR was good for second. Much was made of Trout’s more complete impact compared to Cabrera. Trout stole 45 bases while Cabrera stole 4, and Trout’s fielding was regarded by observers and statisticians
to be far superior to Cabrera’s. Cabrera may have been a better pure hitter in 2012, but Trout’s base running and fielding put him over the top.
Through a rounded statistical argument, it’s clear that Trout was a player overall player than Cabrera in 2012. But for many writers and fans, the debate started and ended with Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown win. The Triple Crown has been a distinction that’s become shrouded in mysticism and improbability. The likes of Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr.—the preeminent hitters of my generation—have all failed to win the Triple Crown. Although there’s no physical trophy for the Triple Crown, it’s an “award” based on three statistics that mean less in a world of sabermetrics, and it’s still guarded in tradition, nostalgia, and Cracker Jack boxes. Much of American baseball’s popularity and interest comes from its history, record books, and old-time lore. The Triple Crown is a part of that, and for it—for baseball’s past—to be defended as a significant part of today’s game, Cabrera had to win the MVP. He ended up garnering 22 of the 28 first-place votes from the Baseball Writer’s Association of America. Trout got the remaining six.
“Call me old-fashioned but, if you win the Triple Crown and lead your team to the playoffs, you’re probably going to get my MVP vote.” —USA Today writer Jorge L. Ortiz Continue reading