M.V.P. WAR ERUPTS OVER WAR

By Murray Chass

October 28, 2012

The winners of the post-season awards won’t be known for a couple of weeks, but the debate over the American League most valuable player is already heated and figures only to get hotter. It should come as no surprise that new-age statistics are generating the heat.

Proponents of WAR, which means “wins above replacement,” insist that the Angels’ terrific rookie Mike Trout should obviously win the award. Those of us who use common sense, not common statistics, say the winner should be the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera.Mike Trout 225

The Trout supporters would vote for him because he had the top WAR rating among all players. That thinking only reinforces my view that to satisfy stats zealots a list of statistics should be used to determine award winners and Hall of Famers. No voters would be needed.

First in WAR, first for m.v.p. Establish statistical criteria for the Hall of Fame and induct the players who clear the statistical hurdles. The reason the stats zealots would like this system is it would eliminate members of the Baseball Writers Association as voters.

That’s right, the stats zealots are envious of the baseball writers because they get to vote for these things and the zealots don’t. That is not to say that new-age statistics haven’t started creeping into the award decisions of some of the BBWAA voters, presumably the younger, less experienced ones.

But why Cabrera over Trout? Cabrera gave baseball a Triple Crown winner for the first time in 45 years, making his achievement a rare feat. Cabrera led the Tigers to a division championship and the playoffs. On the day the Tigers clinched, Cabrera had four hits, including a home run.

Most valuable players often come from teams that get to the post-season. Arguments can be made about the relative value of players to their teams, but if one candidate leads his team to the playoffs and another candidate doesn’t, the latter player’s value comes into question.

As good as Trout was this year, what did he do for the Angels? They were only on the fringe of the American League West race, and they began dropping back in the A.L. wild-card race in mid-August and getting back in it when it was too late.

The Tigers had to fight all season to dislodge the Chicago White Sox from first place, and Cabrera was in the forefront of their fight.

I don’t know how the vote will come out, but I saw the other day that another writer took up the case against the zealots. Writing on ESPN.com, Peter Blake of ESPN The Magazine said:

“I’ve had just about enough of this sabermetric correctness pervading the debate about who should win the AL MVP. Miguel Cabrera won MLB’s first Triple Crown in 45 years, but support for his candidacy has been called ‘Luddite,’ ‘a backlash against progress,’ ‘irresponsible’ and a ‘mistake.’ New-breed statheads seem to think it’s simply irrational that anyone other than Mike Trout could be most valuable.

“Well, I hate to break it to my fellow professional geeks, but they are utterly wrong in how they’re thinking about this argument. As a result, they’ve rushed to judgment in anointing Trout.

“Many Trout backers are using a stat called Wins Above Replacement to capture the broad swath of the superstar rookie’s talents. WAR is an ubermetric that measures how many wins a player contributed to his team compared with a replacement-level player, based on his value at the plate, on the bases and in the field. This season, Trout amassed, according to Baseball-Reference.com, a whopping 10.7 WAR — one of the 50 highest marks in modern baseball history. Cabrera finished with 6.9 WAR.”

Miguel Cabrera4 225I wasn’t able to read the rest of the piece because it required being an “ESPN Insider” and I am not an ESPN Insider. For all I know, somewhere in the rest of the piece the writer might completely reverse his view. I hope he didn’t; it’s heartening to read someone who hasn’t gone over to the dark side.

One added note: Some critics of the m.v.p. voting have called for a more precise definition of m.v.p. What they basically want is for the award to go to the best player, the one with the best statistics (although I would ask which ones).

To me, the beauty of the BBWAA’s m.v.p. voting is it challenges voters to study and think about the contributions players made to the success of their teams. It raises interesting questions, too.

Should Trout, for example, be penalized in m.v.p. consideration because the Angels weren’t good enough to take advantage of what he did for them? In Prince Fielder, did Cabrera have more help in helping the Tigers win than Trout had from any of his teammates?

What fans and new-age nerds should understand, if they don’t already, is most valuable players is not the same as player of the year. Player of the year is much simpler to decide, and – who knows? – maybe Trout is the player of the year. But he is not the most valuable player, no matter what WAR says. WAR, you see, does not have a vote in this election.

NO GRACE OR FISK BUT TACOS FOR MLB.COM

Two news articles of the past week you will not see on MLB.com:

  • Mark Grace indicted in DUI case
  • Carlton Fisk charged with DUI

Three “news” articles you will see on MLB.com:

  • MLB dignitaries show appreciation for veterans; Selig leads group to San Francisco V.A. Medical Center prior to Game2
  • Pagan steals everyone free taco at Taco Bell
  • ‘Bucks on the Pond’ trivia program a smash hit

The articles about Fisk and Grace can be found on many Web sites andCarlton Fisk DUI in many newspapers (though strangely not The New York Times), but baseball’s Web site, the one that says its articles and columns are “ not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs,” opted not to post either the Grace or Fisk developments.

Baseball apparently doesn’t recognize negative news about its people. It’s like a child thinking if he or she closes his or her eyes, bad things or bad news will go away.

No story, on the other hand, can be too bad to post on the site if it highlights a positive aspect of Major League Baseball or a baseball promotion.

Falling into that category are the stories heralded by the above headlines. In conjunction with M.L.B.’s salute to the military at Game 2 of the World Series, Commissioner Bud Selig and other baseball dignitaries visited servicemen at the V.A. Medical Center.

I’m not suggesting that the visit wasn’t a worthy gesture, but it hardly belonged in the top baseball headlines of the day, which was the same day news of Graces’s indictment on charges of driving under the influence surfaced.

Grace, a former major league first baseman and long-time television analyst, had been arrested in Scottsdale, Ariz., Aug. 23 for the second time in 15 months on D.U.I. charges.

Three days before the news of Grace’s disgrace, Fisk was arrested on D.U.I. charges in New Lenox, Ill., after police found him unconscious at the wheel of his car in the middle of a corn field.

I suppose it’s possible that the Hall of Fame catcher could have been looking for a baseball game in Iowa but got lost, got tired and took a nap. However, police said Fisk, 64, was disoriented when they woke him and refused to take a blood-alcohol test. They also said they found an open 1.75-liter bottle of liquor in the car.

Mark Grace DUIBaseball doesn’t have to worry about alcohol in the Taco Bell promotion it supported. When Angel Pagan of the Giants stole second base in the eighth inning of Game 2 of the World Series, he won a free taco for anyone who wanted one, and MLB.com made sure to tell everyone about it.

“Yeah, I just found out about that. I’m pretty happy,” Pagan said, interviewed by MLB.com at his locker as if he had just stroked a game-winning hit in the World Series. “I was just trying to play the game hard – try to create a situation for us to score. And after the game, they told me about that, so I feel happy.”

Does he like Taco Bell, the article continued.

“I love Taco Bell,” he replied. “I do. Doritos, tacos, name it.”

There you have it, one of the highlights of the World Series, as MLB.com saw it.

Another highlight from the MLB.com perspective, presented in a matching 600-word report, was an MLB.com game show, “Bucks on the Pond.” I confess to never having played this game. But the article explains it:

“Contestants are asked a trivia question – general knowledge and baseball – on each pitch during a half-inning. Get the question correct and win money. Get the question wrong and it’s a strike. Three strikes and you’re out.”

This game is played at ball parks, it seems, while the baseball game is going on. What that says to me is MLB.com doesn’t think the game on the field is enough to hold the fans’ attention. The Bucks game, though, is good enough to be treated equally with the games on the field because it receives equal treatment with the site’s reports on baseball games and news.

Besides the highly questionable placement of those three articles on the Web site, I found one other element of them intriguing. All three pieces carried the byline of the same writer, Mark Newman. He is designated as enterprise editor. House man would be more appropriate.

IN BASEBALL’S AND BUD’S BEST INTERESTS

The issue has become tiresome to most people but will remain and hover over Major League baseball like a black cloud until Commissioner Bud Selig makes a decision. He said as recently as last Thursday that he would make a decision. I am not entirely convinced of that.

Selig discussed the issue at a news conference before Game 2 of the World Series but only when reporters asked him about it. The issue is the dispute between the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants over the Silicon Valley city of San Jose.Oakland As 225

The Athletics want to build a new park in San Jose and move there. The Giants say they can’t do that because San Jose is part of their constitutionally blessed territory. They are right about it being their territory, but it’s their territory only because the late Oakland owner, Walter Haas Jr., ceded his share to it when the Giants desperately wanted to move to Santa Clara before they struck gold in San Francisco.

A former Giants’ managing partner once told me the Haas story was an urban legend, but he was lying. Too many people and the minutes of the owners’ meeting at which it happened have confirmed the Haas story.

At his news conference Selig talked about the committee he appointed more than three and a half years ago to study the matter, saying it was “very hard at work” and “they continue to work.”

“I’ve been talking to them a lot the last four or five days,” Selig added. “There isn’t anything more to say.”

He could say why it is taking the committee longer to decide the issue than it took the 13 colonies to found the United States or for the United States to win World War II. But all Selig will say is the committee is working hard. He won’t explain what the members are working on or why it’s taking them so long.

The matter, he told reporters, is “still on the front burner” but he has no timetable for reaching a decision. He did not respond when asked if it would be resolved during his tenure as commissioner, which has two years to run.

The commissioner added, “I don’t feel any pressure. The only thing that will guide me ultimately on every issue is what I think is in the best interest of baseball.”

If he really means that, and I believe he does, Selig should waste no additional time before making a decision. Allowing the Athletics to move to San Jose would be in the best interest of baseball.

No, it would not be in the best interest of the Giants, but the Giants are doing well enough financially and artistically that they will survive with room to spare. Add some amount of indemnification from the Athletics and/or M.L.B. and new revenue from the absence of a second team in the Bay area, and they will be doing extremely well.

The Athletics, meanwhile, will flourish in their new home, enhancing their franchise, and baseball will only benefit from having one more strong franchise and one less weak one.

Selig may fear legal entanglements if he lets the A’s move, but he is the commissioner, and the commissioner’s authority under the best-interest clause of the M.L.B. constitution has been upheld in court.

LEAVE PITCHERS AND CATCHERS ALONE

A line drive hits Doug Fister of Detroit in the face during a playoff game, and some baseball people are ready to take action to protect pitchers. Let those alleged do-gooders get too carried away, and before you know it they may erect a screen around or in front of the pitcher’s mound.

Fifty-five seasons ago Herb Score, a young Cleveland pitcher destined to be great, was hit in the right eye by a line drive off the bat of Gil McDougald of the New York Yankees.

Doug Fister Line DriveAlthough other injuries, including a bad elbow injury, contributed to the early end to his once-promising career, Score was never the same pitcher after his mound mishap. But his experience did not provoke an outcry to protect the pitcher.

Were baseball people right then? Should they have done something? They didn’t do anything, and thousands of pitchers have survived.

Pitchers know the risk they take every time they throw a pitch, but they don’t think about it. If they did, they would be failures. They are closer than 60 feet from the batter when they release the ball, but they are confident they can catch or deflect any ball hit back at them.

The outcry to protect pitchers is not unlike the reaction last year when Buster Posey of San Francisco suffered a broken leg in a collision at home plate. Some teams subsequently instructed their catchers not to block the plate.

Catchers have blocked the plate forever. One injury should not change the culture. Posey came back and had a great season this year, a most valuable player season. He earned the right to be first in line next April when the Giants hand out World Series championship rings for the second time in three years.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.