WINNERS AND WAR-RIORS

By Murray Chass

November 8, 2012

The votes are in, and the winners have been determined. A large segment of citizens, not surprisingly, is unhappy with the results. The voters got it wrong, they contend. These critics will get another chance to complain next week when the Baseball Writers Association announces its post-season awards.

The awards that have displeased the new-age statistics zealots are the Players Choice awards, announced earlier this week by the Players Association.Miguel Cabrera 225

By a vote of the players, the guys who actually play the game, not the ones who play with their computers, Miguel Cabrera won two awards, Player of the Year and American League Outstanding Player. Andrew McCutcheon was named National League Outstanding Player, and David Price and R.A. Dickey were named the outstanding pitchers in their respective leagues.

Cabrera, the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years, is expected to be named A.L. most valuable player by the BBWAA next week. Anticipating that development, the stats zealots have already expressed their vehement disagreement with that likelihood.

I have spoken to none of them about the Players Choice awards, but I am certain their reaction would be negative. Given their way of thinking, they would have even more reason to dispute the Players Choice awards to Cabrera as player of the year and outstanding A.L. player.

With the M.V.P. award, voters have latitude to consider factors other than statistics, though the zealots want the voters to focus on one statistic in particular. With player of the year, they would argue the award should go to the best player. His value to his team, his contribution to its success, would not necessarily have to be considered.

That’s why they would have no trouble naming Mike Trout for the awards Cabrera was voted. Why do they believe the Angels’ rookie was the best players in the majors this year? Because he led the world in WAR.

For those who have remained blissfully ignorant of these new-age statistics, WAR is an acronym for wins above replacement. Baseball-Reference.com. a major proponent of WAR, defines it as a “single number that presents the number of wins the player added to the team above what a replacement player (think AAA or AAAA) would add.”

Here is one of my primary problems with WAR:

“There is no one way to determine WAR,” Baseball-Reference.com says. “There are hundreds of steps to make this calculation, and dozens of places where reasonable people can disagree on the best way to implement a particular part of the framework. We have taken the utmost care and study at each step in the process, and believe all of our choices are well reasoned and defensible. But WAR is necessarily an approximation and will never be as precise or accurate as one would like.”

There is only one way to calculate batting average or on-base or slugging percentage, one way to calculate won-lost percentage or earned run average or baserunners per nine innings. Simple math, multiplication, division, that everyone learns in elementary school produces batting and earned run averages. WAR requires a Ph. D in math.

And another thing. Who is this replacement player who determines the ratings? He is not an actual player, but a mythical one. I don’t care for myths. I’ve seen a lot of players who have turned into myths. I’ll take the real thing.

Mike Trout 225Miguel Cabrera is the real thing. He has demonstrated that throughout his 10-year career. The zany zealots, however, opt for Trout as M.V.P. because he registered the best WAR, by far, at 10.7, one of the 50 highest in modern history, according to those who care about these things.

Cabrera had only the fifth highest WAR rating, 6.9, ranking behind Trout, Robinson Cano (8.2), Buster Posey (7.2) and Andrew McCutchen (7.0).

Cabrera, however, is considered the most likely winner and, in my opinion, the most deserving. He played the key role in the Tigers’ American League Central championship as they overtook the White Sox in the finals days of the season. Cabrera epitomized his critical contribution in Detroit’s division-clinching victory, collecting four hits, including a home run.

It was not surprising that his peers voted Cabrera player of the year. Statistics like WAR might impress some players, but players know how hard it is to lead the league in just one of the three Triple Crown categories of average, home runs and runs batted in, and they find it more impressive for one player to lead in all three in the same season.

Remember, no one playing in the major leagues today was alive when Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple Crown for Boston in 1967. For them, having Cabrera achieve the rare feat was tantamount to Rogers Maris’ hitting 61 home runs in 1961 and, for a later generation, Mark McGwire swatting 70 in 1998 and Barry Bonds topping that with 73 three years later, although players generally knew or at last suspected that the latter two hit their home runs chemically aided.

Players aren’t always the best or most objective judges of other players. Some might have built-in biases. In Trout’s case, for example, some might feel a rookie shouldn’t be voted player of the year. More likely, though, players voted for their peers whom they felt were the best.

In announcing its awards, the union doesn’t disclose the number of votes each player received, just the three finalists in each category and not in the order of their vote totals.

“The main reason,” Greg Bouris, the union’s communications director, said, “is we want to celebrate the winners and not have the votes be the story. The totals remain confidential for that reason.”

The BBWAA announces the voting totals for its awards but this year has made a significant change. In a departure from its practice for the first 81 years of the awards, the BBWAA has agreed to let someone else announce the awards.

Under an agreement reached with the BBWAA last December, MLB Network will have special shows at 6 p.m. next week to announce the awards: rookies of the year Nov. 12, managers of the year Nov. 13, Cy Young awards Nov. 14, M.V.P. awards Nov. 15.

Last Wednesday the network had a one-hour show unveiling the finalists in each category. This was a first for the awards, which previously had simply announced the voting for each award on different days.

I was not at the meeting where the new format was approved. Had I been there, I would have most likely voted against it. I had previously opposed attempts to turn our awards into a television show.

The BBWAA awards, I believe, are the best-known, most popular in post-season sports, and I don’t think they need television enhancement. We are not selling anything and don’t need to publicize ourselves.

In addition, I don’t believe baseball writers should be in bed with people they cover. When I worked for The New York Times, I was never comfortable when the Times owned a minority share of the Boston Red Sox.

Furthermore, the M.L.B. network will make money by selling commercial time for the BBWAA awards shows. Why should the BBWAA be in the business of making money for M.L.B.? The BBWAA is giving away its long-held product and getting nothing for it.

Not that I’d want to see the BBWAA being paid by M.L.B.. However, other outlets tried in the past to make a business deal with the BBWAA but were rejected. If the BBWAA were going to peddle its awards, better to sell them to an independent outfit and be paid. Now it is giving the awards away and getting nothing in return.

When previous proposals were rejected, one argument made was we didn’t need the money. But once it was decided to allow the awards to be televised, take the money and use it for helping families of writers who are in financial distress or some other worthy cause.

All of that said, facing the reality of the format change, I will take advantage of the disclosure of the finalists to check them in the context of WAR.

Among hitters, the players who are ranked in WAR’s top eight are among the five finalists for each league’s M.V.P. award. The two finalists not among the top eight are Chase Headley, 12th in WAR, and Josh Hamilton, all the way down at No. 53.

On the pitching side, of the three finalists announced in each league, Justin Verlander and David Price are one-two in WAR, Clayton Kershaw is No. 4, R.A. Dickey is No. 7, Gio Gonzalez No. 11 and Jered Weaver No. 22.

If the WAR proponents had their way, Trout (10.7) and Buster Posey (7.2) would be the M.V.P.’s and Verlander (7.6) and Kershaw (6.2) would be repeat Cy Young winners.

How do the Players Choice awards stack up with WAR? In other words, where did the players go astray? Let us count the ways:

  • Player of Year Cabrera (6.9) instead of Trout (10.7)
  • A.L. outstanding player Cabrera instead of Trout
  • N.L. outstanding player McCutchen (7.0) instead of Posey (7.2)
  • A.L. outstanding pitcher Price (6.4) instead of Verlander (7.6)
  • N.L. outstanding pitcher Dickey (5.6) instead of Kershaw (6.2)

That’s 0 for 5. You don’t need a computer to know that the players, voting for the Players Choice awards, batted .000.

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