A LOOK AT LIFE ON THE DARK SIDE

By Murray Chass

October 20, 2013

Last year a heated debate raged for much of the second half of the season over who should be the Miguel Cabrera Mike TroutAmerican League most valuable player. Characterizing those on each side of the debate by how its opponents viewed them, the traditionalists, dinosaurs and troglodytes favored Miguel Cabrera. The statistical zealots, stats nerds and stats geeks disagreed sharply, pronouncing Mike Trout the rightful claimant to the award.

They’re back, Cabrera and Trout, though the Angels’ outfielder doesn’t seem to have challenged Cabrera as strongly as he did last year when the Tigers’ third baseman won the award in a runaway, 22 first-place vote to 6 and 362 points to 281.

Zach Kram, my occasional substitute on this site, who reads baseball news and opinions far more voluminously than I do had this perspective:

“For those who are, the top reason is that they pretty much think that ‘most valuable’ equals ‘best’ and that Trout was better (his offensive production was close to Cabrera’s, and his defense and baserunning push him over the top for ‘best’ consideration). WAR isn’t the only stat that shows he was ‘better;’ it’s thinking about all facets of the game in tandem and, most importantly, determining that most valuable=best.”

“One interesting note from my point of view is that, in addition to being considered less because the Angels were much worse than the Tigers, Trout was probably looked at less because he had a subpar (for him) April before being the best player from May-September.

“Cabrera, on the other hand, was pretty terrible in September (only slugged .333 with two extra-base hits), but he had been so good until then that his narrative had already been written. It’s just interesting that people argue that September games are more important because the pressure is highest, but that line of thinking doesn’t apply when it comes to this MVP race – similar to how Josh Hamilton had already sewn up the MVP in 2010 even though he missed almost all of September with an injury.

“Voters seem to make up their minds pretty early on in the season, and they’re hard to change once the narratives have been formulated. (I’m not saying that I think Trout should win, just that it’s something to consider.)”

Miguel Cabrera 2013 225How the voters make their choices is at least as important as when. The Baseball Writers Association can ask voting writers to hold off making their selections until the last day if necessary to conduct their votes legitimately, but it can’t ask or tell them on what basis they should make their decisions.

I say that and believe it even though I see the trend in the voting. New-age statistics, the ones older baseball men, fans and writers reject, are playing a more prominent role in award voting and, I suspect, will play an even bigger part as the years go on.

WAR, the acronym for wins above replacement, seems to be the attention-getter among the sabermetric statistics. Because Trout was the top-ranked WARrior last year, it was probably the biggest factor in the argument for him as m.v.p.

Now he’s No. 1 again, though with a lower WAR number, 9.2, than last year’s 10.7. I was curious about the support Trout had, not in the minds of the voters but generally.Mike Trout 2013 225

To get an indication, I asked Tom Tango. That is not his real name but the one he uses in his writing, both on his Web site, Tangotiger.com, and on the cover of the book he authored with two others, “The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball.”

I opted to contact Tango because in the years I have been critical of the new-age statistics and their adherents, of those who have responded, he has been the most civil and the most decent. Writing about Cabrera and Trout, Tango said:

“First, I should point out that comparing to a replacement level isn’t that necessary, since they were both full-time players this year. Replacement level is important for guys who have much different levels of playing time, or if you want to compare a pitcher to a non-pitcher, neither of which applies here.

“Anyway, the case. First, hitting-wise. Trout has 13 more doubles, 8 more triples, 29 more unintentional walks, 4 extra hit batters, 11 fewer GIDP. We would estimate that to be worth around 32 runs or so.

“Cabrera has 7 more singles, 17 more HR. We estimate that to be worth 27 more runs. Cabrera also made 43 fewer batting outs (AB-H+SF), which is worth about 12 runs to Cabrera’s advantage. That gives Cabrera 39 more runs than Trout.

“So far, we see that Cabrera is 7 runs ahead of Trout.

“(There is also a park consideration if we want to go there, as well as strength of opponent.)

“Next up is baserunning. We estimate that Trout is the 4th best baserunner in MLB, worth 8 runs above average. We have Cabrera as a below average baserunner, being 4 runs below average. Hence, Trout is 12 runs ahead of Cabrera baserunning-wise.

“Therefore, on offense along, Trout is 5 runs ahead.

“Then we get to defense, and we have Trout as 18 runs ahead of Cabrera.

“Add it up, and Trout is 23 runs ahead.

“HOWEVER, we also track something called ‘Clutch’ that measures their performance relative to the crucialness of the situation. Cabrera has been his usual great self in high-leverage scenarios, while Trout has had a horrendous season in high-leverage situations. We consider the gap between the two to be 2.5 wins (wins, not runs).

“Remember I just said that Trout is worth 23 more runs than Cabrera? That would mean around 2.5 wins ahead of Cabrera. But if we include the timing of their performance, we end up… even!

“And if you start to include the timing of the performances, then Davis, Donaldson, and Cano either come even with these guys, or go ahead. The Trout v. Cabrera debate ends up overshadowing legitimately and arguably greater performances by other players.”

Tango had a similar problem when I asked him to sybermetrically assess National League m.v.p. candidates Andrew McCutchen of Pittsburgh and Paul Goldschmidt of Arizona.

“While noting that there are other players in the NL to consider, since you only asked for McCutchen and Goldy, then we see McCutchen ahead on singles (by 14), doubles (by 2), triples (by 2), hit batters (by 6), GIDP (12 fewer), batting outs (23 fewer). That’s worth about 24 runs.

“Goldy ahead on HR (by 15), unintentional walks (by 14). That’s worth about 25 runs.

“That sets Goldy ahead by 1 run on hitting. McCutch is ahead in baserunning by 5 runs. And in defense by 16 runs. So, McCutch’s ahead by 20 runs. Very similar to the Trout v. Cabrera comparison.

“And do you know what is also similar? Goldy has been great in the clutch (worth +1.8 wins more than average), and McCutch has not (worth -0.9 wins in the clutch). That’s a difference of 2.7 wins.

“So, this is very much like Trout v. Cabrera, in that once you convert the runs to wins, and you include the timing of their performances, Goldy and McCutch are very close. Goldy is ahead by around half a win if you include timing. McCutch is ahead by around 2 wins if you don’t.”

In a subsequent e-mail, Tango offered a caveat.

“I personally don’t like the term ‘MVP,’” he wrote, “because the word ‘valuable’ overrides whatever it is that we want it to mean, not to mention that I’d have to adhere to whatever the rules of voting are. I just find that too limiting. So, I step aside when we talk about MVP specifically.”

Many people have trouble with the concept of m.v.p. because the award does not have to go to the best player. As flawed as WAR is – there are actually two different versions – it might tell you who the “best” player supposedly is, but it doesn’t tell you who the most valuable player is.

“Valuable” is in the mind of the beholder, but the only beholders who count are the 30 writers in each league who vote for the awards. They are not mistake-proof, but the awards are their decisions. Several years ago, the stats zealots went berserk when the writers voted the A.L. award to Justin Morneau.

The awards are based on statistics, but not the way the stats guys want them to be based. They are based on what the players were able to do with their statistics. Of course, some candidates have greater support than others, but writers have been voting for the awards for more than 80 years and in my view they have done a better job than the zealots would do with their different versions of the allegedly same statistic.

When I voted for m.v.p., I didn’t look for any definitions because there aren’t any. Each voter has the freedom to decide for himself what “most valuable” means. To me, it means the player without whom his team couldn’t have done what it did. I always felt that the greater number of outstanding players a team had the less valuable each of those players was.

If I were voting this year, I’d find it hard to ignore Cabrera. He led the league in batting, on-base and slugging percentages, the combination of the two and batting with runners in scoring position. He was second in home runs, total bases and runs batted in, tied for second in runs scored and third in hits and walks. And don’t forget, he led his team to a division title. Would the Tigers have won it without him? No.

Andrew McCutchen5 225The choice is not as clear cut in the National. Andrew McCutchen was considered the favorite throughout the season, but Paul Goldschmidt finished the season in an impressive position: first in runs batted in, slugging, total bases and extra-base hits, tied for first in home runs, third in runs scored and walks, fourth in hits and on-base percentage.

I would also have to consider Matt Carpenter and maybe Clayton Kershaw, though I think for a pitcher to win he has to have a sensational season (see Ron Guidry 1978, for whom I voted) while no hitter stood out.

In this instance, I think I would be tempted to vote for Goldschmidt, but the only race his team, Arizona, was involved in after June was a race for .500. With McCutchen providing the spark, Pittsburgh was in the division race to the end and maintained its wild-card lead.

LOOK FOR NOLAN IN HOUSTON

Nolan Ryan’s departure from the Texas Rangers comes as no surprise, though I expected the Hall of Fame pitcher to go out a different way. But give Ryan credit for doing it his way.

The 66-year-old Ryan, who announced he was retiring at the end of the month, could not have been pleased earlier this year when the Rangers’ co-owners yanked one of his titles from his desk. They took away president, naming two other executives presidents of baseball and business, and left him with chief executive officer.nolan-ryan1-225

Whether or not the owners saw it the way others did, the move appeared to be a demotion for Ryan, a deservedly proud man of many accomplishments on and off the field.

I suspect after a reasonable amount of time passes Ryan will join the Houston Astros, where his son Reid is president of business operations.

“Everybody’s wanting to know if he’s coming to the Astros,” Reid Ryan told Houston reporters. “I hesitate to say anything like that because I don’t want to give anybody any false expectations or hopes. I know as his son, knowing him as well as I do, I know he’s going to want to take some time off, and after he feels like he’s kind of rested and rejuvenated, we’ll see what the next chapter holds.”

Not that Commissioner Bud Selig necessarily knows what Nolan Ryan may do next, if anything, but Selig used an interesting choice of words in a statement acknowledging Ryan’s retirement.

“I am certain that Nolan will continue to be a great credit to Major League Baseball and an exemplary ambassador for the National Pastime in the state of Texas and beyond,” Selig said in his statement.

Notice he included the whole state of Texas, not just the area where the Rangers play Anyway, it would only be right for Reid Ryan to hire his father. It wouldn’t be right to make Nolan Ryan live on Social Security.

KOJI AUDITIONS FOR MARIANO ROLE

It’s premature to be talking about the next Mariano Rivera; the pitcher many consider the best closer of all time has barely closed the Koji Uehara Red Sox 225door behind him on his 19-year career when a 38-year-old upstart is putting in a claim to be recognized at least as the best post-season closer.

Koji Uehara sent the Boston Red Sox Rivera-style into the World Series, where Rivera and the New York Yankees won’t be. The Japanese right-hander relieved in five of the six American League Championship Series games, was the winning pitcher in one game, had save opportunities in three other games and converted them all, meaning he had his right hand in all four Red Sox wins. He pitched six innings, allowing no runs and six hits, walking none and striking out nine.

As good as he always was, Rivera was superb in post-season games. He pitched in 96 of them, compiling 42 saves, an 8-1 record and a 0.70 earned run average.

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