A plea to baseball fans: Start looking at the right numbers

Dennis Rutter

Fall is always bittersweet for me. On the one hand, classes are starting, days are getting chillier and nights become increasingly longer as my caffeine addiction slowly reaches its apex. On the other hand, fall means playoff baseball. The playoff races are starting to sort themselves out as the contenders widen the gap between their divisional counterparts. However, the Most Valuable Player races in both leagues this year are anything but clean cut. In the American League, Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson are neck and neck, with neither showing signs of fading. The National League also has an interesting race transpiring, as Bryce Harper continues to disappoint from his otherworldly first half and Paul Goldschmidt keeps smashing baseballs for an otherwise disappointing Arizona Diamondbacks team. It’s shaping up to be the most exciting race since Miguel Cabrera’s triple-crown victory over Trout. 

So this year, let’s not make the same mistake as in previous years.

When we talk about the MVP, we are talking about value. So let’s start with the term value. Fortunately, the statisticians in the sabermetrics community have devised an algorithm that give us a way to understand value with the metric of Win Above Replacement, or WAR for short. WAR gives an estimate of how many wins a player alone has provided to their team over the course of a season compared to a replacement-level player who is assumed to provide no wins or losses. It’s a single figure, but it trumps counting statistics like RBIs in terms of explaining a player’s value to a team.  

RBIs are the most lauded of counting stats—teams still look for “RBI guys” in the offseason to throw tens of millions of dollars at. As analytics departments begin to increase their influence in front office though, the demand for “RBI guys” is decreasing, and rightly so. But this statistic stills remains influential in MVP voters’ decisions. For example, it is essentially the reason that Miguel Cabrera ran away with the award over Trout in 2012. Trout was worth more than three more wins than Cabrera was, according to baseballreference.com. But that dreaded RBI column—139 people happened to be on base when Miguel Cabrera bashed balls around the park that season. 

Trout, on the other hand, suffered from the coincidence of only having 89 people standing on base while he was smashing baseballs over fences and around the field. Never mind the fact that he stole 45 more bases than Cabrera. Never mind that he scored 20 more runs. Never mind that his glove alone provided two wins to his WAR total, compared to the negative value that Cabrera added with his defense. In effect, it was a classic example of tradition versus logic—the New School against the old. And when the voters chose Cabrera, they also made it clear which school they still subscribe to. 

Still, there’s no doubt that winning a triple crown is one of the most impressive feats in all of sports. It’s really hard—not only does it require a player to be able to hit for average and power, but it requires them to be the best in both those categories, a task that grows harder as players tend to specialize in one of the two categories. More importantly though, it requires a lot of luck, specifically pertaining to the inclusion of RBIs, because the accumulation of a lot of them requires teammates to get on base frequently in front of you. Miguel Cabrera was really good in 2012. He was really lucky, too. And he surely wasn’t the best player in the American League that year.

We can’t change how voters think. That task is on their shoulders alone. However, it’s important that fans start using the advanced statistics we have at hand to create more intelligent dialogue. I can already hear my friends arguing that Josh Donaldson must clearly be better than Trout because of how many RBIs he has. It is highly likely that Donaldson will end the season with a substantially higher RBI total than Trout. But right now, when we look at their WAR totals, they are dead even. Essentially, they have provided the same value to their respective teams. It is still somewhat early in the season, of course. Things may change drastically. But any argument that starts with a projection based on something as arbitrary as RBI totals needs to be checked at the door. 

Failure to look past shiny coincidences like triple crowns and no-hitters blinds us from what the MVP award stands for: most valuable player. These stats blind us from such historic performances as that of Trout in 2012. At the end of the day, if the question is value, it is our job as fans to figure out what exactly that is. We have new metrics at our disposal that do an excellent job of defining exactly that. Using them to back up our evaluation of players helps create a much more informed culture within the sport. And who knows, maybe the voters will start using them too.