Nate Silver Hates Detroit

Later today, the MLB will announce the winner of this season’s AL MVP award.  The race comes down to Miguel Cabrera, the Detroit Tigers’ power hitter, and Mike Trout, a rookie with the Los Angeles Angels.  The final voting from the BBWAA will be very close in all likelihood.

As a die-hard Tigers fan, I’m pulling for Cabrera, perhaps the best hitter of his generation and one of the greatest sluggers of all time.  This year, he won the Triple Crown (leading the league in batting average, RBI, and home runs), the first person to do so since 1967.

As much as I love the Tigers, there are these other things I also believe in called data and statistics.  And the data and statistics (or, as they’re called in baseball, sabermetrics) make a slightly better case for Trout.  The basic argument is that while Cabrera is a better hitter, Trout is much stronger at base-running and defense.  Those areas of the game tended to be neglected by voters in the past, but new ways of analyzing the game using data have changed the paradigm.

Nate Silver, the political-forecasting guru (on whose work I wrote my term paper), is from East Lansing and was first attracted to the intersection of baseball and statistics in 1984, when the Tigers last won the World Series.  He makes the case that Trout, not Cabrera, should win the MVP award this year (http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/14/the-statistical-case-against-cabrera-for-m-v-p/), basically for the reasons I stated in the paragraph above.

This is actually a more important debate than some might believe.  The run-up to the vote this year has been especially contentious, and no matter which way it goes tonight, there will be a lot of carping in tomorrow’s newspapers.  The basic friction, which goes all the way back to Moneyball and before, is about looking at the game the old-fashioned “authentic” way versus using data and sabermetrics to slice and dice all the numbers.  This has been, and will continue to be, a major argument in the baseball world.

I won’t lie: I am pulling for Cabrera, my guy, to win the MVP tonight.  But I’m also disconcerted by the fact that the data seems to be breaking in the other direction.  My prediction is that Cabrera will win tonight, but we’ll increasingly see more attention paid to sabermetrics like WAR (wins above replacement, an all-around measure of a player’s contribution) and UZR (ultimate zone rating, a defensive metric) in the future.

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3 Responses to Nate Silver Hates Detroit

  1. cyberprofgus says:

    Glad to see Miguel get the MVP. He deserves it and Detroit needs the boost. While I am sympathetic to your argument, Alex, and agree that WAR and other metrics will be considered more seriously, I also think that tradition will always play a big role in subjective decisions like an MVP. And a triple crown is a special event that both traditionalists and sabermetric analysts can love, right?

  2. samargolis says:

    I can go either way on this. I mean, If anybody read Mitch Albom’s piece where he pretty much trashes sabremetrics and argues that it shouldn’t play a role in stuff like awards, I hope that they’d think that’s fair. Furthermore, Trout was probably more valuable to his team than Cabrera was, the rule of thumb for MVP should be how would eliminating that player from the team affect the team’s overall performance and Detroit had a pretty stacked team this year (Though they were pretty disappointing in regular season performance.). There’s a reason a DH has never won the MVP award, hitting shouldn’t be the overall factor.

    That said, a Triple Crown is the sort of thing that shoots out at you and it takes a very special player to do it.

    I was pulling for Cabrera, but I guess I’d say Trout deserved it.

  3. alexjking11 says:

    Ultimately the vote wasn’t quite as close as I (or a lot of other people) thought it would be, as Cabrera received 22 out of the 28 first-place votes. (Ironically, the AL Cy Young award vote was much much closer, the closest race in history other than a tie in 1969: http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/id/8632938/david-price-tampa-bay-rays-wins-american-league-cy-young-award-edging-justin-verlander-detroit-tigers)

    That said, I think this headline sums things up nicely: “Cabrera’s MVP a win for fans, defeat for stats geeks”:

    http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/tigers/2012/11/16/miguel-cabrera-detroit-tigers-mvp-triple-crown/1709271/

    As much as this year’s result doesn’t surprise me, I do still think we’ll see an increasing tilt toward considering sabermetrics in these awards votes in the future. I bet that if this same race were in 2020 or 2030, the vote would be much closer. Makes you wonder if some day, way off in the future, the MLB will do away with BBWAA voting all together and just award the MVP to the player with the highest WAR…

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