Saturday, November 17, 2012

Trout Swimming Upstream

Brian and I were having a disagreement about Nate Silver around the time of the election.  I believed that Silver is a hack, a partisan hammer that sees every presidential election as the nail of a Democratic landslide.  In 2008, reality happened to conform to his theory and he was hailed as a genius.  In 2012, the electoral college pointed to a decisive Obama victory.  However, the popular vote margin and the closeness of the race in battleground states like Florida and Virginia point to a more nuanced conclusion that Obama won a close election. 

Brian's opinion is that Silver is a Renaissance Man and a Warrior Poet.  Ok, that's not exactly his position.  He argued that Silver was not only credible, but skilled.  Politically, his skill is debatable due to the fact that he had access to insider statistical models in 2008.  However Brian argued, and I think I'm fairly capturing his point this time, that Silver's writings on baseball have been shining examples of quality sabremetric analyses.  Having never read Silver's take on baseball, I really didn't have a comeback, at least until now.

Nate Silver has weighed in on the American League MVP race and declared an Obama landslide.  Actually, he has declared Anaheim Angels Outfielder Mike Trout more deserving of the award than the actual winner, Detroit Tiger's Outfielder Miguel Cabrera.  I'm not impressed by this critique, and don't believe it is because I am a Luddite pagan without respect for the science of sabremetrics.

First of all, I know that Silver didn't likely write the headline in the linked piece, but I don't like the title, "The Statistical Case Against Cabrera for M.V.P."  If anything, Silver outlines a comparative case for Mike Trout.  Miguel Cabrera was the first American League Triple Crown winner since 1967, with a batting average of .330, 44 home runs and 139 RBIs.  He also boasted 109 runs scored, 205 hits, and an OPS (probably the most favored offensive sabremetric statistic) of .999. That is my case for Cabrera for M.V.P.  You can prefer Mike Trout, but you must admit, Cabrera's numbers are strong.  Additionally, Cabrera's Tigers won the American League pennant, which Trout watched on TV as his Angels missed the playoffs.

Before I get to Silver's critique, I'll compare the critical numbers.  Trout batted .326, .004 points lower than Cabrera.  He hit 30 home runs, 14 less than Cabrera and tied for 13th place in the American League.  He drove in 83 runs, 56 behind Cabrera and good for 26th place in the league, behind three of his teammates on the Angels.  He led the league in runs scored with 129, 20 ahead of second place Cabrera.  He also had 182 hits, good for 9th place in the league and 23 behind Cabrera.  Finally, his OPS was .963, .036 points behind Cabrera. 

Silver's point's in Trout's favor are basically these, in order of my perception of their importance:
  • Trout stole a lot more bases than Cabrera
  • Trout was a better defensive player than Cabrera
  • Trout's overall totals were impacted by the fact that he started 2012 in the minors and Trout's home ballpark is tougher on hitters than Cabrera's
  • Trout's RBI numbers were depressed by his lead off spot in the batting order and Trout is actually a better hitter in "clutch" situations than Cabrera
  • The Angels were a better team than the Tigers
Let's start with the base stealing statistic.  Trout stole an impressive 49 bases, while slow footed Cabrera stole only 4.  I'll refrain from sarcastically suggesting that this is the American League where base stealing is dismissed as a dead ball era strategy and admit that this gives Trout an advantage in this category.  However, I would argue that baseball is a game where run production should be the measure of success.  If Trout's stealing of a base leads to a run, then that shows up in his league leading run total.  So we have already counted it.  Still, I'd cede an advantage in this category to Trout.

Silver next argues that Trout's defense is a strength to his team, while Cabrera's is a liability.  I also cede this point.  However, I believe Silver is reaching.  He claims that corner outfielder Trout saved his team 11 runs, while Cabrera cost his team 10 runs.  This is from a nebulous statistic called Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR).  Unlike other sabremetric statistics such as OPS and WPA, I have no way to analyze whether UZR is accurate.  I have real concerns that as a corner outfielder next to an above average center fielder in Torii Hunter, Trout's numbers are overstated.  Still, this statistic is a black box. 

I'd conclude that even if the UZR that Silver quotes true, this 21 run difference pales in comparison to the fact that Cabrera had 56 more RBIs.  If you net this out, that leaves Cabrera ahead by 35 RBI's.  It is a fact that Trout scored 20 more runs, so net of that Cabrera produced a net run total 15 ahead of Trout.  This leads to Silver's next argument, that Trout played less games and played them in a more difficult ballpark.

If a guy starts the year in the minors, as Trout did, he is adding zero value to his team over that time period.  Meanwhile, Cabrera was helping his team win games.  You simply can't argue against that.  As for the tougher stadium call, Silver bases this on the fact that Cabrera hit most of his home runs to power alleys and that Angel's stadium has deeper power alleys, so Cabrera would have hit less home runs were he to switch places with Trout.  To which I say boo hoo.  Cabrera's job is to produce runs, not to worry about where his home runs would have landed were he playing in a stadium 2000 miles away.

Silver says Trout's RBI's are understated because he leads off while Cabrera bats third. While true, that also enhances Trout's run total and depresses (in a relative sense) Cabrera's run total. I'd call that a wash.

Getting desperate, Silver turns to the phantom statistic of "clutch" hitting.  This statistic has historically been used for such dishonest purposes as claiming that Alex Rodriguez isn't really a good player or that Reggie Jackson is the greatest player ever.  Silver uses the real and quantifiable statistic of Win Probability Added to prove that Trout is a more valuable player.  Silver gives a nice explanation of this statistic:

In fact, there are now systems, like Win Probability Added, that measure all aspects of clutch performance in a comprehensive way. They account not just for the number of runners on base and the number of outs, but also the game score and the inning. A grand slam when a team trails by three runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth turns a near-certain loss into a win, giving a player maximal credit by this system. A grand slam when a team already leads 7-0 gets little credit, since the game is already in hand.

Trout has a better WPA, with 5.28 games won to Cabrera's 4.81.  Of course, by this statistic, Joey Votto was by far the best player in baseball last year, with a WPA of 6.05.  Also, Cabrera had a much better WPA in 2011, with a WPA of 7.59.  Unlike batting average or home runs, a hitter's WPA depends on a lot of lucky factors.  In Silver's example above, the first hitter adds .95 to his WPA and the second adds .00 while they both hit grand slams.  The volatility of this statistic makes it instructive, but not absolute. Unlike OPS, I wouldn't hang my hat on it.

Finally, Silver argues that the Angels were a better team, as they won 89 games to the Tigers 88.  Again, boo hoo.  The Tigers and Cabrera did what they needed to do (at least until the World Series began) and the Angels did not.  Further, the Tigers wrapped up their division with a handful of games remaining and set their rotation, likely causing them to lose one or more games.  I'd dismiss this claim out of hand.

I didn't even mention that no one has won baseball's Triple Crown in two generations.  Cabrera faced pressures that no other player did due to his chase of this elusive goal, and he triumphed.

In conclusion, Mike Trout is a fantastic player, and would certainly be my number one draft pick if I get that spot in my 2013 fantasy baseball draft.  But in 2013, Miguel Cabrera was clearly the most valuable player in the American League.