Friday, September 24, 2010

Playing Time May Help Cabrera Win MVP

Former Detroit Tigers beat writer and current Fox analyst Jon Morosi is supporting Miguel Cabrera for the MVP award over Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton.  The part of the article which piqued my interest was the list of criteria which writers are given in considering the MVP:

1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.
2. Number of games played.
3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.
4. Former winners are eligible.
5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

The last two criteria are just reminders and don’t have any bearing on a choice between Cabrera and Hamilton.  Criterion three is interesting in that each has experienced substance abuse problems.  Both have apparently conquered these issues however, and there is no evidence that either has an advantage in general character. 

So, that leaves us with items one and two.  Cabrera certainly has the upper hand over Hamilton in games played (146 versus 130).  In fact, Hamilton has only started 114 of those 130 games.  If he misses the rest of the season with injured ribs, he will have failed to start almost a third of his team’s games.  That’s a big chunk and it will probably be considered fairly heavily in MVP voting. 

The tricky part is criterion one – value of a player to his team.  Morosi gives the following definition of value:

I believe a player’s “value” is best defined as how difficult he would be for the team to replace.
I don’t disagree with this definition.  It’s essentially the same criteria used by many modern statistical analysts.  It fits nicely with the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) concept.  Where I disagree is how he determines value.   He reasons that the Rangers would still have a solid line-up without Hamilton, but that the Tigers would be lost without Cabrera:

Take away Hamilton, and the Rangers still have a very good lineup.
Take away Cabrera, and Ryan Raburn is the potential cleanup man.

He correctly states that Cabrera has a larger percentage of his team’s home runs and RBI than Hamilton.  There is no question that Cabrera is the centerpiece of the Tigers line-up and that Hamilton shares the load with the likes of Vladimir Guerrero, Nelson Cruz and Michael Young.  That’s a classic interpretation of what “valuable” means in MVP.  It has some merit, but I’m most interested in the number of runs Cabrera and Hamilton contribute to their teams. 

One way to estimate run contribution is with the Batting Runs statistic which I discussed earlier this week.  I’ll use the following weights for events:

NIBB 0.33
IBB 0.18
HBP 0.33
1B 0.47
2B 0.77
3B 1.04
HR 1.40
Out –0.27

Hamilton leads Cabrera 56.2 to 54.8 in Batting Runs.  If we attempt to adjust for home parks (Hamilton plays his home games in a more friendly hitters park than Cabrera), they are essential even: Hamilton 54.4 and Cabrera 54.3.

Now, let’s add equivalent baserunning runs from from Baseball Prospectus.  Hamilton has contributed an estimated 3.3 runs with his base running while Cabrera has cost the Tigers an estimated 1.3.  The tally is now Hamilton 57.7 and Cabrera 53.0.  That is how many offensive runs the two batters have contributed above what you would have been expected from an average batter.  So, according to these statistics, Hamilton has had slightly more value while he has been in the line-up than Cabrera has had. 

FanGraphs estimates that Hamilton has cost his team 2.4 runs versus Cabrera by not being in the line-up (18.6 replacement value 21.0)  So, the gap closes to 2.3 runs.  It’s really very close offensively and you could make an argument for either player on that basis.

Where Hamilton has a bigger advantage is in run prevention.  FanGraphs estimates that Hamilton has a 6 run advantage simply by playing outfield instead of first base.  That sounds fair enough to me.  What about quality of defense? If we take the average of Total Zone, Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating, Hamilton is an estimated +3 runs defensively and Cabrera is –5.   That all adds up to a 14 run difference on defense which is a lot.  Even if you don’t trust the defensive statistics at all and want to assume that all players are average defensively, it’s still a six run edge for Hamilton. 

Is there any way for Cabrera to close the gap?  What about situational hitting?  Win Probability Added (WPA) is a statistic which takes into account a player’s performance in various scenarios.  For example a home run to break a tie in the ninth inning would be worth more than a home run in a blow out.  Cabrera has a 6.5 WPA versus 5.9 for Hamilton.  So, Cabrera appears to have done a little better in clutch situations and that may be enough to swing the offense slightly in his favor.  I don’t know if it’s enough to make up for the fielding gap though. 

We’ll get back to the one area where Cabrera has the clear lead – playing time.  We kind of incorporated that into our calculations already but it’s still hard to justify giving an MVP to a player with 114 starts.  I think Hamilton has been the better player overall and I’m leaning that way at the moment, but if he doesn’t play another game and Cabrera finishes strong, I think you can make a decent case for  Cabrera.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that Hamilton and Cabrera are the only candidates.  Jose Bautista, Robinson Cano, Adrian Beltre and Evan Longoria are in the mix as well.  Based on what I’ve read though, it seems that voters are giving Cabrera and Hamilton the most consideration. 

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