Thursday, November 15, 2012

We've Got the AL MVP Debate All Wrong

After a long wait that seems like forever, the coveted Most Valuable Player awards will be announced tonight on the MLB Network.  Most of the attention is focused on the American League race between Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera and Angels center fielder Mike Trout.  The argument has raged since the summer and it's been one of the most hotly contested awards battles in recent memory.

You would expect a spirited debate between Tigers and Angels fans on this one, but that clash pales in comparison to the confrontation between old school traditionalists and new school sabermetricians.  The traditionalists favor Cabrera citing among other things his Triple Crown and the Tigers making the playoffs.  Meanwhile, the more mathematically-minded crowd points to Mike Trouts all around play and frequently brings up his superior Wins Above Replacement (WAR) numbers.

At times, the debate has gotten more unfriendly than any baseball debate should ever become.  One analyst went so far as to accuse the traditionalists as being "luddites" who refuse to acknowledge any statistics beyond the triple crown stats.  On the other hand, the sabers have been called "geeks who have never played the game" trying to boil everything down to one esoteric number.  Like many political debates, it has gotten away from the real issue (Cabrera  versus Trout) and become an us versus them battle.

I believe we've got it all wrong.  It shouldn't be an old school versus new school debate.  In fact there is nothing new about this argument at all.  It's been going on since the early days of baseball.  It's the great hitter versus the all around player, an argument as old as Babe Ruth versus Ty Cobb. 

There is nothing old school about admiring great hitters.  Among position players, hitters - especially sluggers - still get the most attention.  Most analytical discussions about great players begin with batting statistics such as slugging average or OPS or wOBA. At times, it is hard to get people to move beyond the offense and look at the whole game including fielding and base running.  If a player doesn't put up great offensive statistics, he'll be largely ignored in these discussions as has always been the case.

Similarly, there is nothing new school about looking at speed and defense.  Those facets of baseball have been respected since the 19th Century.  Ironically, it was not long ago that traditionalists would criticize sabers for concentrating too much on hitting and not looking at the whole game.  It's actually amusing that the two sides seemed to have reversed roles.

Of course there is more to this year's MVP argument than great hitter versus total player.  For example there are the usual discussions about how much team success matters and how much second half hitting should be weighted over the first half.  The old school and new school are generally split on those issues too, but they are really side notes to the central dispute being framed as triple crown stats versus WAR.

The result tonight will be viewed by many as a triumph for either traditionalists or sabermetricians more than a recognition of two amazing players with different skill sets with one ultimate award winner.  It's unfortunate that such a fascinating topic has become so narrow and unnecessarily contentious, but I suppose it's good that we care enough to keep talking about it.

So, who would you rather have on your team: Ted Williams or Willie Mays?       

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