Sports | What’s valuable, anyway?

New statistics shine light on age-old debate

Here we are again, with almost 162 games in the books. The daily grind of baseball’s regular season is over in a few weeks, and it’s time to start thinking about awards, specifically, the Most Valuable Player (MVP).  Since 1931, the Baseball Writers Association of America has chosen the winner of the award in each league, and almost every year, fans are outraged. What qualifies a player as an MVP? Is it the big round numbers? Do they carry his team on his back down the stretch? Do they win the Triple Crown? Do they hustle down the first baseline every time? The real question is, can we accurately quantify a player’s performance over a season – can we throw all the numbers into a formula and come out with a clear winner? This is what the emerging field of “sabermetrics,” the application of statistical analysis to baseball, attempts to find out. And the answer thus far has been: pretty much.

Widely considered to be the father of sabermetrics, Bill James pioneered the field in the late seventies with the Bill James Baseball Abstract. Since then, sabermetrics has attained widespread popularity and recognition. Many big league general managers and broadcasters now use advanced statistics in order to evaluate players, and perhaps no other statistic has had as much influence as Wins Above Replacement.

Commonly abbreviated as WAR, the stat attempts to summarize a baseball player’s entire performance into one number by measuring the value of a player in total team wins. It essentially asks, “If this player got injured and their team had to replace them with a minor leaguer or bench player, how many wins would the team lose?” The formula includes weighted values for hitting, defense, and base running while taking into account park factors and the difficulties of each defensive position. With the focus now shifting away from traditional counting stats such as wins, earned run average, batting average, and runs batted in (RBI), and toward advanced stats such as WAR, the players who win the MVP this year are going to be very different from the players who won it in years past.

For a good example of how the MVP has been traditionally decided, let’s go back to the 1995 season. Mo Vaughn is declared the American League (AL) MVP despite significantly under-producing Cleveland’s Albert Belle in almost every statistical category. If we take a look at the sabermetric stats under the hood, the picture gets even crazier. Vaughn’s WAR of 5.2 pales in comparison to Belle’s AL-topping 7.4 WAR – Vaughn didn’t even crack the top 15 in overall WAR that year. However, while WAR is good at measuring individual performance out of context, it is often unreliable when evaluating a player relative to the league, or relative to another player. The statistic Weighted Runs Created Plus”(wRC+) measures precisely how many runs a player has created relative to the league average of 100. For example, a 125 wRC+means a player created 25 per cent more runs than league average. In 1995, Mo Vaughn won the MVP with a wRC+ of 138 in the same year that Albert Belle posted a wRC+ of 174 – that’s a 36 per cent gap in run creation.

So, how did Belle create 36 per cent more runs than the league’s “most valuable player” and receive no recognition? For one, Belle’s surly personality and short temper earned him no love. He frequently attacked fans for shouting racial slurs and making light of his drinking problem. By the infamous 1995 season, his volatility had antagonized the media, who chalked up their MVP decision to “character.” Later, commenting on the MVP debate that year, Vaughn said, “People are looking at the whole thing, and that it’s not just numbers.” This is the common debate over the MVP – is it numbers, or numbers and intangible characteristics like leadership and character?

Will it be “not just numbers” this year? Can we throw things like character and leadership and hustle out the window now that we have shiny new stats like WAR and wRC+? Let’s take a look at the candidates.

The National League (NL) is basically a three-man race between San Francisco’s Buster Posey, Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen, and the defending MVP, Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun. While Braun’s bat is essentially keeping his team alive down the stretch, the Brewers are probably not going to make it into the postseason. Last winter’s performance enhancing drug allegations aren’t going to help either. As for McCutchen, he currently leads the NL with a .336 batting average.  Pittsburgh hasn’t played meaningful baseball in a month, though, and McCutchen’s MVP case just isn’t strong enough to push him over the top despite his NL-topping 7.9 WAR.

Posey will probably win the NL MVP this year. San Francisco has already clinched the NL West, and it has a lot to do with Posey.  As a team, the Giants offense has managed to post a slightly below average wRC+ of 98; Buster Posey owns a wRC+ of 158, an elite level of production rare at the catcher position. Posey has been the team’s biggest offensive weapon down the stretch. Since the All-Star break (and the suspension of Melky Cabrera, the team’s top producer), Posey has smacked 13 home runs, driven in 56, and maintained a .384 batting average. No doubt this scorching stretch will be fresh in voters’ minds as they cast their MVP ballots.

In the AL, rookie phenom Mike Trout of Anaheim has all but run away with the MVP Award, even with Miguel Cabrera’s impressive season for Detroit. Trout leads the majors with a massive 9..5 WAR – that’s as many wins as superstars Edwin Encarnación and Josh Hamilton have accumulated this year combined. Incredibly, Trout didn’t make his season debut until April 29th, almost a full month into the season. Prior to 2012, the 21-year-old only had forty major league at bats under his belt. By traditional statistics though, Trout’s season doesn’t look as traditionally MVP-worthy on paper. Miguel Cabrera has hit almost twice as many home runs as Trout, and leads him by wide margins in batting average and RBIs, and Cabrera has a chance to win the first Triple Crown since 1967.

However, WAR tells us a different story. Trout’s rare combination of power, speed, athleticism, and the ability to hit for average makes him a valuable contributor in every aspect of the game. He leads the majors with 47 stolen bases, makes spectacular catches in center field seem routine, his arm is a cannon, and his bat isn’t too shabby either. Superlatives aside, Mike Trout has been the life of Anaheim’s team since his debut, and even if Anaheim doesn’t make it into October, he deserves the AL MVP.