The Trout vs Cabrera MVP Battle Is Over, But The Argument Rages On

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Remember a player named Mike Blowers? He’s a broadcaster now for the Mariners and had a few relatively productive seasons for them in the mid-to-late-1990s. One season in particular stands out. In 1995, the Yankees castoff Blowers posted an .809 OPS with 23 homers and 96 RBI for a Mariners team that came back from 13 games out of first place in August to win the AL West. They bounced the Yankees in the ALDS coming back from 2 games to 0 down before losing to the Indians in 6 games in the ALCS.

That season, you will remember, was shortened by the strike, so Blowers only played in 134 games. Had it been a full schedule, he certainly would have driven in 110+ runs. On the surface, it looks like a solid season. But in reality, was it? Or were his RBI totals cushioned by big games? During that season, Blowers had games with RBI totals of: 8, 5, 5, 6, 4, 4, 4, and 7. Right there that’s 8 games out of 134 where he accumulated 43 of his 96 RBI. Add in that he spent the season batting behind Tino Martinez (.369 OBP); Jay Buhner (.343 OBP); Ken Griffey Jr. (.379 OBP); and Edgar Martinez (.479 OBP), and you wonder why he had so few RBI.

This isn’t to pick on Blowers as a random player, but it proves a point that any stat—not just the old-school ones such as RBI—can be torn apart when they’re examined in depth with an end in mind.

The debate between Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera for American League MVP still rages even though Cabrera was given the award. The Cabrera backers present the following case: he won the Triple Crown; his team won their division; the opposing pitchers said they feared Cabrera more than any other hitter in baseball. The Trout backers point to his 10.7 WAR; his defensive brilliance; his speed; his power; and that the Angels were 6-14 when he arrived and went 81-58 with him in the lineup.

None other than newfound political celebrity Nate Silver made his case for Trout on his Fivethirtyeight.com blog here. Along with the stats such as WAR, Silver uses Trout playing in a “harder division” and other bits of randomness to bolster his case, but it’s not as clear-cut as he implies, nor is Cabrera’s case as clear-cut as the other side implies.

You can use a phantom argument as a means of patting the non-stat people on the head by saying, “Look at their record with him in the lineup and without it,” as if it’s connected on its face. I picture Silver rolling his eyes and thinking, “Here, idiots. Here’s a simplistic number you can understand. Wins.” It’s done as a concession to convince. Because Silver drilled the presidential election doesn’t mean his opinion and calculations in baseball are unassailable. In fact, his history at predicting baseball with PECOTA is quite pedestrian even though it’s promoted for its accuracy. PECOTA is a formula. It’s math and math isn’t the determinative factor with baseball players that it clearly is in the political arena. There’s no variable and no analysis. It’s a sum and when it’s wrong, there’s always an excuse of the faults of human beings in not living up to what was expected.

Does that make it okay to be wrong? To suggest that they would’ve been right if X happened and Y didn’t? If (BLANK) great pitcher didn’t mistakenly groove a fastball to Cabrera so he could knock it into space? If (BLANK) mediocre pitcher didn’t throw the best curveball of his life to strike Trout out with the bases loaded?

If we begin with the premise that Trout’s presence was solely responsible for the Angels rise from that atrocious start, how do we figure where it began and when it ended? How about the acquisition of a reliever named Ernesto Frieri who stabilized the Angels’ atrocious bullpen after they’d demoted closer Jordan Walden? The Angels were 10-17 when they acquired Frieri. Is he suddenly the MVP because they were 79-56 with him on the roster? With the Angels talent—dysfunctional and infighting as it was—do you truly believe they were going to keep playing as badly as they started? The concept of a statistical formula like PECOTA would tell you that it wasn’t going to happen; that they’d get themselves straightened out with or without Trout, but that is conveniently glossed over to promote Trout as the MVP because of his “presence”. Did he show up with donuts every day? Did he smell really good to make the other players happy? The presence argument is fleeting and incalculable before or after it happens and is mitigated by both Cabrera and Trout having positive things said about them. Which is accurate and which isn’t? Which counts and which doesn’t?

The comparison of home runs that were hit to whether or not they would have left a different ballpark is questionable as well. The pitchers pitch differently in a bigger park than they do in a smaller one; they might be more willing to challenge a player like Trout knowing who’s batting behind him (a guy named Albert Pujols) and test the rookie rather than run the risk of putting runners on base for Pujols and the other Angels bashers. Everyone knows the numbers nowadays and applies them to a certain degree. With everyone knowing the numbers, the strategies pitching coaches impart to their catchers as a way of devising a gameplan are contingent on what the opposing lineup does with pitches in various locations. Unless everything—everything—is torn apart to examine when, where, how, and why, WAR or the Triple Crown cannot be the final arbiter of the MVP.

You can’t have it both ways. When lobbying for the Hall of Fame, you can’t say that a player like Ron Santo was far superior to Jim Rice because of his defensive greatness at third base, ballpark factors, and plain factional disputes of arguing for the sake of it and then criticize a Cabrera because he was a bad third baseman, simultaneously crediting Trout because he’s a great center fielder. Rice was playing half of his games in Fenway Park with the Green Monster—a spot more nuanced than reliant on speed and range. He was good at playing that wall. Also he was a prideful and somewhat misunderstood black man playing in Boston in the 1970s which put more pressure on him, pressure that can’t be examined through a statistical lens. Third base is a harder to fill position and, despite his defensive inadequacies, Cabrera was serviceable at the position considering the expectations. He made the routine plays, which was all he was asked to do.

Asked to do.

If you’re asked to do something at work, are you criticized because someone whose duties are totally different from yours; whose skills are in a different category; is working in a totally different department, does their job in a “better” way than you do by metrics that are not in line with one another? That can’t be in line with one another?

No. So why do it with Cabrera and Trout?

With that comes the inevitable question, not of replacing these players with a baseline, invisible Triple A player as WAR does, but with an actual person. The Tigers had no one viable to play third base to take over for Cabrera while the Angels could’ve cobbled it together without Trout had they stuck Peter Bourjos out there (a 4.8 WAR player in 2011) and hoped he reverted to what he was in 2011 after a terrible start in 2012. Does that matter?

This is a tribal debate with the stat people on one end jumping up and down for Trout while shouting about the “injustice” and the old-schoolers gloating that Cabrera won. No one’s going to change their minds. But if this is the way it’s going to be, then it shouldn’t be about the Triple Crown, WAR, team results, aura, or whatever. It should be completely dissected pitch-by-pitch, play-by-play, everything-by-everything. Then there will be a final answer. Until that happens, there will be this endless presentation of supposed facts twisted to suit the purposes of the one arguing, truth and willingness to listen irrelevant and ignored for the sake of the self.

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Zduriencik and the Mariners Are Free From the Shackles of Ichiro

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A window was opened into the reality of the Mariners’ relationship with Ichiro Suzuki when, right before Ichiro wound up being traded to the Yankees, GM Jack Zduriencik stated publicly and somewhat ludicrously that Ichiro was still a franchise player with the unsaid implication that, like it or not, Ichiro was staying with the team beyond his contract’s end at the conclusion of this season. Of course it was over the top, but no one knew that Ichiro had already asked to be traded. Given some of the strange and ethically questionable things Zduriencik has done as GM, there was a very real possibility that he was really going to end up keeping Ichiro beyond his current contract.

Former Mariners’ star Jay Buhner said he would vomit if the Mariners signed Ichiro to a contract extension. Buhner’s planned purge was rendered irrelevant when, in a shocking decision, Ichiro was traded to the Yankees for two moderately warm bodies and the Mariners were finally free of a player who had become an unproductive on-field presence, an off-field albatross, and a spike in the tires of progress to get better. Only people inside the organization know how much pressure from ownership has been exerted on Ichiro’s behalf and sabotaged anything the baseball people wanted to do. Zduriencik hasn’t shown the skills at subtly nudging his bosses in the direction he wants them to go. His reputation was sullied when he somehow managed to give the Yankees the moral high ground in a botched trade that would’ve sent Cliff Lee to the Yankees and backed out of it for what was supposedly a “better” package and got the recently demoted Justin Smoak and simultaneously acquired an accused sex offender Josh Lueke, then was accused of lying as to how much he was told by the Rangers about Lueke’s past. Now, with the way the team has played since Ichiro’s departure, that one deal might have Zduriencik’s job.

It’s absurdly simplistic and a post-trade cheap shot to say that the dumping of one player had this much of an influence on team fortunes especially when they got rid of him just to get rid of him and because he asked out, but players know the difference between someone who’s interested in himself and his own numbers and one who’s doing what he can to help the team win. It’s a fine but easily recognizable line—to a player—when there’s a goal of individualism masquerading as “helping the team” and actually helping the team. Could Ichiro have swung for a few more home runs? Yes. Could he have stolen some bases when it was important rather than to bolster his stolen base percentage? Absolutely. In short, as the team’s fortunes declined and they were in full-scale rebuild, it was known in February and March that the games were going to be meaningless by May and he had nothing to do but build up his Hall of Fame resume.

And that’s what he did.

The diva superstar is tolerated as long as he’s productive and bringing fans into the ballpark. The problem with Ichiro was that he was no longer productive, was making a lot of money, the team was not helped by his presence, and the Mariners are currently 11th in the American League in attendance. Fans will go to watch a loser for so long before finding other activities. They’ll go to the games if the loser is somewhat interesting, but the Mariners weren’t even that anymore. When he was accumulating 240 hits (most of them singles), but was stealing bases, playing great defense and there were power bats hitting behind him to drive him in after his singles, it was fine. But that’s not what the Mariners have been for most of the past decade. What you had was a player who still notched his singles, but no longer did it with the frequency he once did and saw his batting average decline. Since he rarely walks, along with the batting average decline so went his on base percentage. This is not an indictment of Ichiro’s amazing on-field skills, but a legitimate criticism of his application of those skills. He misused his talents in a team sense.

In his final few years as a Mariner, he was essentially useless to them. There’s nothing worse than a fading star who still exerts power over the organization based on what he was. Ichiro’s looming presence had hindered the Mariners for so long that he was entwined with anything the team did or didn’t do. It had gotten to the point where Ichiro was called “great” because he was supposed to be called “great” and if anyone dared imply that he wasn’t a team player or wasn’t as good as his stat compiling suggested, they were chased from the town by a bat-wielding mob. The Mariners are 8-2 since Ichiro was dispatched. That’s more of a function of playing the bad Royals and the mediocre Blue Jays, but wins are wins. There are things for which Zduriencik deserves to be held accountable like the Lueke/Smoak deal and Chone Figgins’s contract, but given the clear interference from ownership with Ichiro and Ken Griffey Jr., perhaps he deserves one more winter and at least half of 2013 to try and get it right without Ichiro and Ichiro’s reputation and relationship with ownership standing in the way.

Ichiro was harming the team’s attempts to get better, but his request for a trade may have saved the GMs job, for awhile at least. What Zduriencik does with the freedom from the shackles of Ichiro will determine his long-term prospects for staying and winning in Seattle, but at least there’s not that shadow hovering over the franchise as he tries to do it.

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Ken Phelps is a Punchline of Circumstance

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In today’s NY Times, Tyler Kepner discusses the maneuvers the Yankees made on Friday night in acquiring Michael Pineda from the Mariners via trade and signing Hiroki Kuroda to a 1-year, $10 million contract.

Because the Yankees traded one of their top prospects, catcher Jesus Montero, there is concern that Montero will eventually become a historic mistake. Kepner writes:

Years from now, the trade could be a punch line on some latter version of “Seinfeld,” if Montero slugs like Jay Buhner and Pineda fizzles like Ken Phelps.

Phelps is considered the epitome of Steinbrennerean stupidity because the Yankees traded a young prospect who became a feared power hitter and Phelps was a recognizable and unneeded name the Yankees added as they were in the midst of a mid-season shakeup that resulted in Billy Martin being fired (again) and replaced by Lou Piniella.

When the trade was made on July 21st, the Yankees were only 2 games out of first place. Phelps would’ve been a help if they’d needed him at all.

But that’s the problem.

The Yankees didn’t need Phelps—they had Jack Clark as their DH and Don Mattingly as their first baseman—and Phelps only had 145 plate appearances from his acquisition through the end of the season. Unsurprisingly, Phelps hit 10 homers in those 145 plate appearances. The team wound up in 5th place in the AL East and Piniella was fired at the end of the season as well.

What was ironic about the Phelps acquisition isn’t that Buhner became a star with the Mariners or that the Yankees didn’t use Phelps correctly, but that Piniella was Buhner’s manager with the Mariners from 1993 on and benefited from that trade as Buhner was a producer on the field and a fiery leader off it.

The Yankees continued their charade with a parade of managers, GMs and “strategies” that didn’t work. Only when Steinbrenner was suspended and Gene Michael was able to build the team correctly did the team regenerate itself to what they are today.

But what of Phelps?

Is he a punchline?

In looking at his numbers, Phelps’s biggest obstacle was the era in which he played. As simplistic as the George Steinbrenner method of finding players was, in this case he was right—Phelps hit a lot of home runs in relatively few at bats—but Phelps was caught in the Yankees turmoil and that there were 12 hitters who deserved a place in a lineup with only 9 spots.

The value of a player who had power and walked a lot was yet to be widely understood, therefore he was pigeonholed as a poor defender who couldn’t hit lefties and didn’t deserve a chance to play more than he did.

Phelps was a prototypically perfect DH, but never played in more than 125 games for one season in his career.

Not surprisingly in those 125 games, he hit 24 homers, had a .406 on base percentage and .526 slugging.

Had anyone recognized what Phelps was and given him an opportunity to play regularly, there’s no reason he couldn’t have been a David Ortiz-type who got better hitting against lefties the more he faced them. In addition to that for a power hitter, Phelps rarely struck out.

If he were playing today, Phelps would be a slugging bat in the middle of the lineup for a contending American League team like the Red Sox or Yankees and have a lucrative, long-term contract. Instead, he’s used as an example of a mistake the Yankees made in 1988. But the mistake wasn’t in trading for him. The mistake was in not telling him he was going to be in the lineup every single day when he got to the park. If that had been done, he’d have been more than a joke for something out of his control, a joke because of the player he was traded for.

He exemplifies a Yankees mistake, but for the wrong reasons.

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