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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The Astros Experiment In Baseball Engineering

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When the Astros offered Tim Bogar a job to be their new bench coach, Bogar turned it down because the deal included a clause that he couldn’t interview for managerial jobs elsewhere. When discussing this somewhat odd demand, Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow said he didn’t comment on “human resource issues”.

Never before have I heard the words “human resources” referenced in a baseball context, especially by the GM.

This exemplifies the different tack the Astros are taking in rebuilding their club from what amounts to a moribund and barren expansion team. It’s an experiment in baseball engineering that continues from the hiring of Luhnow to the naming of a Baseball Prospectus writer Kevin Goldstein as their pro scouting coordinator, to the unique title they anointed on Sig Mejdal as “Director of Decision Sciences”. Yesterday, they continued the trend of loading their front office with the highly educated when they hired Harvard graduate David Stearns as assistant GM. Whether or not it works will be known only in retrospect, but it strikes me as a reinvention of the wheel. Because Luhnow is so immersed in data crunching, is beloved by stat people for his supposed success in building the Cardinals minor league system into the pipeline for talent, and is running such a horrific and mostly talentless organization, he’s receive carte blanche from owner Jim Crane to do what he wants.

The credit for the Cardinals is a shaky premise at best. Luhnow’s entry into baseball was rocky and stemmed from Bill DeWitt’s desire to recreate the club in the Moneyball image. The insertion of a total outsider who’d come from the corporate world was not taken well by the old-school baseball men in the Cardinals organization and eventually sowed the seeds for Walt Jocketty’s firing and Tony LaRussa’s sharp-elbowed infighting in which the future Hall of Fame manager won the power struggle. It’s easily glossed over that Luhnow was stripped of his power after the 2010 season. I wrote of Luhnow’s drafts in this posting immediately after he got the Astros job. The truth about anyone’s drafts is that there are so many factors that go into a player’s development that blaming Luhnow for Colby Rasmus or crediting him for Allen Craig is a partisan attempt on the part of the analyst depending on his beliefs. Supporters will say that Rasmus is a talent who was mishandled by LaRussa, critics will say that Rasmus is badly overrated. The credit/blame game can go on forever. But now Luhnow’s in charge of the Astros and he’s implementing what he believes. It’s admirable, but admiration doesn’t mean it’s going to succeed.

Does Goldstein have the qualifications to do the job for which he was hired? Is there a joint appraisal process in effect and if the scouts disagree with what the numbers say, who breaks the tie and how does he do it? Goldstein comes from Baseball Prospectus which, like the Ivy League, has become a mill for baseball front offices and in the media. BP has a tendency (if you read the back of their annuals) to relentlessly promote what they got right. “Look, we nailed this, that and the other thing” is a selling point without mentioning what they got wrong as if it was a matter of circumstance and if the players, managers, or front office people had done what they were expected to do, the numbers would’ve played out as correct. It’s a wonderful world to live in in which there’s no possibility of being defined wrong due to a constant shifting of the goalposts after the fact to make oneself right.

I’ve had people credit me for being right about the Red Sox pending disaster (I had them at 81-81; no one could’ve predicted 69-93) with Bobby Valentine and am quick to point out that I also picked the 98-loss Colorado Rockies to the win the NL West. To me, it gives more credibility to embrace the negative and understand why it happened and learn from it to be more accurate the next time.

There is no “way” to build a team nor to make accurate projections in a sport. Nate Silver has had his reputation launched into the stratosphere because of his brilliant and right-on-the-money work with predicting the Presidential election on Fivethirtyeight.com. Inexplicably, that has morphed into a validation of his PECOTA baseball system of predictions, but it’s comparing the Earth to Neptune. There’s no connection. Baseball is not politics and in spite of the different algorithms used to come to the results, it’s easier to calculate a voting bloc than it is to determine how Bryce Harper or Mike Trout are going to function as big leaguers; how the Red Sox players would react to Valentine.

Keeping on the political theme, what we’ve seen recently is baseball’s extreme left wing and extreme right wing grapple for a proximate cause as to why the Giants have won two of the past three World Series. Questions and assertions are popping up as to whether Giants GM Brian Sabean’s old-school sensibility and management style signaled the “end” of Moneyball or if Moneyball is still the “way”. Both premises are ridiculous. Assuming that the Giants’ championships discredit Moneyball is presuming that Moneyball was a solidly researched and accurate foundation to begin with instead of a fictionalized and twisted story that was crafted by a skillful and self-indulgent mythmaker, Michael Lewis.

Moneyball was never an actual “thing,” therefore it’s not something that had to be proven wrong because it wasn’t right in the first place.

On the other side, this piece on HardballTalk discusses a stat guy in the Giants’ front office named Yeshayah Goldfarb. The posting lavishes praise on Goldfarb and doubles as an apparent repudiation of anyone who dare question the value of Moneyball and numbers. It’s written that Goldfarb influenced the Giants acquiring and keeping the likes of Javier Lopez and Juan Uribe for the 2010 club.

Lopez? They needed a stat guy to suggest they trade for a sidearming lefty? They got Lopez from the Pirates who was only a Pirate because, in 2009, he was horrendous for another stat based club with the Red Sox and allowed to leave as a free agent where no team other than the Pirates made him a decent offer.

But the stat guy knew!!

Um…no.

The truth is it had nothing to do with numbers. It had to do with Lopez being a breathing left-handed pitcher. Nothing more. If Tony Fossas at 55(?) years old chose to make a comeback, there would be a team to have a look at him because he’s lefty. Period. And Uribe? Really? So the Giants had a brilliant group of numbers people who advised them to keep Uribe in 2010 and he became a post-season hero, but the non-stat based Dodgers signed Uribe after that season, he’s been a disaster, and Ned Colletti’s an idiot? Goldfarb also gets credit for Tim Lincecum and Buster Posey, yet no one other than a Jewish weekly knew who he was. Amazing. Is that how it works?

No. It’s not how it works in any manner other than looking back at what occurred and finding “reasons” to bolster one’s position. The “Yeah, we’re in!!!” aspect of Moneyball still lives as the front offices are infested with people who didn’t play baseball, but have calculations and college degrees to get them in and become the new age hires. But much like Moneyball and the Giants, there’s a clutching at credit for floating principles that can’t be quantified. If the Astros are in the playoffs in 2-3 years, there will be an explanation for it, but the bickering factions will use their own methodology to determine what it is—both might be right, both might be wrong and neither side will admit it.

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What Jeremy Lin Can Teach Us

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Everyone’s jumping on the Jeremy Lin bandwagon.

Hey, even I’m doing it and I don’t know anything about basketball and can’t watch the games because of the ongoing dispute between Time Warner and MSG.

If I could, I wouldn’t know what I was watching and wouldn’t claim to.

But there are two pieces in today’s NY Times that are discussing Lin’s rise from obscurity, journeyman status, the Ivy League, bad scouting and possibly a bit of stereotyping because he’s of Asian-American descent (by way of Northern California). He’s not a prototypical basketball player who’s easy to explain with buzzwords. Those buzzwords are phrased in such a way that few are willing to dispute them because they’re so encompassing and easy to use as adjectives whether they’re meaningful or not.

In one piece, Lin’s failure to attract attention as a high school and college player is discussed—link.

In the other, Nate Silver dissects Lin statistically—link.

The mistakes that were made with Lin are common and happen not just in sports but in all endeavors.

The words “can’t” and “never been done before” are limiting and hinder those with the ability to accomplish their goals. They’re exacerbated if the individual is saddled with an absence of self-confidence or determination to keep moving forward in the face of such negativity. Because Lin continued to try and wasn’t looking for the validation of others to let him think he had a chance to succeed, he hung around and when he received his opportunity, ran with it while holding and passing and shooting a basketball—very well by the looks of things.

In baseball this happens all the time as well.

How many times have we seen a player who wasn’t considered a prospect because of ingrained beliefs that were more of a safety net than legitimate analysis?

People want to keep their jobs and a major part of that for a conventional organization is playing it safe and having an explanation for why they do what they do.

“He had a 100-mph fastball.”

“He’s a 6’3”, 190 pound righty with a clean motion and great upside.”

“He’s a tools guy.”

They’re excuses.

One of the reasons Moneyball struck such a nerve wasn’t that it seemed to work for awhile, but because the players who would’ve been shunned in the past were given an opportunity out of the A’s desperation to find players who could help them at an affordable price. What went wrong was when the concept spun out of control to mean, as a baseline, that rather than looking for players who could play, everyone was supposed to find fat players who took a lot of pitches and drew walks at the expense of other attributes.

The infamous, “not trying to sell jeans” catchphrase became part of the lexicon to explain why a player was taken and it took on the same context of the opposite “reasons” (excuses) listed above.

Old school and new school became interchangeable in stupidity, self-aggrandizement and tribalism.

Suddenly, everyone who could calculate a player’s on base percentage or strikeout rate in the minors was qualified to advise Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre on how to run their teams.

And they did.

And it didn’t go well.

It’s happened repeatedly in baseball that a player like Tim Lincecum was passed over because of his uniqueness of motion, training and diminutive stature, but became a star because there was one team—the Giants—willing to adhere to the rules laid out by Lincecum’s father and judged him by his results rather than that he’s a “freak”.

Lesser known players have benefited from this phenomenon.

Mike Jacobs isn’t a great player, but he was a non-prospect for the Mets and wound up with a decent career because he was called up as an emergency catcher in 1995, batted as a pinch hitter on a Sunday game in which the Mets were losing, hit a home run and had to have Pedro Martinez stand up for him for the Mets to keep him around rather than send him back to the minors. The Mets put him in the lineup at first base and he kept hitting home runs.

Jacobs went from a 38th round pick and “organizational filler” to a big leaguer that was the centerpiece in the Mets acquisition of Carlos Delgado from the Marlins after the 2005 season.

Jacobs hit 100 homers in his big league career and is still hanging around as an extra player who’s been in the big leagues, can hit the ball out of the park once in a while and be a competent bench player who can catch in an emergency. (He’s going to camp with the Diamondbacks on a minor league contract.)

Martinez himself had been misjudged by then-Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda and the team doctors as too small and fragile to be a durable and consistent long-term starting pitcher. He was a reliever as a rookie and was traded for Delino DeShields following the 1993 season.

DeShields happened to be a good player, but he was traded for one of the best pitchers in history and that’s not his fault.

The lack of comprehension surrounding Moneyball and its subsequent offshoots isn’t that people didn’t “get” what Michael Lewis was trying to highlight, but that they took it as the new way of running a club at the expense of old-school scouting techniques and gut instincts that have to be part of the game.

Because they had a bunch of players who would be keys to a “Rocky”-style story with “There’s a Place for Us” by Barbra Streisand playing in the background as the group of misfits—one with a clubfoot (Jim Mecir); one throwing slow underarm junk (Chad Bradford); a former star on his way out (David Justice); and a former catcher who couldn’t throw and never had a chance to play (Scott Hatteberg); along with the fat players they drafted—celebrated a championship and shoved it into the faces of the big kids who never let them play.

They never won a championship, but that’s secondary to the perception and salesmanship.

Lin is getting attention now; there are going to be Lin jerseys popping up all over the place and he’s the toast of New York as an inspiration to those who are waiting for their chance and won’t quit.

He’s also going to have a lot of people who bypassed him contacting him to apologize, admit they were wrong, asking for things or hoping for Lin to say, “it’s okay, you’re not an idiot”.

But what if they are idiots? What if they are so dogmatic and invested in safety-first drafting/signing that they ignored what was right in front of their faces and are under siege because of that?

Is there a stat for scouts and executives screwing up and missing on players that could actually play, but weren’t allowed to for one reason or another?

If not, there should be one because there are Jeremy Lins everywhere waiting for someone in power to take a chance on them. There are opportunities to come up big if a team is smart or lucky or both. It all depends on who’s smart enough, gutsy enough or desperate enough to give those players that chance.

It’s random, but it counts all the same.

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Count Along With Nate

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Nate Silver created PECOTA (for better or worse) and has expanded his statistical analysis into politics (he’s quite good at it) on fivethirtyeight.com and the Oscars (I don’t pay attention because I don’t care).

He also writes the occasional piece for the NY Times Magazine in which he counts stuff and calculates such things as the likelihood of a bar hookup (seriously) and in which country you’re going to get the best service in hotels, restaurants and other potential gratuity-based places of employment as he did in this week’s issue.

I understand the purpose of counting as they do in the PECOTA system of predictions, but as I’ve said numerous times, counting and calculating based on history and “projections” is not analysis. People are not boiled down to their statistical parts in any endeavor and there’s little-to-no accountability when it’s wrong. It’s chalked up to a player not “achieving his regular production”.

How is that an understanding of baseball?

In the Times piece, Silver discusses whether or not a patron will get better service in a country—like Japan—where a tip is unwanted. In Japan, good service is a matter of pride. In the United States tipping is expected and accounts for a vast chunk of the salaries of the employees.

The study is taken out of context—just like PECOTA.

In many areas of Europe, waiting tables in a restaurant is a salaried job in which people go to school to learn to do it properly; in the United States, in most casual establishments, that’s not customary. In fact, the hourly wages are minimal with only the promise of tips making it worthwhile.

All it takes is a little common sense—without counting things ad nauseam—to determine that you’re going to get better service in a place where employees are hoping to get a good tip or, as stated before, in Japan where there’s a matter of personal pride in their work to do a good job and shame to do a bad job.

Similar to the frequently denied free agent year boost, it happens regardless of any widespread numerical evidence. Jose Reyes is one such player who’s having his best year as he’s about to enter free agency. Another individual, Albert Pujols, is having a down year (for him) as he’s heading toward free agency.

The conclusion goes as follows:

All of this brings us to the Tipping Curve. If servers expect a generous gratuity, there is a strong economic incentive for them to do superior work. And if they expect nothing at all, good service is taken completely out of the economic context and becomes a matter of custom. But when countries try to split the difference or if they introduce confusing rules into the system, their servers are more likely to leave customers dissatisfied.

In other words, you don’t know what you’re going to get when there’s a wide range of possibilities as to the compensation for a job done well or poorly.

No kidding.

Like PECOTA, comparing individuals to the masses and making broad-based statements without accounting for the deviations doesn’t tell the whole story—in any case.

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