The Big One: Trout vs Cabrera for AL MVP

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Exemplifying the polarization of old schoolers vs stat guys, Mike Trout vs Miguel Cabrera for the Most Valuable Player has become a territorial tug-of-war for the hearts and minds of the rank-and-file baseball fan. What’s missed amid the visceral anger, grumpy tantrums, and condescending pomposity is that the MVP is not the WAR (Wins Above Replacement) Award; nor is it the Triple Crown Award. There are criteria for the voter to follow when selecting his MVP and they follow (taken directly from the Baseball Writers Association website):

Dear Voter:

There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.

The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:

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.

You are also urged to give serious consideration to all your selections, from 1 to 10. A 10th-place vote can influence the outcome of an election. You must fill in all 10 places on your ballot. Only regular-season performances are to be taken into consideration.

Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters.

This leaves such room for interpretation that it’s inevitable that stat guys whose lives are based in WAR (baseball’s version of the military industrial complex) are going to ignore any dissenters as to other factors and look at WAR and WAR alone to make their decision. It’s also inevitable that the voters will do what they want regardless of said criteria and, as George A. King III did in 1999, will omit a deserved candidate (in this case Pedro Martinez) due to ludicrous partisanship disguised as an epiphany.

Murray Chass rants about what Chass rants about; Mike Francesa demands to “see” the number of catches Trout made to increase his defensive value past Cabrera’s offensive numbers; Jeff Passan shakes his head disapprovingly with a disconsolate, “I think that’s sad” that he thinks Cabrera’s going to win; Keith Law tweets in Latin.

Chaos ensues.

None of this helps. If anything, it forces the open-minded to pick a side among the entrenched with few understanding exactly what they’re advocating or why. The proper method to convince the undecided (or even the decided) is to provide a cogent, understandable, and palatable point-of-view without rancor, arrogance, or perception of force. The argument has to be shifted from where it is to where it should be.

So let’s examine the MVP race in the American League and decide who should win. I’ll play Abraham Lincoln to provide the foundation to end this destructive and pointless civil war.

WAR vs the Triple Crown

I listed the players in MLB history who have won the Triple Crown and whether or not they won the MVP here, along with the circumstances of their winning or losing the award.

The Triple Crown is not the deciding factor for the MVP. It is part of the decisionmaking process and has to be placed into proper context. The same can be said for WAR. WAR is a formula designed to evaluate how much better an individual player is than the baseline Triple A player that you can find anywhere for nothing—basically, a ham-and-egger—and it adds in defense, baserunning, and offense. Based on WAR, Trout (10.7) is the MVP over Cabrera (6.9). But it’s not that simple.

That the feat of winning the Triple Crown hasn’t been accomplished in 45 years does matter. Cabrera’s offensive slash line was .330/.393/.606 with an OPS of .999 (leading the majors), and an OPS+ of 165. Trout’s slash line was .326/.399/.564 with an OPS of .963 and an AL leading OPS+ of 171. Cabrera hit 44 homers; Trout 30. Cabrera isn’t a baserunner; Trout is a great baserunner who stole 49 bases in 54 attempts. Trout’s presence is seen as having saved the Angels’ disappointing season from an utter disaster as he arrived with the club at 6-14 and immediately provided a cleansing spark to a toxic atmosphere. Cabrera was the linchpin of the Tigers offense.

Calculating the OPS is also misleading because Cabrera’s walk total declined from 108 in 2011 to 66 in 2012 because he had Prince Fielder hitting behind him. Cabrera doesn’t strike out (98); Trout does (139). Cabrera is a double play machine (28 to lead the majors); Trout grounded into 7.

Where does the dissection stop and the diagnosis begin?

Because Cabrera had Fielder hitting behind him, his old-school offensive stats were bolstered as teams had to pitch to him, and hindered as his new-school stat of OPS was lowered because he walked 42 fewer times. Had he walked 20 more times in 2012, how much would that have increased his OPS and decreased his RBI/HR totals? We don’t know because, like WAR, it’s speculative.

Trout’s WAR was driven up by his defense and speed; Cabrera’s was dropped because he didn’t add anything on the bases and was a below average defender. Does that tally up to Cabrera being deprived of the award?

Defense, speed, credit, and punishment

Did Muhammad Ali become the legend he is because he was great at beating on a punching bag? No. It was because of his work in the ring. Taking points away from Cabrera because of his poor defense at third base is the same thing. He’s not a good third baseman and Trout is a great defensive center fielder. Is it fair to punish Cabrera because of what he can’t do? It’s like refusing a great novelist the Pulitzer because he’s not a poet; depriving an actor the Oscar because he can’t sing. Why should he have to justify what he can’t do and have it reduce the impressiveness of what he did do?

Cabrera was the epitome of the team player by accepting the shift to third base to accommodate Fielder and losing weight to improve his range. Not every star-level player of Cabrera’s caliber would do that. When he got hit in the face by a ground ball in spring training, the easiest thing for Cabrera to do would have been to toss his infielder’s glove on manager Jim Leyland’s desk and say he’s not going back there—and he could’ve done that and gotten away with it putting the team in an awful position right before the season started. But he didn’t. He moved to third to help the team and, defensive metrics aside, was actually far better than anyone could have expected given that he hadn’t played the position in five years.

Does he get credit for that?

Trout’s defense is absolutely a factor in the MVP voting, but calculating the runs he supposedly saved statistically is ignoring the number of runs the Tigers added by their addition of Fielder and Cabrera’s selflessness in moving to a position he wasn’t good at playing to accommodate that signing. Does WAR account for the team-oriented move? No. Because it can’t since it’s not a number in a calculator.

Much like depriving a pitcher of the MVP because he’s a pitcher, you cannot logically take away the MVP from Cabrera because Trout had a higher WAR due to his basestealing and defense when, at the plate, Cabrera was the bigger threat.

Team results

Where would the Tigers have been without Cabrera?

Where would the Angels have been without Trout?

The Tigers would have been in the situation where they had to find a third baseman and a middle of the lineup masher to replace what they would not have had without Cabrera. Could they have done that? And where would they have finished in the AL Central without Cabrera?

They could, I suppose, have traded for the available at the time Chase Headley or could have made the Mets an offer they couldn’t refuse for David Wright, but that would’ve gutted the system of the players they eventually used to land Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante, effectively rendering their acquisitions as a net loss. The Tigers would not have made the playoffs without Cabrera, Sanchez, and Infante.

And the Angels?

They were 6-14 when Trout was recalled in what was labeled as a desperation move for a fractured and shocked team and the Angels went 81-58 with him in the lineup. Would they have righted the ship without him in time to end up at 89-73 and out of the playoffs? Given the star power of the club, their pitching, and willingness to make mid-season deals for the likes of Zack Greinke, it’s not much to expect that team—without Trout—to have righted their ship to the mediocre degree that they did. Trout is given the credit for the club getting straight, but they probably would’ve gotten straight anyway and finished in third place with Trout or anyone in center field.

The “value to the team” argument goes to Cabrera because his team made the playoffs and Trout’s didn’t and because the Tigers had no options at third base and the Angels did in center field.

The winner

This is a landmark case in the extreme wings of baseball. Extremities win on occasion, but for the most part, it’s nuance that rules not by force and not by transformative thinking, but by reason and reality. And by reason and reality, the AL MVP is the Triple Crown winner, Miguel Cabrera.

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Managers Traded For Players

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To the best of my research, managers have been traded six times in baseball history. It wasn’t always player for manager and the criticism the Red Sox are receiving for trading infielder Mike Aviles for righty pitcher David Carpenter and the rights to speak to John Farrell is stereotypical and silly. With it only having happened six times, it’s not a large enough sample size to say it’s not going to work. Also, history has proven that if a manager doesn’t work out in other spots, he might in another. Casey Stengel had one winning season (and that was only 2 games over .500) in nine years as a manager with the Braves and Dodgers before going down to the minor leagues between 1944 and 1948 where he had success he’d never had in the big leagues. The Yankees hired him in 1949 and he won 7 championships and 10 pennants in 12 years.

Here are the manager trades.

Jimmy Dykes for Joe Gordon—August 3, 1960

The genesis of this trade was originally a joke between Tigers’ GM Bill DeWitt and Indians’ GM Frank Lane, but as their teams faded they basically said, “Why not?”

Gordon was managing the Indians and Dykes the Tigers when they were traded for one another. Dykes was 63 when the trade was made and had never finished higher than third place while managing the White Sox, Athletics, Orioles, Reds, and Tigers. At the time of the trade, the Tigers record was 44-52 and they were in sixth place in the American League. Gordon’s Indians were 49-46 and in fourth place.

Interestingly, Dykes was the second Philadelphia Athletics manager in their history after Connie Mack was running things from 1901-1950.

Gordon has been popping up as a background performer in other dramas recently. As the debate regarding the American League MVP between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout reached a critical mass in the waning days of the regular season, Cabrera’s Triple Crown was a point of contention as it was stacked up against Trout’s higher WAR, superior defense, and perceived overall larger contribution. The Hall of Famer Gordon won the MVP in 1942 while playing for the Yankees over Ted Williams even though Williams won the Triple Crown. You can read about that and other MVP/Triple Crown controversies here.

Gordon had a contract to manage the Tigers for 1961, but asked for his release and it was granted so he could take over the Kansas City A’s where his former GM with the Indians, Lane, was the new GM under the A’s new owner Charlie Finley.

Do you need a family tree yet?

Gordon had a contract with the A’s through 1962, but was fired with the team at 26-33. He was replaced by Hank Bauer. This was long before anyone knew who or what Finley was. Gordon was only 46 at the time of his firing by the A’s, but only managed again in 1969 with the expansion Kansas City Royals. (Finley had moved the A’s to Oakland in 1968.) Gordon’s 1969 Royals went 69-93 and he stepped down after the season. On that 1969 Royals team was a hotheaded 25-year-old who won Rookie of the Year and was, as a manager, traded for a player—Lou Piniella.

Now you do need a family tree.

Dykes managed the Indians in 1961. They finished in fifth place with a 78-83 record and that was his last season, at age 64, as a big league manager.

Gil Hodges for Bill Denehy and $100,000

The Mets traded the right handed pitcher Denehy to the Senators for the rights to their manager Hodges. Hodges was a New York legend from his days with the Dodgers and, despite his poor record with the Senators (321-444), they had improved incrementally under his watch. The most important quality Hodges had was that the players were afraid of him and he didn’t take a load of crap. That they had a bushel of young pitching including Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Nolan Ryan helped as well. That not taking crap facet might help Farrell with the Red Sox if they have the talent to contend—and right now, they don’t.

Chuck Tanner for Manny Sanguillen, November 5, 1976

Here was Charlie Finley again, still owner of the A’s, but with three World Series wins in his pocket and free agency and housecleaning trades decimating his team of Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter and in the future Joe Rudi, Rollie Fingers, Vida Blue, and others. Finley wasn’t kind to his managers, but he won anyway. When the Yankees tried to hire Dick Williams while Williams was under contract after having resigned from the A’s after the 1973 World Series win, Finley demanded the Yankees top prospects Otto Velez and Scott McGregor. The Yankees hired Bill Virdon instead and then Billy Martin. George Steinbrenner always used his friendly relationship with Williams as a weapon to torment Martin.

I find fascinating the way perceptions cloud reality. Finley was thought to be ruthless and borderline cruel with the way he treated his managers, but he was also a brilliant and innovative marketer who’s rarely gotten the credit for being the shrewd judge of baseball talent he was. On the other hand, an executive like Lou Lamoriello of the New Jersey Devils hockey club has made (by my count) 19 coaching changes in his 25 years with the team. Several of the changes have been recycle jobs of bringing back men he’d fired or who’d stepped down; twice he changed coaches right before the playoffs started and replaced them with…Lou Lamoriello. Because he’s won three Stanley Cups and lost in the Finals two other times, he’s gotten away with it.

The Tanner trade came about because the Pirates needed someone to take over for longtime Pirates’ manager Danny Murtaugh and Tanner had a reputation for being relentlessly positive, well-liked, and solid strategically. He was also said to be strong as an ox so if a player did mess with him, it was a mistake.

Tanner was an inspired hire because that Pirates’ team had strong clubhouse personalities Willie Stargell and Dave Parker and the last thing they needed was for a new manager to come storming in and throwing things. Tanner and the Pirates won the World Series in 1979. The team came apart under Tanner’s watch, but they got old and had little talent to speak of until the end of his tenure in 1985. He was replaced by Jim Leyland.

Sanguillen still threw well from behind the plate at age 33 and spent one season with the A’s, playing serviceably, before being dealt back to the Pirates prior to the 1978 season.

Lou Piniella and Antonio Perez for Randy Winn—October 28, 2002

Like the David Carpenter for Aviles trade by the Red Sox (or the Chris Carpenter for the rights for Theo Epstein—what is it with players named Carpenter and the Red Sox?), the players were secondary to the rights to speak to and hire the still-under-contract managers. Piniella had resigned as the Mariners’ manager after ten successful years and want to go to the Mets who had just fired Bobby Valentine. This is more family tree fodder since Valentine was the consolation hire the Red Sox made a year ago after failing to acquiesce to the Blue Jays’ demands to speak to Farrell. It didn’t work out.

The Mets were in disarray, GM Steve Phillips absolutely did not want Piniella for the same reasons Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman didn’t want Piniella when it was rumored he was going to replace Joe Torre after 2006—he would be uncontrollable.

It was said by the likes of Peter Gammons that the Piniella to the Mets deal would eventually get done. Of course it was nonsense. The Mariners were annoyed at Piniella and weren’t going to reward him with going to his location of choice unless they were heavily compensated. They asked the Mets for Jose Reyes knowing the Mets would say no. The Mets hired Art Howe instead.

Piniella had nowhere to go aside from the Devil Rays and, while in retrospect, he should’ve sat out a year and waited for his contract to expire, he wanted to manage and the opportunity to be close to his home appealed to him regardless of the state of the Devil Rays. Promises were made that the team would spend money and Piniella—unlike Farrell—had the cachet to squawk publicly about it when the promise was reneged upon. Owner Vince Naimoli hoped the fans would come out to see a manager manage in spite of the players and, of course, they didn’t. For Piniella’s rights and journeyman infielder Antonio Perez, they traded their best player at the time, Winn. Winn had a solid big league career and the Devil Rays would’ve been better off trading him for players rather than a manager, but judging by how the team was run at the time, they wouldn’t have accrued much more value from the players they would’ve gotten than they did from Piniella. Maybe they sold a few extra seats because Piniella was there, so what’s the difference?

Piniella spent three years there losing over 90 games in each before leaving. He took over the Cubs in 2007.

Ozzie Guillen and Ricardo Andres for Jhan Marinez and Osvaldo Martinez

The Marlins had their eye on Guillen going back years. He was a coach on their 2003 World Series winning team and had won a title of his own with the White Sox in 2005. Looking to bring a Spanish-speaking, “name” manager to buttress their winter 2011-2012 spending spree and fill their beautiful new ballpark, Guillen was still under contract with the White Sox. But the White Sox had had enough of Guillen’s antics and wanted him gone. The Marlins traded Martinez and Marinez to the White Sox to get Guillen and signed him to a 4-year contract.

The Marlins were a top-to-bottom disaster due in no small part to Guillen immediately drawing the ire of a large portion of the Marlins’ hoped-for fanbase by proclaiming his love for Fidel Castro. Guillen was suspended as manager by the club. That can’t be blamed for the Marlins’ atrocious season. They played brilliantly in May after the incident, but incrementally came apart amid infighting and poor performance.

It’s been rumored that Guillen might be fired, but if the Marlins were going to do it, they would’ve done it already. Trading Heath Bell—one of Guillen’s main agitators in the clubhouse—is a signal that Guillen will at least get a chance to start the 2013 season with a different cast of players. Since it’s Guillen, he’s absolutely going to say something stupid sooner rather than later and force owner Jeffrey Loria to fire him.

Free from Guillen’s lunacy and with a new, laid-back manager Robin Ventura, the White Sox overachieved and were in contention for the AL Central title before a late-season swoon did them in.

I discussed the Farrell deal yesterday here. He’s who the Red Sox wanted, he’s who the Red Sox got. Surrendering Aviles isn’t insignificant, but everyone in Boston appears to be on the same page when it comes to the manager.

Whether it works or not will have no connection to the past deals of this kind and if a team wants a particular person to manage their team, it’s their right to make a trade to get it done. Criticizing the Red Sox on anyone else for the hire itself is fine, but for the steps they took to do it? No. Because Farrell is the man they wanted and now he’s the man they got. For better or worse.

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