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Carroll County Times

Commentary: Stat geeks, hard(ball)headed traditionalists as bad as Dems, Republicans

Ever since the ballots were tallied, the vainglorious winning side's been taunting like a wide receiver after a first down catch and the losing side's been in tantrum mode, decrying the system and ripping anyone who didn't vote for their guy.

No, this isn't about the election, Democrats or Republicans, though that describes them pretty well, too. It's about two even more polarized groups.

Miguel Cabrera being named American League MVP over Mike Trout has ignited a holy war between new-school, progressive stat geeks known as sabermetricians and old-school, hard(ball)headed traditionalists who think nothing good has happened since Mickey Mantle was in center field by day, Toots Shor's by night.

Not surprisingly, those who favor only "advanced" statistics are disgusted that their guy, Trout, lost out. Their main argument? Trout's incredible WAR score. (For the uninitiated - or those born before the Big Red Machine ruled the world - WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement, a number that supposedly analyzes objectively all aspects of the game to figure out exactly how many wins a player is worth over the course of the season).

The old-school response? Wait for it. "WAR? What is it good for?"

Trout's 10.7 WAR (according to baseballreference.com) was the best of any position player in two decades. (OK, Barry Bonds had two seasons that were better, but we're ignoring those much as we will now and forever ignore Lance Armstrong's seven bogus Tour de France titles).

Because of that number, the sabermetricians - and even if I was one, I would never let anyone call me that - are outraged that Trout was slighted. Keith Law, who parlayed his Baseball Prospectus gig into a spot in the Toronto Blue Jays' front office before joining ESPN, called the vote "embarrassing."

He wasn't alone. The Internet and Twittersphere are full of passionate rants against Cabrera's selection. In the Times' office, one stunned observer opined that there is "absolutely no way to quantify" that Cabrera had a better season than Trout.

Except, of course, that Cabrera had the best batting average, the most home runs and the top RBI total in the entire AL, earning him baseball's first Triple Crown since LBJ was President. (Of the United States, not the American League).

Yes, I know, those are antiquated stats. We've been using them since before Prohibition. Of course, we've been using the Electoral College for twice as long, but we keep relying on that method to elect a President, which is only slightly less important than choosing league MVPs.

The sabermetricians despise average because it doesn't take other methods of reaching base into account and because luck plays too much of a role in dictating whether a ball put into plays lines into left field for a clean single or into the shortstop's glove for an out. They hate RBIs because opportunities to drive in runs depend almost entirely on teammates. (This is the same group who decided wins are irrelevant for starting pitchers and would rather see a guy with a 12-12 record and a great WHIP get the Cy Young Award than a 20-game winner.)

Old-schoolers respond that luck absolutely evens out over the 500-plus at-bats received over a marathon 162-game season and that there will never be an individual in a team sport who isn't affected by teammates. (It would've been pretty difficult, for example, for Drew Brees to set the all-time passing mark last season without linemen blocking for him and receivers actually catching his passes and then running for yardage.)

The Triple Crown categories identified the likes of Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Willie Mays as great players, they say, so how bad can they be?

With one side smugly asserting science is on its side and the other railing that traditional values will always be the best way, both sides show themselves to be incredibly intractable and fail to realize that by embracing some of the other group's ideas, everyone would be better off. (Maybe this is a column about politics after all?)

Here's the deal. Cabrera had a phenomenal year. He was a great choice.

And Trout had a phenomenal year. He would've been a great choice.

This is a subjective decision, folks, by baseball writers who really care about trying to get it right. A vote for one is not a vote against the other. You can't go wrong either way. It's the Beatles or the Stones. Pacino or De Niro. Pepperoni or sausage.

It would be wonderful if some scientific formula could truly and conclusively rank players, but, fact is, deciding on awards is as much art as science.

It's no different than what we're going through right now, picking all-county teams and a Player of the Year for each fall high school sport. (And for which we're already receiving angry phone calls).

Which begs the question, does anyone know how to compute WAR for field hockey?


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