Awards Are Celebrations, Not Measurements. And Vice Versa.
by Ken Arneson
2012-09-21 14:34

At the risk of committing the journalistic sin of plagiarizing myself, the time has come for me to repeat an old argument I’ve made about baseball awards.

I am repeating myself this year because of the American League Most Valuable Player race. The player who has provided the most value to his team winning in the AL has been the LA Angels’ Mike Trout, by most reasonable measurements. Measured by bWAR, Mike Trout has provided 10.1 wins to his team, followed by Robinson Cano of the Yankees at 6.8, and Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers at 6.5. Measured by fWAR, Trout is at 9.2 wins, Cabrera at 6.8 wins, and Cano at 6.3. In any case, Trout is 2 or 3 wins ahead of anybody else. His batting stats are similar to his competitors, or possibly slightly worse, but his baserunning and defense has the others beat by a mile.

But there is an argument for Cabrera, in that he is only one home run shy of winning the Triple Crown: leading the AL in home runs, RBI and batting average. If Cabrera wins the triple crown, many people are arguing that he should win the MVP, too, for this accomplishment.

This has sent many sabermetric types into apoplexy, since the Triple Crown is just an arbitrary set of statistics, and is not a good measure of a player’s value. This anger towards the support for Cabrera bothered Ken Rosenthal, who said that although he would support Trout if he had a vote, he feels that voting for Cabrera is not a unreasonable idea, and sabermetricians should open their minds a bit more.

I agree with my fellow Ken here. As I’ve said before, awards are celebrations, not measurements. It is entirely reasonable to want to celebrate the player who has provided the most fWAR or bWAR in the league. But the MVP rules are vague, and do not define what value means. There are other ways to define value. We watch baseball not because we are tools of measurement, but because we are humans participating in a culture, and we acquire emotional and social value from watching it. If our culture values an arbitrary set of stats like the Triple Crown, for whatever reason, then there is value to the team’s culture and history by reaching this achievement.

So by any meaningful measurement, Mike Trout has been better than Miguel Cabrera this year. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he has produced the season that is the most worthy of celebration. It’s quite reasonable, especially if Cabrera does win the triple crown, to vote for Cabrera.

* * *

On the flip side of the M. Cabrera coin, Melky Cabrera was today ruled ineligible to win the National League batting title. The San Francisco Giants’ version of M. Cabrera was suspended last month for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. At the time of his suspension, he was just one plate appearance shy of qualifying for the batting title. When that happens, the previous rule was to assume he had enough hitless at-bats to qualify, and if his batting average was still highest in the league, he would win the title. But probably because the league wanted to avoid the embarrassment of having a player who cheated win its batting crown, they decided they wouldn’t do the “add 0-fers” to his number of plate appearances, and so Melky won’t win.

Which is odd, because the batting title is a measurement, not a celebration. It’s basically a matter of math; it goes to the player who had the best batting average in the league, hits divided by at-bats. But Major League Baseball is treating it like a celebration, not a measurement, and they have decided that they don’t want to celebrate someone who cheated, so they’re invalidating his measurement. I suppose they can do that because Cabrera finished shy of the required number of plate appearances, but I wonder what they would have done if he had already surpassed the required 3.1 plate appearances per team game to qualify. Would they have invalidated it then?

This is Ken Arneson's blog about baseball, brains, art, science, technology, philosophy, poetry, politics and whatever else Ken Arneson feels like writing about
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