The Baseball War Over WAR, Etc.

Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera vs. Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout — Cabrera won. Photo courtesy ESPN

There was an interesting baseball debate recently. I wasn’t surprised at the argument itself, but I thought that some of the attitudes so willingly dispensed by sportswriters and personalities were obsolete in this day and age.

The debate revolved around who should win the American League MVP award: Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera or Los Angeles Angels rookie phenom Mike Trout.

Cabrera did something not done by a batter since 1967 in winning the Triple Crown, leading the league in batting average, home runs and RBIs. It was just the 16th Triple Crown season in Major League history and the first since Carl Yastrzemsky of the Red Sox accomplished it 45 years ago. Cabrera’s .330 average, 44 homers and 139 RBIs helped the Tigers get into the playoffs and, ultimately, to the World Series.

The other candidate was Trout, who just turned 21 in August. His rookie campaign began in Triple-A and concluded with amazing MLB numbers: .326 batting average, 30 homers, 83 RBIs, a league-best 49 stolen bases, eight triples and impeccable play in the outfield.

The baseball purists seemed to find it inconceivable to vote anyone other than Cabrera as MVP. He won the Triple Crown, for cryin’ out loud, and led his team to the postseason.

Those more interested in some of the advanced statistics gave Trout a much longer look because he was the more all-around player – better base runner, superior fielder. And he ended the year with an unprecedented WAR – wins above replacement – figure. WAR is intended to measure a player’s value by demonstrating how many wins he is worth to his team above a Triple-A or utility player. Trout’s figure of 10.7 wins was historically good. Only one player since 1975 – Barry Bonds, twice – has put up a WAR higher than that.

Now, I don’t think WAR is a perfect stat. No stat is a perfect stat. But WAR does take into account factors other than the basic tenets of prior baseball generations. It doesn’t put much stock in RBI totals (which rely too heavily on other players) or simple batting average. It has a defensive component which, again, is difficult to quantify, but it is a step in the right direction.

There also was the issue that even though Detroit made the playoffs and Los Angeles didn’t, the Angels actually won more games.

For the record, I would have voted for Cabrera. It would be tough for me to dismiss a Triple Crown victory that occurred on a championship contender. However, hearing some of the dialogue made me feel like I had taken a DeLorean back to 1955.

Columnist Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press penned a column titled “Miguel Cabrera’s award a win for fans, defeat for stats geeks.”

Albom wrote “from OBP to OPS to WAR. I mean, OMG! The number of triples hit while wearing a certain-colored underwear is probably being measured as we speak.”

He later wrote, “I mean, did you do the math? I didn’t. I like to actually see the sun once in a while.”

Sure, Mitch. When anyone thinks of Detroit in November, they think of endless sun-drenched outdoor activities.

“And this WAR statistic … is another way of declaring ‘Nerds win!'” he adds.

Adams College head coach John Goodman would probably agree.

But Albom’s column was tame in comparison to some of the sports radio talk I heard while on the Mainland. One of my favorites in the New York market has always been a guy named Joe Benigno. He used to be the overnight voice on WFAN and now has a daytime show. I heard him go off on any Trout supporters and anyone who puts stock in newer stats, like WAR, as nerds living in their parents’ basement who don’t like girls and can’t get dates even if they do. He said they never played a sport, so they have to come up with new stats to make an impact.

I wasn’t stunned by the comments because I thought they were too hateful or politically incorrect. I like people to speak their minds, and not always be filtered. But the content seemed to be so old-fashioned that it just felt foreign. It was like people who still say that fantasy football – which is now played by about 30 million Americans – is only for “nerds.”

We just had a very contentious national election, but everyone’s conclusion afterward seemed to be that more inclusion is better. Failing to adapt and maintaining outdated models is a recipe for failure. It seems that we’re actually more conservative when it comes to sports than we are with public policy. It should be that the more information, opinions and perspectives the better.

In the end, it’s just a silly individual award, but the fact that Cabrera vs. Trout turned into jocks vs. nerds was surprising. I’ll be curious to see for how much longer that caveman mentality can live on.