Should Triple Crown = MVP?

By Jeff Dickson, Director of Food & Beverage

Baseball is great, isn’t it? And great as the final day of the 2011 season was, this year was even more improbable. Who saw the Nationals having the best record in the league? Or the Orioles and A’s in the playoffs? Not to mention the late, incredible run the A’s put on to chase down the Rangers and win the West. And, perhaps most impressive of all, what about Miguel Cabrera winning the Triple Crown? The first one since 1967, no less. Truly a special season for the Tigers slugger.

Why, though, is it so special? Well, if you’re a fan of the history of baseball like me then you’ve probably associated the words Triple Crown and the name Carl Yastrzemski the same way you’ve done with 56 and Joe DiMaggio, or .406 and Ted Williams: as sacred, nearly untouchable feats, the likes of which we would not see matched in our lifetimes.  But Miguel Cabrera proved this to be untrue.

But what does it mean? Well, from taking a quick look at the landscapes of sports media and sports fandom it appears to mean that the Triple Crown should automatically make Cabrera the American League Most Valuable Player, no questions asked. But I do have a question to ask: why?

Baseball is a game of statistics, no doubt. But why are the three Triple Crown categories (batting average, home runs, runs batted in) seemingly the be-all end-all of hitting stats? For one thing, they are among the oldest stats in a game that sure does love its history. They were on the back of baseball cards. They were the stats shown on television when the game was first beginning to be broadcast. They resonate with fans. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they are the best stats.

I guess before going any further I should mention that I think Mike Trout, the rookie centerfielder for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, should be the AL MVP this year. But I don’t want to get too much into the war of statistics between the two players, at least not yet. I’d just like to explain why what Trout has done this year should not be immediately dismissed, despite Cabrera’s supremacy in the Triple Crown categories.

My first problem with these stats is the use of them. By taking stock in leading the lead in any category one must also take in context the rest of the league. My point: with his 2012 AL league leading batting average of .330, Cabrera would have been second in the National League. And last year, when Cabrera led the AL with a .344 average, .330 would have been good for only fourth. Now, a .330 average is nothing to scoff at, but in most seasons it won’t win a batting title. This year that particular category was a bit of an anomaly, and I don’t think an anomaly should play a part in determining the MVP.

The biggest problem that I see is not with average, though; it’s with RBI. By consistently being at or near the top of the league in batting average, Cabrera has shown an uncanny ability to hit for contact as much as power. It really is incredible. But his league leading 139 RBI says as much, if not more, about the lineup around him then what he was actually responsible for.

If the Tigers lead-off hitter, Austin Jackson, didn’t have a 60 point increase in on-base percentage, maybe Josh Hamilton edges out Cabrera for the RBI crown. And what if Hamilton, who missed 15 games, played in 5 or so more and hit another two home runs? Then we aren’t even having this discussion. Yes, there are always a lot of what if scenarios that ultimately don’t matter. And yes, Cabrera should get some credit for playing in 161 games. But this all is just to illustrate my point that leading the league in these categories only means so much when you realize how many people play a role in the statistic leaderboards.

What should be done, then, when determining an MVP, is taking the best candidates side by side and examining their seasons. This will go beyond HR, AVG and RBI. We need to look also at on-base and slugging percentages, and thus OPS (on-base plus slugging). Let’s not discount base running and defense. And sure, to some extent we can take a peek at where the teams play a role in this, but we have to remember that baseball very much and individually played game and one player can only have so much impact on the standings. And even if you want to give Cabrera credit for the Tigers making the playoffs, just remember that the Angels actually finished with a better record than the Tigers while playing in a tougher division.

There are many other new stats that support Trout, things such as RE24 and WAR, but in an attempt to keep this relatively simple I’ll look to more common stats to argue for him. Trout led the lead in steals and runs which, if you are going to give credit for home runs and RBI, you certainly can’t discount. There is also one stat that Cabrera led the league in that helps out Trout here: his 28 double plays grounded into (GIDP). If Cabrera should be lauded for his ability to hit with runners on base (RBI) then he should also be penalized for his failure in those situations (GIDP).

I could go on and on. And on. But if I don’t stop now, I might go on forever. I’ll end by saying that Cabrera will almost certainly with the award, and that’s ok. I get it. But this is just another battle between the old guard and the new guard of baseball fans and writers. The new guard has won a few of these battles (Felix Hernandez and Zach Greinke Cy Young awards) and will win many more. I understand the lore of the Triple Crown is too much for even those writers who are starting to accept some of these new metrics.  But it should be noted that not all Triple Crown winners have won the MVP, so even in the days before WAR and OPS and the like it wasn’t a guarantee for the award. So why should it be now?

Jeff is entering his third season with the ‘Dads and second as the Director of Food & Beverage.  The Oneonta, NY native joined the Crawdads in 2011 as a concessions assistant, and has previously worked with the Oneonta Outlaws as a sports marketing intern.  Jeff is a graduate of the University of Central Florida and is a die-hard fan of the Philadelphia Phillies and North Carolina Tar Heels.

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