Stats Star Nate Silver: Cabrera Not True MVP

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Detroit Tigers' Miguel Cabrera smiles during a practice in October. Cabrera won the Triple Crown this season and was named American League MVP this week. (Paul Sancya/AP)
Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera's season gave him plenty of reasons to smile. He won the Triple Crown and this week was named American League MVP. (Paul Sancya/AP)

Last week’s presidential election cemented the reputation of New York Times statistician and blogger Nate Silver as the nation’s most accurate prognosticator of politics. This week, we welcomed Silver back to Only A Game to discuss a lighter subject: who should be the 2012 American League MVP—statistically speaking, of course.

On the FiveThirtyEight blog, Silver made the argument against the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera being named MVP and in favor of  Los Angeles Angels’ standout rookie, Mike Trout.

Despite the depth of Silver’s statistical reasoning on behalf of Trout, the other guy won. Cabrera was named MVP.

“I think he’s a terrific player, but Mike Trout had a better season when you break things down and look at all aspects of the game,” Silver told Bill Littlefield.

Silver said Trout’s skills fielding, stealing bases efficiently, and getting on base as a lead-off hitter outweighed the strengths that won Cabrera the Triple Crown.

“Home runs and RBIs are always kind of the baseball card stats or the scoreboard stats that get the glory. But, having runners on base is just as important to scoring runs. If you have to pick any one stat and see what correlates with winning ballgames, it’s on- base percentage that’s the best single stat.”

But these strengths don’t always get recognized by baseball statisticians, at least not in ways conducive to garnering MVP awards.

“It’s not like Trout is a slap hitter,” Silver said. “He did hit 30 home runs, and I think seven or eight triples—did that despite missing the first part of the year when he was in the minors. The combination of speed, plus power, plus on base ability is there—it’s almost like seeing a modern-day Mickey Mantle.”

Silver argues that those who vote for the MVP are still inclined to think in terms of the measures with which they grew up: batting average, runs batted in, and homeruns.

“I think part of what they may be missing is we’re a lot better able now to quantify parts of the game that were considered intangible before. So before you could say, well, Cabrera seems like a clumsy defender at third base, and Trout seems like a pretty good one in the outfield. But now we can actually measure that by tracking where balls are hit.”

And in analyzing these former “intangibles,” Silver said, it can be determined that Trout was the more valuable player.

“It’s not just by the way that Trout steals a lot of bases, it’s that he avoids getting caught stealing and he avoids making mistakes on the base paths. He advances from 1st to 3rd a lot, scores from 2nd on a base hit a lot—those things all help the Angels score runs as well. So we can measure that stuff in a lot more detail now. And these little things that were traditionally important and that coaches always love, now we can actually start to quantify that stuff.”

Baseball and politics—two games of statistics, one of which Silver doesn’t often play. Still, he said, it was nice to take a break from calling  red and blue states.

“I grew up in a Big 10 town, in East Lansing, Mich. The sports stuff is where you had your serious debates—the elections were for fun. To me, it’s relaxing to talk about sports again, and I think it’s a good way for people to start to understand how statistics can help to explain the real world. It’s good to be in a game where we’ve seen innovation—the moneyball stuff—and we’ve seen some progress and some change, all for the better I think.”

This segment aired on November 17, 2012.


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