The sabermetrics revolution will be televised.
Over the past three or four years, an influx of new baseball statistics has emerged on the MLB scene as a radical alternative to the traditional statistics dating back to baseball’s origin.
The people in charge of the shift, named “the sabermetricians,” eschew statistics that rely on team-dependent factors (wins, RBI) and focus heavily on factors within the batter or pitcher’s control (strikeouts, walks, home runs).
A statistic called WAR (wins above replacement), another product of the sabermetrics revolution, attempts to capture the entire value of a player in one statistic. For batters, park-dependent hitting, fielding, positional value, and baserunning all count as factors.
Makes sense, right?
Well, not to the dinosaurs of major newspapers.
Old-school baseball writers like Murray Chass of the New York Times have criticized the sabermetrics movement, calling the proponents of the new statistics “stat freaks” who “forget that human beings, not numbers, play the game.”
The debate between new-school and old-school has simmered beneath the surface for the past few years, only gaining attention from the diehards who spend inappropriate amounts of time reading baseball journalism.
But with an epic debate for the AL MVP hinging on the credibility of WAR as a statistic, sabermetrics have officially entered the mainstream.
Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers represents the traditional choice for the award. Cabrera won the Triple Crown award, given to a hitter who leads his league in batting average, home runs, and RBI. Cabrera currently sports a .331 average with 44 home runs and 139 RBI. His adjusted OPS+, which utilizes on-base percentage and slugging and adjusts for park effects, is 167.
In the “stat freak” corner is uber-rookie Mike Trout. Trout leads the major leagues with 10.3 WAR, a good three wins above Cabrera. His adjusted OPS+ is 169, a bit better than Cabrera. Trout has generated an entire win’s worth of value over Cabrera in baserunning and plays Gold-Glove defense in one of the more difficult defensive positions to play. Cabrera’s defense at third base resembles a hippo trying to balance on one leg.
Essentially, Trout measures out to be an essentially equivalent hitter to Cabrera and adds his league-leading stolen base total and far superior defense to the mix.
Objectively, Trout is clearly the choice for the MVP. But the antagonism against the “nerds in their parents’ basements” seems to be manifesting itself in MVP voting arguments.
Bill Madden of the New York Daily News recently wrote a column arguing Cabrera should be the MVP because “this growing infatuation with WAR is, in my opinion, turning baseball into an inhuman board game.”
No argument of Cabrera’s superior value, except for a claim to the superiority of his batting average and RBI totals.
Just a claim that WAR is a “nebulous, ludicrous… new-age statistic.” Madden didn’t even take the time to understand the formula behind WAR; he simply dismissed it by saying “don’t ask how the conclusion (of WAR’s formula) is reached.”
Madden fails to see the irony in his argument. He stakes his claim on Cabrera’s superior statistics but is too narrow-minded to realize that the metrics he’s using to make his argument (batting average, RBI) are outdated and useless in this day and age.
The portrayal of the rationally based statistically minded baseball writers of the modern era as antagonistic emotionless robots by the older columnists of major newspapers will likely continue until the older sportswriters die out.
But the sabermetricians will have the last laugh, as Chass and Madden make themselves look like close-minded grandpas fulfilling the classic old-man stereotype: a dogmatic, irrational resistance to change of any kind.
Contact Michael Rosen at [email protected]
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