The 2012 season has left us all in an interesting position with respect to what the baseball community terms as valuable. The AL MVP debate, a two-horse race between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout, has dug up a debate that appeared to have been partially buried as we trudge forward into the future. It may be completely ludicrous to many, but alas, here we are once again. The never-ending “old school vs. new school” tussle.
The discussion surrounding Cabrera as AL MVP was minimal until the Triple Crown became within striking distance. When he ultimately clinched it—the first player to do so in 45 years—the old school unanimously clamored for the simultaneous anointment of Cabrera as the MVP.
Not so fast.
On the other end of the spectrum was Angels wunderkind Mike Trout. Quite simply, Trout put together one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history, and one of the greatest single seasons in the modern era. Unfortunately, much of this isn’t readily apparent and we must dig deeper and use advanced metrics to truly capture what a phenomenal year Trout had.
Wrapping up the season with these two stars pitted against one another in the spotlight set an interesting tone of analytical condescension throughout the playoffs. As someone who digested as much playoff baseball as I could muster, I can safely say that the opportunities for one side to take a jab at the other were not wasted.
The silliness of a commentator using the example of a seeing-eye ground ball beating a shift as a platform for demeaning the concept of statistics is almost impossible to express. Yet, unfortunately, this is the climate for discussion once again.
Quite simply, the climate for reasonable debate has become untenable.
One doesn’t need to be well-versed in Zen concepts to understand that eventually the two parties will need to meet somewhere in the middle and from there on out they can live in harmony. Baseball has actually created an interesting platform for this false dichotomy as it is the first sport to truly have a pronounced and influential statistics-based community.
Basketball, football and hockey are all seeing those communities grow in North America while soccer’s metrics are gaining more acceptance overseas, but insofar as math being used to aid and evaluate on-field products, baseball still reigns supreme.
As such, there is no proven method on how to weld these parties together and baseball will have to take the lead on the issue. Eventually sports and stats will live in harmony; they just need someone to show the world how.
While I don’t know where or when this debate will resolve itself, I have an idea on how to get started and it has to do with altering rigid ideas of value.
From the old school perspective, it’s time to acknowledge that stats aren’t invented by pencil pushers. These are metrics extracted from watching games play out and breaking them down to ensure they properly represent what transpired. The notion that advanced statistics are fictional beings hellbent on fraying sport at its very fabric is a truly puzzling phenomenon.
In the case of baseball, these are events which take place in a baseball game. The fact that they are extracted and analyzed differently than convention has historically dictated changes nothing from game play to evaluation. The ability to get greater depth when evaluating a player should be welcomed as a good thing.
Statistics isn’t a catch-all word for evil. Batting average, home runs and runs batted in are all statistics as well. They just don’t paint as clear a picture of a player’s ability as others do, though they do play a role. It’s possible to give credence to old school stats while acknowledging new school interpretations are worthwhile.
For the new school, it’s time to acknowledge that old school concepts do matter. They may not lend value to the purposes of advanced metrics, but they do affect the game itself and painting with a wide brush is a dangerous precedent, as we all know.
Take the concept of pitcher wins, for example. We know that, for the purposes of evaluating a pitcher’s quality, wins are irrelevant criteria. However, to say that they simply do not matter disregards the weight they hold in baseball circles. Managers will try to get pitchers in line for wins, and pitchers regularly admit to altering their approaches in order to earn a win on their record. Ergo, pitcher wins matter because they affect games. That,, in turn, affects data.
The same goes for other traditional concepts like RBIs. While having more RBIs doesn’t make one batter better than another, the quest to create RBI situations for particular hitters influences lineups and in-game strategy which, in turn, affect other, more pertinent offensive outputs. RBIs influence in-game decisions, which means they matter, despite the fact that they don’t anoint one batter as more valuable than another as well as weighted runs created, for example.
As baseball trudges forward, its community of analysts and fans need to reach a resolution of some sorts, and this will require give and take between the two schools of thought. It’s time to alter our definitions of what “matters” and accept that another half of the circle brings value on some level, even if it does not directly correspond to the information we are seeking. It’s possible to name Mike Trout the MVP while acknowledging that the Triple Crown is a compelling accomplishment, and vice versa.
Flippant dismissals of one party by the other don’t lend themselves to progress. Acknowledging that the other lends value, though not necessarily in the same ways, is a start and ought to be a focus going forward.
The sooner we can bring these two closer together, the better.
What do our readers think can be done to constructively weld the links between the old and new schools of thought?