Revisiting Trout vs. Cabrera MVP debate — with a twist

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So, get ready for a bit of a shocker. I was on a panel with Farhan Zaidi of the Oakland A’s. He’s a great guy. A’s general manager Billy Beane often calls him “Emotional Stat Guy,” which he says will be the name of his fantasy baseball team (though I personally think it would be a better band name.*) Zaidi is utterly brilliant — economics degree from MIT, Ph.D from Cal Berkeley in economics — and a lot of fun to talk with about baseball.

*Zaidi told a great story about his interview with Billy Beane, who he idolized. It was 2003, and he was doing some consulting and fantasy sports work — basically, he was overqualified for whatever he was doing. He heard about an Oakland opening. He fished out an old resume and, without really reviewing it, sent it off to Billy Beane. One thing he had forgotten was that in the personal section of the resume, he had mentioned that he liked Britpop — you know, Suede, Sleeper, Oasis, a bunch of those Wonderwall bands that were cool in certain circles in the mid-to-late 1990s. Unfortunately, it was now 2003.

First thing Beane said to Zaidi was, “So, I understand you like Britpop.” Zaidi felt his face go white hot as he sunk into his chair. He started to hem and haw about how he had not updated his resume in a while and that, you know, er, well, it’s just kind of …

At which point, Billy Beane said: “I am the biggest Oasis fan.”

How that scene was left out of Moneyball, I’ll never know.

So before the panel began, we were talking about all sorts of things, when the 2012 American League MVP argument came up. Yes, we’re still talking about it. In very general terms, the argument seemed to split baseball fans between those who embrace the new baseball metrics and those who do not.

That’s a sweeping generalization and does not tell the full story — there were brilliant mathematicians in the Cabrera camp and staunch traditionalists in the Trout camp. But in general terms, the traditional statistics (Triple Crown!) and general principles pointed to Cabrera. And the advanced statistics seemed to show that Trout wasn’t just better than Cabrera but markedly better.

Baseball Reference WAR

Trout: 10.7 WAR
Cabrera: 6.9 WAR

Fangraphs WAR

Trout: 10.0 WAR
Cabrera: 7.1 WAR

That isn’t all that close. Basically WAR — and some other advances metrics — showed that whatever advantages Cabrera had in terms of power and batting average and timely hitting were swamped by Trout’s advantages as a fielder, base runner and player who gets on base. The argument made sense to many of us who champion the advanced statistics and their power to get closer to a player’s true value.

The Cabrera arguments, for the most part, were more about gut instinct, intangibles and the power of old statistics. Cabrera won the Triple Crown. Cabrera hit better down the stretch. Cabrera’s team made the playoffs. These arguments made sense to many baseball fans.

The two sides basically talked around each other for months. The gut arguments meant nothing at all to the sabermetric people, who feel like those gut arguments are shallow and often wildly off. The sabermetric arguments meant nothing at all to the people who do not trust a lot of these new statistics and feel like they are draining the fun out of the game. Back and forth it went, but neither side seemed to move any closer together.

Zaidi and I were talking about this when he told me something that I found utterly staggering. He said that Oakland’s objective model for measuring a player’s value — remember now, we are talking about the Oakland A’s, the Moneyball people, Jonah Hill and so on — found that Miguel Cabrera, NOT Mike Trout, was more valuable in 2012.

More from Sloan: Finding peace with WAR

Well, that’s not exactly right. He was quick to say that the difference between the two was so slight as to be almost invisible — they were, for an intents and purposes, in a virtual tie. But their system did have Cabrera ahead by the tiniest of margins.

I thought that was a pretty big deal. I know last year, a lot of people were spending a lot of energy trying to find a convincing statistical model that showed Cabrera was better than Trout. If there was one, I didn’t see it. Now, it turns out that Oakland (Oakland!) has such a statistical model.

We did not have time to get into details — and Zaidi might not have done that anyway since the A’s model for measuring players is proprietary — but I think the point comes through. Statistics are tools. People use tools differently. People see the world differently. Give someone a pen and paper, she or he might sketch out a breathtaking mathematical formula … or scribble a prescription … or write down the amazing story of a young boy who has discovered he is a wizard … or a sketch of a flying car … or draw a Calvin and Hobbes panel  … or a million other things.

Give a lot of different smart people the Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout data, you should get different ways of using that data. And you just might get different answers. It’s an important thing to remember, I think.

My sense, based on my reading of the numbers, Trout was better than Cabrera. I also readily concede Zaidi and the people in the Oakland front office are a lot smarter than I am.

Odubel Herrera flips his bat on a fly ball, gets benched for lack of hustle

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Phillies outfielder Odubel Herrera has been a polarizing figure in his young career. He’s talented and at times has shined, inspiring the Phillies to give him a long term contract this past offseason. At other times, however, he’s aggravated the snot out of his manager, his teammates and his team’s fans. Last night, in the Phillies-Astros game, he did the latter and was the subject of mockery of the opposing team to boot.

In the first inning he hit a long fly ball to center. He thought it was going out but . . . it didn’t. When the ball came off of his bat, however, he flipped his bat like he went yard. You know our view about bat flips — who cares? Flip away! — but you flip at your own risk. Just because you’re allowed to flip it whenever you want doesn’t mean you’re not gonna get mocked if you flip prematurely. That’s what Herrera did, and he was mocked for the flip by the Astros from the dugout:

If that was all that happened in the game, life would go on just fine. I mean, it’s just a bat flip. But later in the game he committed a more substantive transgression: he failed to hustle in a hustle situation.

In the sixth inning Herrera struck out swinging on a 1-2 curveball. The catcher didn’t hold on to it, though, and the ball went in the dirt. Herrera didn’t bother to run to first base and Pete Mackanin pulled Herrera from the game in a double switch right after that. Asked if Herrera was benched for not running that ball out, Mackanin said “It had something to do with it . . . I’m going to talk to him tomorrow.”

If you’re a veteran and you have hamstring issues or something you can take a dropped strike three off and no one is gonna say anything. If you’re hitting like Herrera has been hitting of late (i.e. pretty well) and you otherwise have no issues with your manager along these lines, it’s doubtful anyone will hold that sort of play against you either as long as it’s an isolated incident.

Herrera is not in that position, however. He’s raised Mackanin’s ire in the past for ignoring signs and taking what Mackanin believed to be a lackadaisical approach to the game. Whether that’s a fair assessment of Herrera or not — we can’t fully know everything about their interaction from the outside — is sort of beside the point. He has to know by now that Mackanin is going to get after him for that stuff and he has to know that him not being in the game is neither good for the Phillies or for Herrera.

Are these growing pains or a signs of a growing problem? That, it would seem, is up to Odubel Herrera.

Video: Minor leaguer bounces a home run off of an outfielder’s head

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Jose Canseco hit 462 homers, was the 1986 Rookie of the Year, the 1988 MVP and played for 17 years in the big leagues, winning two World Series rings and making the playoffs five times. Yet he’s not remembered for any of that. At least not very often.

No, he’s remembered for his ignominy. For his role in participating in and, subsequently, exposing baseball’s PED-fueled world of the 1990s. For his continued insistence that he was blackballed by Major League Baseball and his continued attempts to play via the independent league route. For his crazy post-playing career antics in which he spent a few years tweeting about aliens, conspiracy theories and non-sequiturs of every stripe.

Mostly, though, people remember Canseco for one random play: the time he helped the Indians’ Carlos Martinez to a home run when a fly ball bounced off of Canseco’s head and over the wall back in 1993:

 

Well, Canseco now has a friend in infamy. That friend: Zach Borenstein of the Reno Aces, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Triple-A affiliate. Yesterday Borenstein pulled a Canseco on what should’ve been an Alex Verdugo F-9:

Borenstein’s glove may have gotten a piece of that — the announcer seemed to think so anyway — and I have a hard time figuring that his head would give it that much bounce. I mean, look how far he was from the wall! He wasn’t even to the warning track. That’s a serious assist.

Still: gonna rule this a Canseco anyway. It’s too good not to.