WAR is stupid, people are stupid (Or, Trout vs. Cabrera)


Well, as expected, Los Angeles’ Mike Trout is beginning to open up his WAR lead on Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, not that anyone really cares or should expect it to make much of a difference in the MVP race. I’ve been saying for a couple of months now that by the time the season ends, Trout will have a higher WAR than Cabrera. I would argue it’s because while Cabrera is the best HITTER in the game, Trout is the best PLAYER in the game, But you could certainly make the argument that it’s about the WAR stat itself.

First, the numbers right now:

Baseball Reference WAR
Mike Trout: 7.2 WAR
Miguel Cabrera: 6.3 WAR

Fangraphs WAR
Mike Trout: 8.2 WAR
Miguel Cabrera: 7.5 WAR

Baseball Prospectus WARP
Mike Trout: 8.2 WARP
Miguel Cabrera: 6.7 WARP

Basically every version of WAR I’ve seen has Trout ahead at the moment, and I suspect that the gap will widen before the year ends. The reason is simply this: Cabrera has only one way to add to his WAR — by hitting baseballs. Trout has multiple ways to add to his WAR — with his hitting, his fielding, his speed, etc. If you have two stores that are selling Diet Coke exclusively, and for the same price, the store that sells more always will make more money. But if one store also sells Diet Pepsi and Coke Zero while the other doesn’t, well, obviously, what you have is a strained analogy but I’ve got this caffeine headache and really need a Diet Coke right now.

Trout just puts more stuff into the WAR bucket. You might not like how WAR adds up such things, but that’s the simple fact here. WAR, in all its forms, tends to look past the context issues and anomalies of basic statistics like batting average and counting RBIs.

Here’s a quick example: You probably know that Cabrera is hitting a rather extraordinary .358 with a .450 on-base percentage. Trout is hitting a slightly less extraordinary .330 with a .428 on-base percentage. So, Trout is great … and Cabrera is better. Seems obvious, no?

Well, sure, except for this: Trout has reached base nine times on error. Cabrera has reached zero. Now, I don’t want to go off on a rant here about errors and their statistical absurdity — but let’s just say that as far as baseball value goes, reaching on error is just as good a reaching on a hit. In both cases, you hit the ball into the field of play and you reach base. Same thing. We can argue from now until forever how it should be figured statistically, but it is inarguable that they are of equal value when it comes to the actual game.

Batting average and on-base percentage count reach-on-error as OUTS. Everything I think about this, it drives me crazy. It’s one of the dumbest statistical tricks in all of sports, maybe the dumbest, it is not unlike not giving a shooter credit for a three-point shot because he made it off the backboard or taking away not giving a receiver credit for a catch and yardage because the defender slipped and fell down. If you hit the ball and reach base it should absolutely NOT be counted as an out. It’s not an out. No out was recorded. IT IS NOT AN OUT. Sorry, I am going off on a rant here.

If you give Trout credit for the times he reached base on error, his batting average jumps to .350 and his on-base percentage jumps to .444 — suddenly very close to Cabrera.

This, I think, is one of the benefits of speed. Here’s another one: Cabrera has come up in a double-play situation 118 times and hit into 16 of them. Trout has come up in 92 double-play situations and hit into just six. So that’s 10 fewer outs for Trout. That should be figured in somehow when considering a player’s value, no? Throw it into the WAR bucket.

Home field context should be considered. Trout plays in a brutal hitter’s park. Cabrera plays in a very good one. Speed should be considered. Trout has stolen 27 of 31 bases and he leads the American League with eight triples. Cabrera has three stolen bases (though he has not been caught) and one triple. Throw it into the WAR bucket.

Trout has, by the numbers, had a tough year defensively. Last year, the numbers showed him to be a defensive superstar, but this year Baseball Reference has him with a negative defensive WAR and the Dewan Plus/Minus shows him to be minus-7 — about seven plays worse than the average center fielder . But those numbers have climbed rapidly the last few weeks and I suspect they will keep going up, Trout is simply too fast, too hard-working and too talented to be a defensive liability. I fully believe he’s had some defensive issues, but class eventually rises.

Cabrera meanwhile — he fought third base to a draw last year through sheer stubbornness, but he has always been a defensive liability and from everything I can tell he’s been pretty terrible there this season. The numbers also indicate he has been pretty terrible this season.

So we are once again in a situation where Cabrera’s superior batting average and power numbers face off against Trout’s very good batting average and power numbers, great speed and better defense. Of course, Cabrera’s team leads the American League Central while Trout’s team is dreadful and has been all season. I think we know where this is going. Trout will once again win the hearts and minds of those who like the advanced stats. Cabrera will once again win the MVP.

New tax law could affect MLB trades

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Jim Tankersley of the New York Times notes that a tax law passed by Republicans could affect trades in Major League Baseball. The law added the word “real” to a certain line of tax code that now only allows real estate trades to qualify for tax immunity. Previously, certain assets like trucks and machinery could have been traded tax-free.

A perhaps unintended consequence of that change could mean baseball teams could have to pay capital gains taxes when they trade away and acquire players. MLB’s chief legal officer Dan Halem said, “There is no fair market value of a baseball player. There isn’t. I don’t really know what our clubs are going to do to address the issue. We haven’t fully figured it out yet. This is a change we hope was inadvertent, and we’re going to lobby hard to get it corrected.”

Tankersley wonders how players would be valued for the purposes of this tax law:

Mr. Verlander, for example, was clearly a more immediately valuable asset to the Astros than the three prospects they traded to get him. He gave up only four runs in his five regular-season starts for the team, then won four straight starts to begin the playoffs. In very simple terms, he brought value to the Astros in a trade, and had the new law been in place last year, the team would have owed taxes on that added value.

But what, exactly, was that value? Was it the size of his contract? Mr. Verlander earned $28 million last year, while the players traded for him drew minor-league salaries. Was it the additional wins he brought to the team? Statisticians estimate Mr. Verlander gave the Astros nearly two more wins last season, a value that, depending on the statistician, could reach $20 million. Or was it some calculation of the total future value Mr. Verlander will bring to the team, minus the total future value it gave up in the prospects it traded away — and possibly adjusted for the amount the team will have to pay Mr. Verlander?

Complicating matters further is that teams value players differently, and one player might help a certain team far more than another team. A struggling club with a surplus of starting pitchers might trade one to a playoff contender in desperate need of one, in exchange for position players who could improve a struggling lineup. In that case, both teams could, reasonably, be considered to have gained value in the trade, and thus would owe taxes on it.

Republicans said they weren’t trying to hamstring sports teams, but that’s exactly what they might have done here. It seems likely that the law will eventually be amended to exempt sports teams, given that leagues like the MLB and NBA are enormous and worth so much money. Whether that will be done in a reasonable amount of time is another question entirely.