Miguel Cabrera Gets Robbed: A Tale of Consequences

Science is neat. In many scientific experiments, you can run trials, generate results, slightly change the conditions, run trials, and generate other results. Then you can compare those results to measure the effect of the change that you made. I used to work in a neuroscience lab with fruit flies, and one of the first projects to which I was assigned attempted to measure the draw of potential mates against the draw of fresh food. Without going into detail, we were constantly futzing with the method and seeing what happened to the numbers in the end. It was not a very good experiment and it never came close to getting published. At least there were usually donuts.

Baseball isn’t like science. In baseball, there is but one trial, and it’s always going on. We can speculate about the effects of certain things, and we can feel pretty confident about our speculations, but we can never know for sure. We can never know for sure how many wins above replacement a player is or was worth. We can never know for sure the significance of a borderline pitch call. And we might never know the meaning of a play that Alex Gordon made in Detroit Wednesday evening.

This highlight, it turns out, is embeddable, owing to MLB.com’s Keep-’Em-Guessing embeddable video policy.

That’s Alex Gordon going up and taking a home run away from Miguel Cabrera. While this home run would’ve broken a tie at the time, we know this play didn’t cost the Tigers an important win; the Tigers still won, 5-4. It’s possible, somewhat counter-intuitively, that had Gordon not made this play, the Tigers ultimately would’ve lost. This play changed the entire sequence of events after it and we don’t know how the alternative events would’ve played out.

I’m not here to discuss the meaning of this play to the Tigers as a team, though. I’m here to speculate about the potential consequences for Miguel Cabrera the individual, the individual who’s lately been receiving an awful lot of media attention.

Before we proceed, let’s look at a couple screenshots, just to establish that Cabrera’s fly ball likely would’ve left the yard:

It’s close — about as close as you can get — but it looks like a would-be dinger. Interestingly, nearly seven seconds elapsed between contact and catch. According to Greg Rybarczyk, during the Home Run Tracker era — 2006 to the present day — the longest hang time for a home run is 7.13 seconds, and that home run was hit by Miguel Cabrera, just a few days ago. Had this been a home run, it wouldn’t have beat out that other home run, but it would’ve come close. Miguel Cabrera hits some towering fly balls, some of which are home runs.

So Miguel Cabrera is in the news, for three reasons, which kind of overlap. One, he’s trying to help push the Tigers to the playoffs after what had been for a while a difficult season. Two, he’s chasing the American League Triple Crown. And three, he’s one of two strong candidates for the AL Most Valuable Player award. Let’s look at where Cabrera is in the Triple Crown standings right at this moment:

Batting average

  1. Miguel Cabrera, .327
  2. Mike Trout, .323
  3. Joe Mauer, .323
  4. Derek Jeter, .320

Home runs

  1. Josh Hamilton, 43
  2. Miguel Cabrera, 42
  3. Edwin Encarnacion, 42
  4. Adam Dunn, 41
  5. Curtis Granderson, 40

RBI

  1. Miguel Cabrera, 133
  2. Josh Hamilton, 124
  3. Josh Willingham, 110, what, holy crap

With a week left in the regular season, Cabrera basically has the RBI category locked up. He’s leading the batting average category, although not by so much that he couldn’t lose his position in a day. And he’s just behind in home runs, and it’s clear that with so little time left, the home-run title is going to be decided by a very small number. It might even end up as a tie.

Alex Gordon’s play cost Miguel Cabrera a home run and a tie atop the home-run leaderboard. To say nothing of the boost another hit would’ve given to Cabrera’s batting average. As more and more people are coming to know, nobody has won the admittedly arbitrary Triple Crown since 1967, or, if you don’t like ties, 1966. We all understand that the Triple Crown doesn’t mean what it used to, when we were lesser informed. We all understand that winning the Triple Crown would also be a pretty sweet achievement. If one were to calculate Cabrera’s odds of winning the Triple Crown, they’re a lot lower than they would be had Gordon failed to make that catch. Cabrera’s behind in home runs, and home runs are hard to hit. Even for Miguel Cabrera!

We can take this even further. Gordon’s catch reduced Cabrera’s odds of winning the Triple Crown, and it stands to reason — even though it shouldn’t, really — that winning the Triple Crown would have an effect on Cabrera’s odds of winning the MVP. All of us here at FanGraphs know with a high degree of certainty that Mike Trout has been more valuable than Miguel Cabrera overall. People on FanGraphs aren’t the MVP voters and my sense is that the voters are looking for a reason to give Cabrera the nod. If the Tigers make the playoffs and the Angels don’t, that could do it right there. And if the voters get to say that Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown, well, who could turn down a Triple Crown winner? Nobody ever wins the Triple Crown anymore.

All other things being equal, I think Miguel Cabrera would have X odds of winning the MVP if he won the Triple Crown, and Y odds of winning the MVP if he didn’t win the Triple Crown, where X > Y. I don’t know the magnitude of the difference but I’m almost certain a difference exists, because the Triple Crown can be psychologically persuasive. These are sportswriters who are voting, not scientists. And even scientists are human (for now).

Alex Gordon took a solo home run away from Miguel Cabrera. As such, Alex Gordon reduced Miguel Cabrera’s odds of winning the Triple Crown. As such, Alex Gordon presumably reduced Miguel Cabrera’s odds of winning the MVP. When you put it that way, it sounds ridiculous, but it’s equally ridiculous to think that a Josh Hamilton homer could similarly reduce Cabrera’s odds of winning the MVP. So many MVP arguments end up looking ridiculous when you break them down.

Now, if you’re uncomfortable with all this, maybe you could say that Gordon didn’t really rob Cabrera of a homer. Perhaps no homer can be robbed — perhaps there are just homers and non-homers, where a homer needs to be hit beyond the reach of the outfielders. Cabrera’s fly ball was within the reach of Alex Gordon, just as a routine grounder to second is within the reach of the second baseman. We don’t say that the second baseman robbed a hitter of a hit when he scoops up a grounder. Gordon’s catch wasn’t even a spectacular one, like Mike Trout’s in Baltimore. He barely had to leave the ground, and it was all a matter of timing.

But the bigger point is that Cabrera came awful close to a dinger right there. We’ll never know what might’ve happened had that gone for a home run, but we can speculate to extraordinary lengths. Alex Gordon might’ve made a bigger difference than he knew.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


55 Responses to “Miguel Cabrera Gets Robbed: A Tale of Consequences”

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  1. Robert says:

    I am fairly new to fangraphs.com but I have come to love your writing Jeff. I like your style, your insightful thoughts and topics. You remind me of my favorite baseball writer Jon Morosi. Do you aim to emulate his style?

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  2. Andrew says:

    “We don’t say that the second baseman robbed a hitter of a hit when he scoops up a grounder.”

    We don’t?

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  3. Westside guy says:

    Alex Gordon took a cheap homer away from Miguel Cabrera – agreed. And I’m sure you’re right, this could affect Cabrera’s MVP chances. But I’m going to think about this as maybe a little karmic re-balancing for all those potential outs that Miguel Cabrera, crappy third baseman, has allowed to turn into hits for the opposing team.

    Lots of sportswriters don’t seem to value defense at all, which is the only reason Cabrera is even in the award discussion this year – so anything that tips the scale away from him is fine by me.

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    • tigerdog says:

      Cabrera is a net negative 5 DRS. His defense is better than a lot of people give him credit for. I live in the OC and get to see a lot of Trout. He’s amazing. No question his defense has value.

      But Cabrera is clearly more valuable to his team this year, IMO. And that’s what the award is about. Value to his team. It’s not a “best player” award.

      Nor does WAR accurately combine offense and defense.

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        “provides the most value award”

        Okay, Trout is making 1/40th of what Cabrera is, how is this even an argument then if it’s value?

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      • Kyle says:

        Agree with you. His defense is getting better, and while brutal at times… he puts full effort in. It’s obvious due to his ridiculous season and how he came in to the year leaner ready to play third base.

        WAR is fun, but I really don’t think it’s as accurate in every situation. Zobrist is not more important to his team than guys like Cabrera, Hamilton, Cano, Beltre, etc…

        Also look at Detroit’s pitching this season. Verlander has had another Cy Young caliber season with less run support causing his wins to fall. Fister also suffered from run support and an injury early on… still a great year. And Scherzer had a career year even with his struggles early on when his ERA was in the mid 5.76 after 13 starts(now it’s 3.82.)

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      • suicide squeeze says:

        Kyle, can you explain why Zobrist isn’t as important to his team as Cabrera, Hamilton, et al?

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      • jscape2000 says:

        The narrative I haven’t heard a lot about is the work Cabrera has put in defensively- which is work he volunteered for by agreeing to move to 3B. Which allowed the Tigers to add Prince Fielder. Which allowed the Tigers a shot at the division.

        Maybe I missed it, or maybe it’s on its way.

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      • suicide squeeze says:

        Just to cut that argument off at the pass (should someone choose to make it):

        1. The Angels signed a stud 1B of their own. Mike Trout shouldn’t get less credit because he already played a different position.

        2. By that argument, Ben Zobrist should be MVP every year. He changes positions like all the time.

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    • brendan says:

      the stats and the eyes say that cabrera has been suprisingly competent at 3B this year, not atrocious like we all expected. you shouldn’t put down his defense.

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  4. Chris says:

    Achieving the Triple Crown is still an impressive feat, even if it doesn’t really correlate to being the best hitter. It’s like hitting for the cycle in a game that your team loses. It’s impressive and should be celebrated, however, it doesn’t mean that you’re good, and it doesn’t mean that your team will win if you do it.

    So what if RBI’s are a useless stat and batting average is a seriously inferior stat to OBP? It’s an impressive feat still.

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    • Westside guy says:

      “It doesn’t mean you’re good” – that may be overstating things just a tad. I agree getting the Triple Crown doesn’t mean you’re the best hitter – but it’s hard to imagine someone who’s not a very good hitter doing it.

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      • chuckb says:

        He didn’t say that it doesn’t mean that a Triple Crown winner is good. He said that it doesn’t mean that someone who hits for the cycle is good. On that, I’ll agree. Anyone could hit for a cycle on a really lucky day.

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  5. ettin says:

    Do I smell a new unique FanGraphs stat?

    TCPA = Triple Crown Probability Added?

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  6. Theodosius says:

    Dang, I was hoping for an answer to the potential mates v. fresh food dilemma.

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  7. Tim says:

    Damn you Alex Gordon!!!!! I want to see a triple crown winner in my lifetime!!!

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  8. Slugger27 says:

    “my sense is that the voters are looking for a reason to give Cabrera the nod”

    ….based on what?

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  9. DL80 says:

    Great questions here. Let’s take it a step further.

    If Cabrera retires today, is he a Hall of Famer? I’m talking about whether he would actually get in, not whether he would deserve it.

    .318/.395/.561 career slash line with 319 HR, 1792 H, 1117 RBI, .401 wOBA, 50.4 WAR, 7 All-Stars, a runner-up in the MVP, no MVP wins.

    Those are some phenomenal batting numbers. I don’t think that’s quite good enough right now, especially since I’m hoping that younger/newer voters might start counting defense a bit more, but he’s not that far away.

    If, as Jeff suggests, there is a non-zero chance that Cabrera loses out on the MVP this year because of Gordon’s catch (because he loses out on the Triple Crown that might have clinched it for him over Trout), isn’t there also a non-zero chance that Gordon’s catch also keeps Cabrera out of the Hall of Fame? If Cabrera only lasts a few more seasons before his body, his drinking, or his defense ends his career, couldn’t you see him at something like .309/.375/.539 with 450 HR? I would say that’s not very likely, but if it happened, couldn’t the “MVP winner” vs. “two-time MVP runner-up” be the difference in his HOF candidacy? Maybe he gets in either way, but I think it is fascinating to think that Gordon’s catch could potentially cost Cabrera millions of speaking/signing fees post-career.

    Probably something like one in a million (Cabrera could still win the Triple Crown, could still win the MVP, and is probably going to have a career that is plenty good enough for the HOF with or without the MVP this year), but still.

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    • Larry Yocum says:

      Well, Cabrera isn’t retiring though and probably has a lot of good baseball left. If he retired today, he probably wouldn’t get in.

      We have seen other hitters tail off and not make the HOF after a nice start to their careers (Don Mattingly comes to mind as his first four seasons looked Hall worthy, but then his power disappeared). While others have gotten better with age and put up a solid HOF candidacy as they went along (Adrian Beltre seems to be making this argument).

      Cabrera will likely settle into that nice DH role eventually and will likely continue to mash. If he does that, he’ll be a HOFer.

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    • Mike P says:

      If Cabrera retired today he would not make the HOF. First rule is you have to have 10 full seasons of MLB service and he does not.

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  10. Well-Beered Englishman says:

    My favorite part is that the TV broadcast shows “2-Run Home Run” and then they wipe it out as Cabrera trots back to the dugout.

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  11. tigerdog says:

    No, the winner of a triple crown should not automatically be given the MVP award. But no, WAR does not accurately measure the value of a player’s offensive and defensive value in terms of wins, and it doesn’t begin to put a price tag on the value of a player’s contribution to his team.

    Baseball is all about winning games, and about making the playoffs. This year, it’s even more important for teams to win their division. There is value in that, and very little value in finishing third instead of fourth.

    Cabrera is ahead of Trout in Avg, HR, RBI, OBP, SLG, OPS, wOBA, wRC, ISO, and his contribution may lead his team to first place and a spot in the playoffs.

    Trout is better defensively, in stolen bases (and base running in general), and WAR, and may lead his team to third place and a spot on the sofa, where he can watch the Tigers in the playoffs.

    Value is in the contribution to the team, and there isn’t one statistic that can measure that. Start by seeing what the team accomplished and the player gets a share of the credit.

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    • Chris Headley says:

      Um, Trout is ahead in wOBA and WRC and OBP.
      Do you realize the Angels have a better record than the Tigers? Why should Cabrera get awarded for playing in a worse division and having a team with a worse record? I can not see any logic in that whatsoever.
      Baseball is the one sport where 1 man’s contributions mean the least towards winning any one single game. Basing MVP off of your team record just makes no sense.

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      • tigerdog says:

        I haven’t seen any trophies being handed out for wins when a team falls short of the playoffs.

        WAR is a noble concept in attempting to determine how many wins a player is worth, because that’s ultimately what the game is about- as long as the team advances to the post season.

        Value to his team. If the team has more value in their season, there’s more value to go around for each player. It’s just one factor, like all the rest, but it’s a huge factor to voters, based on past awards. See Kemp, Matt, 2011.

        Trout and Cabrera are juxtapositioning wOBA and OBP about every couple days now. Trout held a decent lead in those columns for much of the season, but Cabrera has a lead of 131- 119 in wRC.

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        If you have two companies, one has 1,000,000 in revenue and 25,000,000 in assets, and the other has 900,000 in annual revenue, and 20,000,000 in assets, which is better?

        You don’t really know. You’re not looking at the whole picture.

        So if instead the first company also has 900,000 in annual expenses and 24,000,000 in liabilities, and the other has 300,000 in annual revenue and 10,000,000 in liabilities, it looks like company 2 despite having lower annual revenue and less assets, is better.

        That’s the Trout vs Cabrera argument in a nutshell. With the bat, they’re pretty close, probably advantage Cabrera. However, if you actually look at the big picture, it’s a no brainer.

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  12. tigerdog says:

    BTW- if the Tigers don’t make the playoffs, no doubt the BBWAA will go back to the default option and give it to the guy with the most pinstripes in the playoffs- Robinson Cano!

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  13. DodgersKingsoftheGalaxy says:

    pffft if you ask me any ball that goes over that new fence and not into t he seats shouldn’t even be a HR at Comerica.

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  14. vtiger says:

    Suppose a player bats 4-4 in a game and drives in 4 runs on a 16-0 game, later goes 8-0 in 2 games with 6 SO. Other player goes 4-1 in 4 games with the winning rbi in each 4! WAR shows it?
    I don’t know anything about WAR, but in last 2 games Trout has been 0% offensively ( 7-0 4 SO ) and I did’nt see him doing plays to contribute to his team winnings or running bases. So I said to myself his WAR must be going down.. lets see how much.. and it’s equal! how it is calculated? At the the same days Cabrera made some good outs, drove in 2 go-ahead runs and did not see any variation.. I understand defense can be measured and valued, but how much? it’s about plays that ‘might’ occur? at least traditional stats shows what is happening.. somebody explain please..! PS: where can be found a last-30 days war stat? We always see ‘the MVP of the game’ for example, and it is given to the man who contributed the most for the victory, not the best stat player in the field. Something seems wrong here. We need to see the games, the situations and then decide who is the mvp for his team.

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    • Chris Headley says:

      Regarding your first paragraphs…
      Yea, if it worked that way, we would understand. However, there is no evidence suggesting that when players get hits and score runs, that it is anything more than random variation over the course of the year. You are acting like “clutch” players exist, when they do not.
      Also, WPA shows pretty much exactly what you are asking for, and Trout leads the league.

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    • BookWorm says:

      Couldn’t agree more with Chris on the second part — wWPA (winning team win probability added) will show you how a given play moved a team to victory, measuring what vTiger is asking about: “the man who contributed the most for the victory.”

      Also, I hope that no analysis looks at the performance of a player in two games to make any sort of season-long judgement — whether those games occurred in September or not.

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  15. Simon says:

    People who say:
    “I think Miggy should be MVP, and WAR doesn’t accurately reflect the total contribution a player makes because it doesn’t have Miggy at #1″ are being irrational.

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    • CS Yankee says:

      Not.

      I dislike Miggy for his unprofessional bail-out in the postseason, his drunk driving, and for him being a Tiger (less of an issue).

      I like Trout bigtime, his speed mixed with that power is unbelievable. He seems to be someone that only comes along (maybe) once every generation.

      In having said all that, here is the reality;
      Trout hasn’t helped his team for the full season…the Angels by calling him up after a month will likely have costs their boy the MVP and making the playoffs. He is also fading in September, this might be due playing his longest season ever, or that the league adjusted…only time will tell but I would guess its a combo and he’ll adjust to correct.

      Miggy moved for Prince and has played really, really well since eating hos Oak’s on that liner in ST. Add in a possible Triple Crown and he was there all season long for his team.

      The rarest, most sought thing for a player is a high-average, power hitter. If Trout had a full season, wasn’t fading down the line then his base-running and Outfield play would win out, IMHO.

      This is the year of Cabrera (both good and bad).

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  16. BookWorm says:

    While I agree that it’s weird to see Willingham on the RBI leaderboard, it shouldn’t be all that surprising. The guy’s SLG is over .500 for the season, and the AL-leading OBP guy (Mauer) is ahead of him in the batting order. Lots of RBI opportunities for Willingham, and clearly he’s making the most of it.

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  17. Andrew says:

    “All of us here at FanGraphs know with a high degree of certainty that Mike Trout has been more valuable than Miguel Cabrera overall”

    This reads as: All of us at Fangraphs solely rely on flawed, erroneous advanced stats to the point that we don’t actually watch the games and we generally take contrarian POVs for the sake of being contrarian..

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  18. Patrick says:

    The rule of Gondor is mine!

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  19. Patrick says:

    I’m a 41 year old Tigers fan and a huge historical baseball lover and this might not seem huge to all, but to me it’s an amazing hitting feat! nobody in the National League has did it since freaking 1937! And None in my lifetime so far, there have been a few close calls, but this is one of my Tigers and while fighting for a Playoff spot that everyone thought was a given in March/April. His hittin has carried this team along wih Prince and Jackson….Dirks has been a pleasent suprise as well since leaving the DL…Anyway I regressed, I hope as a fANTASY nERD, and baseball guy this Triple Crown does happen….and everything else will fall in suit!
    Trout has been the fire in the Angels Asses since his call up…no doubt, he may be the best all arounf player in baseball, so I’m not reducung anything his has done, I’m a huge fan of his!

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  20. Sage S says:

    what, holy crap indeed.

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