Tonight Is Not a War on WAR

The MVP awards are announced tonight. Buster Posey is going to win, and deservedly so. Miguel Cabrera is also going to win, and he’s not the worst choice the voters have ever made. Cabrera had a fantastic season. This isn’t Juan Gonzalez in 1996 or anything. But, as you almost certainly know by now, I happen to think Mike Trout was both better and more valuable this year. I’ve already written extensively on their respective seasons, so if you want to know why I support Trout, I’d suggest any of these three articles from a couple of months ago.

Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, and Measuring Value
The AL MVP Debate: We Did This Two Years Ago
Trout Versus Cabrera: Offense Only, Context Included

I’m kind out of things to say about Trout and Cabrera, though. Everything that could possibly be covered has been covered. Anyone who could possibly be swayed has been swayed. At this point, everything else is just arguing for the sake of arguing.

I do hope, however, that tonight isn’t seen as kind of referendum on WAR. Because the pro-Trout people tend to also be pro-WAR people, there’s a tendency to see any argument for Trout as being based on accepting WAR at face value. Really, though, the pro-Trout argument has nothing to do with WAR, because the disagreements between the two sides aren’t about how we should weight their relative offensive performances, how we should handle position adjustments, or whether replacement levels and park factors are arbitrary or accurate. The pro-Trout argument essentially boils down to two main points:

1. The Most Valuable Player can come from a non-playoff team.

2. RBIs aren’t a useful indicator of a player’s value.

And guess what – these exact same two arguments have been going on every year since the beginning of time. Or, at least, since the beginning of Bill James‘ time. These are the arguments about the MVP race every single winter. They were the arguments last year, when Ryan Braun beat out Matt Kemp in the NL MVP race. They were the arguments in 2003, when Alex Rodriguez won the award on a last place team. They were the arguments in both 1996 and 1998, when Juan Gonzalez racked up two MVP awards that he didn’t deserve.

While WAR has become the symbol for the pro-Trout argument, at the end of the day, this is really the same argument that has been going on for 20 or 30 years. If the Tigers hadn’t made the playoffs, or Cabrera hadn’t led the league in runs batted in, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. This entire discussion is about the validity of those specific points, and those two points have been at the heart of nearly every MVP argument since. The names change, but the discussion remains the same.

A lot of voters — an overwhelming majority, I’d say — put a lot of stock in whether a team makes the playoffs, and a good chunk of those are happy to defend the virtues of RBIs. Until and unless WAR incorporates those two factors, it’s never going to be a persuasive argument for that bloc of voter. And WAR is intentionally designed to not include those factors, so for a large population of the BBWAA, WAR will never be a useful tool in determining the MVP.

And that’s why this vote really has nothing to do with WAR. WAR is essentially a proxy in this whole thing, just like cell phone usage is a proxy in presidential politics. Young voters tend to use cell phones, and young voters tend to vote for democrats, but young voters are not voting for democrats because they own cellphones. In the same way, young voters tend to prefer Mike Trout, and young voters tend to like WAR, but they’re not preferring Mike Trout simply because he has a higher WAR. They’re preferring Mike Trout because they’ve discarded the ideas that an MVP has to come from a playoff team and that RBIs are useful measures of a player’s value.

Without those two boxes to check, Cabrera’s MVP case falls apart. Team divisional placement — I can’t even call it team wins, as I originally wrote it, because the Angels won more games than the Tigers this year — and RBIs are the foundation of Cabrera’s case. Those of us who have an affinity for WAR generally don’t put a lot of stock in those things as measures of value. People who have distaste for WAR generally do put a lot of stock in those things. And, just as is the case pretty much every year, the winner will be decided based on how many voters still believe in the value of RBIs and whether a team makes the playoffs or not.

This debate has been framed as WAR vs Traditional Stats. But it’s really not that at all. No one who would vote for Mike Trout simply looked at the WAR leaderboards and decided that it was case closed. No one who voted for Miguel Cabrera looked at the WAR leaderboards and decided to vote for Cabrera to stick it to the nerds. The AL MVP is not a war on WAR. It’s a continuation of the same argument we’ve been having as long as I’ve followed baseball. And until we come to some kind of agreement on RBIs and whether an MVP can come from a non-playoff team, we’ll continue to have these same arguments every winter.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Lets not be naive, please. Of course the WAR number, whatever it is, has a huge impact in any discussion going forward. Its called “Anchoring” and its a very interesting concept