Trout Versus Cabrera: Offense Only, Context Included

This piece originally ran on Ocotber 4th. Given the attention that Trout and Cabrera are going to receive today, I figured it was probably worth running again.

The AL MVP debate continues to rage on, and at this point, most of the arguments have already been made on both sides. If you think the Triple Crown should always be rewarded with an MVP, you’re voting for Miguel Cabrera. If you think the winner of the award has to come from a playoff team, you’re voting for Miguel Cabrera. If you think that WAR is a decent measure of player value, you’re voting for Trout. At this point, both sides are basically just yelling at each other, and no one is changing their minds.

However, for those who are uncomfortable with any of those positions and might still be on the fence, I wanted to offer one more perspective on the issue. The reality is that the case for Cabrera requires the assumption that baserunning and defense are of marginal value, and that position players should really by evaluated by their hitting statistics. The case for Cabrera also wants you to take context into account, since Cabrera drove in so many more runs than Trout did, and wants Cabrera to receive credit for his accomplishments with men on base. Interestingly enough, we have a metric here on FanGraphs that measures only offense and credits hitters for their performances with men on base. At the risk of adding to the alphabet soup, I think it’s worth looking at this little-used metric that measures exactly what the Cabrera contingent wants us to measure.

This metric is called RE24. It’s been on the site for years, and is available as part of our Win Probability section. We don’t use it a lot, because in general we prefer to talk about players from a context-neutral perspective, but for the purpose of this discussion, it might just be the perfect metric.

RE24 is essentially the difference between the run expectancy when a hitter comes to the plate and when his at-bat ends. For example, September 16th, Cabrera came to the plate against Joe Smith with runners at first and second and two outs, a situation where the Tigers would be expected to score 0.33 runs on average. Cabrera hit a three run home run, so they actually scored three runs, and RE24 gives Cabrera credit for +2.67 runs, the gap between what they were expected to score and what they actually scored.

Unlike with context-neutral statistics like wRC+, RE24 takes the number of outs and number of baserunners into account. It does not assume that all home runs are equal, nor does it treat a strikeout with a man on third base and one out as just another out. The rewards for performing with men on base are higher, and the blame for failing in those same situations is steeper as well. This is a metric that essentially quantifies the total offensive value of a player based on the situations that he actually faced. This is not a theoretical metric. If you hit a three run home run, you get more credit than if you hit a solo home run. If you are consistently getting hits with two outs to drive in runs, you get more credit than if those hits come with no outs and the bases empty. And, of course, it’s only an offensive metric, so there’s no defensive component, no position adjustments, and no replacement level. This is just straight up offense, adjusted for the context of the situations that they faced.

Here’s the AL leaderboard for this season. If you don’t want to click the link, I’ll just reproduce the top five here.

1. Edwin Encarnacion: +55.84 runs
2. Mike Trout: +54.27
3. Prince Fielder: +50.59
4. Miguel Cabrera: +47.43
5. Josh Hamilton: 44.44

Offense only. Context Included. Trout is just barely behind Edwin Encarnacion for the league lead, and slightly ahead of Miguel Cabrera, who is actually second on on his own team.

I know these new-fangled “advanced” stats can be scary, but this isn’t some kind of black box where you just have to take our word for it. We have RE24 on each player’s Play Log, so you can see the exact amount of value that each player was credited with on every single offensive play they were involved in all year long. Here’s the top five plays from Cabrera’s play log, for instance:

9/16 vs Joe Smith, 2 on, 2 out, 3 run HR: +2.67 runs
9/18 vs Jesse Chavez, 3 on, 0 out, Grand Slam: +2.16 runs
9/29 vs Casey Fien, 2 on, 0 out, 3 run HR: +2.00 runs
4/8 vs Alfredo Aceves, 2 on, 0 out, 3 run HR: +1.99 runs
7/24 vs Joe Smith, 1 on, 2 outs, 2 run HR: +1.88 runs

There’s evidence of Cabrera’s monstrous clutch September in RE24, as his three most valuable outcomes all came in the last couple of weeks. In fact, Mike Trout only had one plate appearance all year where his RE24 was over +2 runs — a three run homer off Felix Hernandez in August — so Cabrera’s certainly had more big moments where his ability to drill the ball over the wall created runs for the Tigers offense.

So, why is Trout ahead of Cabrera? And, for that matter, why is Cabrera behind even his own teammate, Prince Fielder, as well as Encarnacion, who is not even in the MVP discussion?

It comes back to double plays. I noted a few weeks ago that Cabrera had hit into an AL leading 28 double plays. Turns out, a bunch of those were big-time rally killers. 12 of the 28 double plays Cabrera hit into lowered the run expectancy by at least one run; Trout only had two plate appearances all season where the run expectancy went down that much in a single play. Because RE24 is available for every play, and easily accessible from the play logs, it’s easy to put each player’s individual performances into groups, so we can see the distribution of their offensive events.

Player +1 and up 0 to +1 0 to -1 -1 and down
Trout 54 269 388 2
Cabrera 77 219 406 12

Cabrera had 23 more highly visible significant offensive plays that generated +1 runs or more than expected based on the situation he was placed in. Those plays are extremely valuable, and Cabrera was credited with 97 runs in those 77 plays. Meanwhile, Trout only created 66 runs in his 54 big plays, so we’re looking at a 31 run advantage for Cabrera in high visibility plays. This is what’s driving Cabrera’s narrative – everyone remembers these plays, and saw Cabrera come through in big situations more often than they saw Trout do the same.

However, Trout makes up the gap — and then some — in the other 600+ plays that matter as well. While he had 23 fewer big positive plays, he had 50 additional smaller positive plays, all of which contributed to the Angels offensive performance. He also had 28 fewer negative value plays, including 10 fewer that were extremely negative, thanks primarily to his ability to stay out of the double play.

You can go through each player’s play logs and see exactly where they earned and lost credit. There’s no replacement level here. We’re not dealing with defensive metrics that require some subjective inputs and can’t be easily replicated. This is just pure offense, and the total value of all the plays that both Trout and Cabrera were involved in.

And Trout still comes out on top. Ignore defense. Ignore things like going first to third on a single, or taking the extra base on a fly ball. Ignore WAR. Trout still wins. This is how amazing his season actually was. Even if you strip away the things that make Mike Trout special, he was still the best offensive performer in the American League this year, even while starting the season in the minors. This isn’t just the best performance of 2012 – it’s one of the best individual performances in the history of baseball.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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Will
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Will

On the double play, I would think that Miguel Cabrera would have more dp play opportunities. Trout is the better player, but Miguel Cabrera is the better hitter according to wOBA when you take out sb/cs, which have nothing to do with hitting

lawd
Guest
lawd

I guess Dave’s going to have to come up with another metric besides wOBA for his article now…

sklandog
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sklandog

…and more opportunities to gain credit where RE24 is concerned.

channelclemente
Guest
channelclemente
Eminor3rd
Member
Eminor3rd

Which is exactly why we don’t use this measure. BUT, people that point this out also have to point out how much more often Cabrera will come up with runners on base in the third spot. This is the problem with these context measurements.

But, Dave makes the argument on this field because the mainstream refuses to play on the saber field

PeterC
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PeterC

Baseball writers only comprise part of the mainstream. I think virtually all front offices use saber in their analysis these days.

Chicago Mark
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Chicago Mark

There is more to baseball than saber. The human element will always be there. My guess is the non-saber folks (me) will be celebrating Miggy’s win today. And I’m not certain if it happens this way again in 25 years that we don’t celebrate on the triple crown winners side again. Old dogs and all.

Jordan
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Jordan

True, but if you make that argument, you can’t also use Miggy’s RBI lead over Trout as an argument in his favor.

Ben Hall
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Ben Hall

Are you serious? Yes, he has more double play opportunities, but those are also opportunities to drive in runs. Those opportunities can produce big swings in both directions.

The whole point of this article was to concentrate on context, and wOBA is a context neutral.

David K
Guest
David K

Why should we take out Trout’s running ability?

One thing I was thinking about regarding RE24 is that Trout probably doesn’t get ENOUGH credit for his RE24 advantage and here’s why. Let’s say each of these two guys comes up with nobody out and nobody on and hit a single. RE24 would say the run expectancy goes up the same in both cases, does it not, because it’s based on MLB averages of the probability of scoring with a man-on-first-and-one-out situation. But we all know that with Trout on first, the probability is higher that the team will score because of his running ability. I don’t believe RE24 takes this into account at all.

Phil
Guest
Phil

No. But WPA does. And in this stat, Trout has a commanding lead. This is extremely impressive given that this is a cummulative (not averaging) stat and Trout played 23 fewer games.

Misfit
Guest
Misfit

I always find it amusing how proponents of the RBI as a measurement of success tend to want to remove blame on a hitter for double plays hit into. A hitter can’t be penalized for having the misfortune of having a man on first when he grounded to second, but can be rewarded for hitting a ground ball past the second basemen when a guy just so happens to be at third base? It should go both ways, but so long as baseball writers are the ones voting on these awards, the overall narrative they create for a player will be the driving force behind who wins the MVP. And since someone decided that leading the league in batting average is superior to leading the league in OBP, or driving in the most runs is better than scoring the most, we have a triple crown of AVG/RBI/HR and a triple crown winner who will likely be voted MVP, justly or not.

Chicago Mark
Guest
Chicago Mark

I like Misfit. Although I like it the way it is. And again, I don’t think it will change anytime soon.

Wellhitball
Guest
Wellhitball

Stolen bases are a form of run production though, so it would defeat the purpose of omitting stolen bases if you are attempting to quantify run production.

Wellhitball
Guest
Wellhitball

Rather, it would confound your total offensive production ability if you omit stolen bases (since it is the difference between a double and a single).

AA
Guest
AA

Even if Trout was hitting behind 2-3 guys with a .400 OBP, he would still hit into less DPs than Cabrera.

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