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Baseball and the Art of WAR

Baseball and the Art of WAR

There was much controversy last season as to whom would be crowned MVP. Miguel Cabrera, the first Triple Crown winner since 1967, was the obvious choice by many, as he led the league in batting average, home runs, and RBIs. However, many disagreed, saying Cabrera did not deserve the award and the Triple Crown is an antiquated method for measuring statistics.

Instead, many believers of so-called “Sabermetric” statistics believed rookie sensation Mike Trout of the Anaheim Angels had a far superior season and should have therefore been awarded the MVP over Cabrera. Sabermetrics is the measure of a player’s performance through objective statistics and analysis. The practice was pioneered by Bill James and has become standard with all major league clubs.

One statistic most advocates of Sabermetrics point to when measuring a player’s performance on the field is WAR. WAR stands for “wins above replacement,” and calculates how many games each player “won” for their team over a generic replacement level player (such as a minor leaguer or a bench player). Advocates believe it better measures a player’s value and contributions to the team because unlike the Triple Crown, which only measures batting average, home runs, and RBIs, WAR also factors in base running and fielding, thereby measuring the player’s complete contribution to the team, not just what he contributed at the plate.

The formula for calculating WAR includes factors for nearly all aspects of the game, including runs scored, runs batted in, home runs, stolen bases, fielding percentage, times caught stealing, and can even be used to calculate a pitcher’s WAR. The formula can be easily found, and is slightly tweaked by various sources that calculate the statistic, but they all post their formula.

Last season, Miguel Cabrera batted .330, with 44 home runs and 139 runs batted in. He only stole four bases during the season and was a liability in the field. Mike Trout, on the other hand, had slightly lower statistics, batting .326 with 30 home runs and 83 RBIs. He was nearly equal with Cabrera in average and within shouting distance in home runs, although he had significantly less RBIs.

However, Trout stole 49 bases during the season and won the Gold Glove, even registering a few game-saving home run robberies with his spectacular defense. He scored more runs than Cabrera, even with Cabrera hitting more home runs. You might be wondering by now what their respective WAR statistics were for the 2012 season? If a bench player or minor leaguer had replaced Miguel Cabrera, the Detroit Tigers would have lost 6.9 more games than they did last season. On the other hand, had a generic replacement been in the lineup for Mike Trout, the Anaheim Angels would have lost 10.9 more games last season. Trout recorded the highest WAR since Barry Bond’s steroid-fueled run to break the single-season home run record in 2001 and one of the highest ever in the history of baseball.

While it is hard to compare the two players’ overall production last season, as both excelled in different aspects of the game, it is easy to recognize both had a legitimate claim to the MVP award. Ultimately, Cabrera was, in my opinion, deserving of the award, as he not only led the league in the three most important “counting” statistics, but he also helped lead his team to a playoff run, something the Angels and Trout failed to do.

After an era where 50 home run seasons became the norm and offense became a higher priority than quality pitching, baseball has cleaned up its act a bit and players are hitting for less power and pitchers are taking back control of the game. While it is easy to concede that Cabrera should have been awarded the MVP award after his spectacular run last season, it is hard to argue that WAR is not a better measure of a player’s value than the Triple Crown statistics now that we are in an era with fewer home runs – as the statistic calculates all aspects of the game, including base running and fielding.