Putting WAR in Context for Trout versus Cabrera

One of the things that everyone points out in the discussion of Mike Trout over Miguel Cabrera is Trout’s higher WAR* value. The basic premise is that if Trout contributed more wins to the Angels than Cabrera did to the Tigers, then Trout is more valuable.

For those unfamiliar with the statistic, WAR stands for Wins Above Replacement. The theory that it acts as a “counting stat” that illustrates how many wins a player contributes over a theoretical “replacement” player. Replacement players are described as your typical AAA minor league baseball player.

WAR is calculated a few different ways but I’m going to leverage Baseball Reference’s value for this discussion, mostly because they have every statistic readily available for anyone to access.

Cutting to the chase, Cabrera had a WAR of 6.9 versus Trout’s WAR of 10.7, despite Cabrera playing the entire season. At face value, this seems like a pretty straightforward argument in favor of Trout.

Except this is a discussion of the Most Valuable Player, not the best player. WAR is excellent at showing production but the value of anything is dependent upon context. Let’s look at the standings for the 2012 American League West.

Team Wins Losses
Oakland Athletics 94 68
Texas Rangers 93 69
Los Angeles Angels 89 73
Seattle Mariners 75 87

The Angels finished third in the division, four games out of the Wild Card and five games out of first. What happens if you take away Trout’s 10.7 wins, or 11 to be practical?

The Angels would still have finished third with 78 wins and 84 losses. While those 11 wins would have gone to other teams and not into the ether, the odds of the Mariners getting three or more of them to catch or pass them are slim to none.

So not having Trout made no difference in the standings. You can argue that his presence in the lineup helped make other players better as it would have been harder to pitch around people in the lineup. That is a good point. A counter point is that the odds of the Angels filling Center Field with only a replacement level center fielder are very slim, so all 11 wins would likely not have been lost.

Considering that both those points apply to Cabrera, let’s move on and take the same look at the American League Central.

Team Wins Losses
Detroit Tigers 88 74
Chicago White Sox 85 77
Kansas City Royals 72 90
Cleveland Indians 68 94
Minnesota Twins 66 96

Detroit won their division by three games, sending them to the playoffs. If you take away Cabrera’s 6.9 wins, they end up at an even 81 and 81, out of the playoffs.

Cabrera’s “wins” were the difference between making the playoffs or spending October at home. In this context, Cabrera’s wins were more valuable than Trout’s.

Of course, this logic can be taken too far. Remember this basic premise, if you aren’t the most valuable player on your team, how can you be the most valuable person in the league?

This argument, by itself, isn’t enough of an argument for Cabrera. It is strictly meant to show how WAR isn’t the alpha and the omega of the discussion. It is a valid part of the discussion and even with the context of the division standings, it is a powerful argument for Trout.

As I mentioned when describing the basis for the MVPP statistic, Branch Rickey described it best,

We finished last with you, we can finish last without you.

* For the record, I like WAR. It does a great job of explaining how good a player is. I don’t like using it when talking with non-statistically oriented baseball fans because I can’t easily explain how it is calculated, though I have faith in that calculation. Like any statistic, if it is the only one you can use to win an argument, it isn’t enough.


One thought on “Putting WAR in Context for Trout versus Cabrera

  1. Pingback: Why Runs and RBIs Matter for the MVP | Pie on Sports

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