By the end of the 2012 baseball season, there was so much talk about WAR that you thought you were listening to a classic rock station. You know, Edwin Starr or Eric Burdon and all that stuff.
And while the debate over who should be the American League MVP officially ended when Miguel Cabrera won the balloting in dominating fashion, baseball fans were left with a question: WAR, what is it good for?
Cabrera, you’ll remember, became the first player in 45 years to win the Triple Crown. Most seasons, that would leave no doubt about the MVP voting.
But 2012 wasn’t most seasons, because most seasons don’t have a Mike Trout. The Angels’ wunderkind became the darling of baseball’s number crunchers, and their favorite talking point was WAR.
Wins Above Replacement is part of baseball’s new math. In short, it defines how many wins a player produced in comparison to a mythical replacement player — the kind of guy who could be called up from the minors or could be found languishing on a major-league bench. You know, a Willie Bloomquist.
In general, the bar is set so a team of “replacement players” would have a winning percentage of about .333.
WAR is a valuable tool for measuring a player’s contributions, so long as you believe in the math being plugged into the computers. And the computers told us that Trout had a WAR of 10.7 (Cabrera’s was 6.9), the highest mark by a non-Bonds position player since Cal Ripken in 1991. That means Trout gave the Angels 10 more wins than if his playing time had been taken by a marginal major leaguer. Or Willie Bloomquist.
Trout scored 20 more runs than any other player in the AL, led the league with 49 stolen bases while being caught five times, hit 30 homers, batted .326, and played an outstanding center field.
The math tells us he had a historic season, but math can be complicated and confusing. Leading the league in batting, homers, and RBI is much more simplistic, and in the end that resulted in an MVP for Cabrera.
As far as long-established MVP parameters go, Cabrera was the obvious choice. He had better numbers in the traditional categories, and his team reached the playoffs while Trout’s fell short. That last point is one filled with contention; Trout’s team had a better record than Cabrera’s but simply found itself in a more competitive division.
Trout contributed 138 runs to his team’s offense, according to the Runs Created formula, while using up 396 outs. Cabrera created 139 runs while using 454 outs. And Trout played in a more pitcher-friendly park.
Trout was the better offensive player and played a key defensive position, while Cabrera played a mediocre third base. The vote should have been obvious; and yet it wasn’t.
But while baseball’s stat geeks will long lament the 2012 AL MVP vote, the fact that there was a discussion was a mark of progress. Some 20 or 10 or even 5 years ago, if somebody had won a Triple Crown there would have been no debate about the MVP balloting.
Nowadays, sophisticated baseball analysis, the kind largely invented by the likes of Bill James some 30-odd years ago, is changing the debate and altering the discussion.
Cabrera may have won the battle, but the geeks are winning the WAR.
Questions or comments for By the Numbers? You can reach Greg Jayne, Sports editor of The Columbian, at 360-735-4531, or by email at email@example.com. To read his blog, go to blogs.columbian.com/greg-jayne