Personal, Not Private

Part I: Silence

About a week ago, there was a news story about two Massachusetts women who had recently made a trip to Arlington National Cemetery. In front of a sign that read “Silence and Respect,” one – Lindsey Stone – had posed with an open mouth (pantomiming yelling), and with an extended middle finger. It might not exactly have been the height of comedy, but the intention was obvious. Unfortunately for Stone, the story proceeded in a predictable fashion. She posted the photograph on Facebook. It somehow went viral. And instead of the ‘likes’ she might have expected, the internet lost its collective mind over what many perceived to be brazen disrespect for the nation’s veterans. Her employers caught hold of the controversy, and both Stone and her friend (Jamie Schuh) were subsequently fired.

The unexpected intrusion of online activity into an individual’s ‘real’ life has become a tale as old as (internet) time. You hear about how the Secret Service endlessly confronts an array of racists who share with the world their specific plans for the president in 140 characters or less. Every so often, a fast-food employee is dismissed after documenting him or herself committing unspeakable acts to restaurant ingredients. Such phenomena have become regular features of the 24-hour news cycle. Yet, unlike the aforementioned, not all cases are so clear-cut, with much ambiguity regarding proper classification of the ‘crime’ as such. Consider Stone and Schuh, who appeared to be engaged in nothing but ill-conceived foolishness.* Their case brings to mind far more innocuous examples.

*The punishment seemed especially harsh for Schuh, who didn’t even get to be on-camera.

Remove the setting for a moment. The concept of Stone and Schuh’s picture immediately becomes unremarkable. Yes, the picture is perhaps a bit crude, but the pose is clearly self-aware and somewhat cute, more pandering than it is rebellious, obviously done with a wink and a nod. It’s the equivalent of someone making grass angels in front of a “keep off grass” sign, or, speaking from personal experience, someone taking a few exaggerated steps past a “do not go beyond this point” sign. Overall, it’s utterly indistinguishable from tens of thousands of pictures that exist on a myriad of social network sites. Now re-insert the setting. The only difference is that the women are behaving inappropriately, and might be jackasses.*

*Think about the ‘keep off grass’ sign. You see it? I want you to picture it. Now imagine it’s white in front of the Holocaust Museum.**

** To draw a parallel, posing on the grass wouldn’t make anyone anti-Semitic. …Though I suppose the cemetery sign directly relates to the veterans in a way the grass sign wouldn’t.

Given the severity of the public response then, as well as the disconnect between non-crime and punishment, there are a myriad of lessons to be gleaned from the Stone and Schuh case. The setting calls into question whether the commendable reverence the public has for veterans has become a blind adoration of the culture. The timeframe in which the events took place underscores the rapidity with which anonymity can be lost. The decisive reaction by the employer demonstrates the oft-blurry line between personal time and company time (overriding the blanket defense of the First Amendment). And the ultimate fate of the women suggests the power of social media often manifests as little more than mob mentality. But perhaps the most important takeaway is the simplest one: Nothing on the internet is private.

Part II: Respect

I’ve always been paranoid about my internet persona. It may seem counter-intuitive, given the considerable size of my digital footprint.* But the fact that I partake in a spectrum of online activity does not mean that I stand oblivious to the consequences of that participation. It’s an uneasy, often contradictory dynamic partially captured by Mike Birbiglia’s humorous notion of a “Secret Public Journal.” Everything I share is intensely personal, sometimes even private, but meant for some public consumption – with varying definitions of that ‘public.’. Personally, I’m self-conscious enough to constantly revisit the issue. I treat the information I share as infinitely permeable. And to the degree that I can, I refuse to cede complete control over my posted content.

*Immature comment here

There are several explanations for my revisionist approach to the internet. Part of it derives from my obsessive compulsive nature, as when I edit posts for overlooked mistakes, or remove links for items that have become inaccessible. Some probably stems from my tremendous insecurity: I rework quips for presumably greater effect, and regularly take down items that garner no immediate response. I’m also, strangely enough, a fairly private person, and thus revisit my decisions to share (or overshare) on a consistent basis. But what intertwines all of the above is the way I’ve come to see the internet, and in particular, the way I’ve come to see the nature of social media.

Facebook – perhaps the most ubiquitous platform – epitomizes the fundamental contradiction of social media, at least from my perspective. That is, it serves as an exhaustive and everlasting archive even as it centers on a culture of instant reaction. It stands as a monument of permanence while being comprised of distinctly transient parts. Essentially, it strives to be a yearbook for all of life – every moment, every thought, every memory, as fueled by a defining conglomerate of notions from narcissism to nostalgia to interconnectivity and everything else.  The result is indeed something comprehensive. But it is also something that is unedited and unpolished by nature.

In maintaining control over my content, and by extension my online persona, I treat social media as a traditional bounded volume, a time capsule of sorts – representative but selective, with proper and differential sentimentality and respect afforded its various aspects. My Facebook is chock-full of harmless entertainment; my Twitter account serves as testing grounds for comedic material; my Instagram and Picasa albums essentially portfolios for amateur photography. I reserve sincerity for private messages and emails, if at all. Yes, I have blogged extensively in the past, but none of that material can be found anywhere but on my hard drive now.* I shared that content when I wanted to, but they’re no longer relevant in my eyes, and thus no longer meant for public consumption. I’ve edited my yearbook.

*…or with an intensive search on the nefarious Internet Wayback Machine.

Still, I have come to recognize that control over my internet persona remains altogether separate from its public acceptability. It’s a distinction hammered home by the Stone and Schuh case. I may not engage in illegal behavior, but neither did those two women. Their ill-fated attempt at humor is one I understand, their vulnerability is one I share.* In such cases that involve moral interpretation rather than strict legal boundaries then, it would be foolish for me not to engage in some introspection, especially as an individual currently in search of employment. What are the risks I’m willing to accept for the persona that I’ve created? What elements of my privacy am I willing to sacrifice for my online activity?

*Even if desecrating Arlington is not something I would ever consider. But to illustrate the point, feel free to examine my Twitter feed.

This last week, I added a line in the description of my Twitter account to underscore its satirical nature. I then thoroughly cleansed my Facebook account, in an unprecedented fashion. I removed much of my personal information, leaving only a profile picture and the details of my current position, and untagging myself from the modest number of photos I was connected to. Most importantly, I deleted the notes that I’ve written on the site, and removed most of my posted content dating back years. The only items left completely untouched are from the past few weeks. In time, that too will change. It’s the nature of my internet.

Riding in Circles

A few years ago, I used to ride a stationary bike at the gym on a weekly basis. I’d get on for an hour, before approaching a litany of weight machines and embarking on a quest of futility. Most of the time during the cardio, I’d watch the flat-screen they had smartly positioned in front of the rows of bikes, ellipticals, and stairmasters. Being Saturday mornings, however, the pickings were slim, and it didn’t help that the remote was nowhere to be found. So I’d catch a little SportsCenter on a good day, and a little Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on most days. Anyhow, there were other ways to amuse myself as I pedaled mindlessly and somewhat furiously – music and podcasts, a couple of magazines, staring at walls, and so forth. When you’re firmly planted in one place, an hour can feel a pretty long time.

I started biking again for exercise a few months ago, mostly to make up for a shorter commute after a move across town. This time, without the benefit of a campus gym membership, I took it to the streets.* I live pretty close to this reservoir, and it seemed an ideal spot for a weekly ride. I decided to scout the location one day, and packed a book, as well as a snack or two. But once I started in, I figured I was already there, and decided to just go with it. The roads around the reservoir comprised about 1.7 miles (according to Google), and over the course of that first day, I came to favor it over the busy and gravelly 1.5 mile path directly on the water. I did about six laps, I think, and went home exhausted. It had taken a little over an hour. I had found my spot.

*The irony of riding outdoors in 35 degree Boston when I rode indoors in perpetually 70 degree Southern California is not lost on me.

The first few times I returned to the route, it was a lot of fun. Even though I was going around in circles (almost literally), I found it difficult to get a sense of the route’s full topography. I’d remember features on the path only when I came upon them again – in my mind, they were all scattered about, lacking a cohesive blueprint. The fact that weather conditions varied only added to the novelty of each ride (except for the one day it poured rain, which was downright miserable). I felt like I was processing everything slowly, and as a result, each ride felt busy. This was the case when I was there for six laps. And after I went ahead and bumped up the number the third week, it was the same when I was there for seven laps, and eight.

I was spending more time on these reservoir rides every weekend. After about a month and a half, I pretty much came to know the route inside and out. I obviously remembered the few turns that were necessary, but my familiarity went far beyond that. I knew the spots when I needed to shift to a lower gear, the bumps I wanted to avoid when no cars were around, even the places rainwater would gather in slightly larger puddles. Sure, there were times when I needed to be quick on my feet, but the ride was becoming mechanical, almost second nature. There was nothing wrong with that, of course – the routine was the point. Still, firmly planted on a bicycle seat for an hour and a half, I started having a not insignificant amount of time to fill.

Of course, I couldn’t resort to television on the road, and I didn’t have the capability to read magazines either. I considered earbuds, but was uncomfortable with the proposition of having cars threaten my existence while I rocked to Taylor Swift Jay-Z in complete ignorance. My weekly bike ride thus became thinking time.  It was actually something I was less than enthralled with. It’s an understatement to say I’m not a thinker; I’d like to think that my shallow nature, for lack of a better descriptor, contributes to a sense of detachment, perspective, and humor, which in turn accounts for some semblance of inner peace. That sounds a bit much, but basically, not overthinking things was a calling card of sorts. But in this situation, I couldn’t exactly shut it down for an hour and a half.*

*Words from Homer Simpson come to mind: “Okay, brain. You don’t like me and I don’t like you, but let’s get through this thing and I can continue killing you with beer.”

It was pretty easy to fill the mind for the first few weeks, with eight or nine laps. I engaged in a bit of introspection, some of it healthy, some of it not. It was on a ride that I confronted my dissatisfaction with my personal life, and became somewhat determined to address it (turning to online dating, a subject for another post). On another, I tried piecing together the structure of an article I was working on, but to no avail. The problem was that I was often interrupted – to maneuver between cars, to silently curse a wrong-way jogger on the road, hell, to pant and get my water bottle. The thoughts soon came in shorter spurts, and ironically, without much thought. I decided to run away to Canada. I wanted to run instead of bike. I dismissed the value of Sunday brunch.

That’s how it was for a while. But the laps increased, and correspondingly, so did the amount of time I spent on the bike. After I got into double digit laps, I started breaking the ride up in my mind. The first two were warm ups. The last two comprised the home stretch.  But the in-between, that was the hard part. And it was difficult to fill that time. Reverting to my preferred state, I consciously decided to avoid heavy introspection. I was out of topics anyway. So instead, I’d count the pedal strokes for a section of the lap. I’d go as far as I could with just my left hand gripping the handlebar. I’d try to calculate how many miles I had gone at a particular point in time.* But after a couple of months, I was on the bike for two hours each go-around. That’s a pretty long time.

*Multiplying 1.7 by anything other than 10 is quite a task when you’re pedaling.

I probably reached a breaking point when I devoted almost the entire duration of one particularly uneventful ride to running through every scene of the 1985 classic, Back to the Future. Not every piece of dialogue – that would have been a bit much. But I played the entire movie in my head, struggling to remember every significant action in every scene. Marty in Doc’s lab. Strums electric guitar. Blows out speakers.  Flies backwards. Phone call from Doc. Meeting at the mall that night. Clocks are all slow. Marty’s late for school. He takes off. That’s Scene 1. And on it went. I was surely losing my sanity. Still, I returned to the reservoir every week, rationalizing it with benchmarks. I hit 20 miles (including the 1.4 total to and from home). A few weeks later, I doubled the length of my original six-lap ride. A while after that, I was at 25 miles (14 laps).  And that was when I decided I needed a change.

With winter on the horizon, my regular bike rides were nearing an end. I figured I might as well take advantage of the remaining fall weather to check out the Minuteman Bikeway, an 11 mile trail that began a few miles from where I lived. So on the day when I was due for a 15-lap run, I headed north instead. I was a bit apprehensive as I made my way towards the trail on city streets; after just a few miles, I was on territory that I had previously traversed only by car. Bike lanes seemed to begin and end indiscriminately, while every intersection was a new and potentially hazardous experience. The features on the path were a blur, paradoxically both vaguely familiar yet completely novel. I had no benchmarks for progress, and so, I just kept pedaling. Eventually, I got there. The lively feeling remained.

The bikeway kept me busy. The path itself was consistently well-laid* – save for the few bumps that warned you of an upcoming intersection. The landscape was vast. A football field appeared, later a baseball diamond. There was a beautiful meadow. A chapel with an overhang that extended over the bikeway. Plus, a countless number of farmhouses, plains, trees, and everything else. I even crossed over a freeway at some point. It was overall an overwhelming visual experience, even visceral in a sense. I kept wondering if I was nearing the finish, stopping a couple of times to check on my phone and see where I was relative to home. Eventually, I reached the end of the bikeway. And then, after sitting for a little bit, I headed back in the opposite direction.

*That’s what she said.

I stopped briefly a couple of times to take pictures. Once closer to home, I stopped for brunch with friends. The ride had taken me three hours. After an hour or so respite, I started the last stretch home. But my legs had stiffened, and when I reached the final half mile incline, the pain in them was so excruciating that I had to get off the seat. Eventually, I walked my bike up the hill and home. I had gone 28 miles before I stopped for brunch – the equivalent of 17 reservoir laps, a full month ahead of schedule. But it had been a lot of fun. And so, the next weekend, I decided to forgo the reservoir again. The bikeway was a little less fuzzy this time, but it remained a novelty. Again, the ride was a challenge. Again, it kept me occupied. This time, I made it all the way home. 30 plus miles, three plus hours.

I’ve been on the Minuteman three times now. I’m starting to know its features, inside and out. And when you’re firmly planted on a bicycle seat, three hours – well, that’s a pretty long time.

Postscript: On my fourth trip to the Minuteman (and possibly the last for a while, as subfreezing temperatures are due to kick in), I had to hit the ground to avoid getting run over by a car. I escaped with a scrape on my knee, but the incident occupied my thoughts for the remaining two and a half hours. I would have happily opted for boredom, perhaps even introspection.

Skyfall is Where We Start, Anew

To call Skyfall among the best of the Bond franchise, as so many critics have done, is not quite the compliment that it might appear – even if it’s an assessment that I ultimately agree with. Viewed as a totality, after all, the 50-year old series is actually quite bereft of depth (say that three times fast). Certainly, there are some excellent movies at the top: I’m partial to 1964’s universally-heralded Goldfinger myself, as well as 1987’s less-popular The Living Daylights, among others. But the franchise really devolves after the best four or five movies. It’s like examining the talent in the Jackson family. Michael and Janet may give the illusion of an impressive list, but there’s a steep drop-off. Most Bond movies are Titos.

Skyfall sets the tone with a fantastic opening sequence. This is no surprise; most openers to Bond movies are memorable. This has especially been the case in the special effects era – witness, for instance, the awe-inspiring action with Goldeneye’s (1995) bungee jump rescue, The World is Not Enough’s (1999) boat chase, and Casino Royale’s (2006) human chase (with random parkour). Even 2002’s Die Another Day, one of the worst Bond movies ever, contains an exciting hovercraft-filled prelude.* Skyfall doesn’t necessarily raise the stakes, but then again, it doesn’t need to. An exhilarating car and motorcycle chase through the heart of Istanbul gives way to an intense struggle atop a train. The overall style is Bourne, with one neat section that’s reminiscent of Jackie Chan’s Supercop.

*They should have heeded George Costanza and ended the movie on that high note.

What sets Skyfall’s opener apart is that it means something. More than any installment since Goldeneye, what happens in the first 15-20 minutes has ramifications for the rest of the movie, and beyond. As the previews have indicated, Bond actually ‘dies’ before Adele belts out the eponymous tune; unsurprisingly, he’s ‘resurrected’ shortly thereafter. But that process is treated with far more gravity than, say, Pierce Brosnan’s Bond getting captured in the Die Another Day prologue. In that instance, Bond had nothing to show for his months-long torture but a cheesy beard, with its lasting impact – physical or psychological – noticeably absent after Madonna‘s last lyric. In Skyfall, Bond’s death matters. He’s rusty, vulnerable, and it’s the case for the entire movie. Moreover, his death has ramifications for the other characters, relating to the choices they made in the heat of the moment. There’s depth from the beginning.

This is emblematic of one of Skyfall’s biggest strengths. While the movie treats the 007 franchise with reverence, it’s never limited by its conventions. It harnesses them, even turning them on their head. The self-awareness has been a staple of the Daniel Craig era (the gun barrel sequence and martini dialogue in Casino Royale provide two prominent examples), but Skyfall is arguably more effective at it than its immediate predecessors. Elements that easily could have seemed quaint otherwise are integrated into the plot, which is driven by an early terrorist attack on MI6 headquarters. It leads to a “back to basics” story arc – almost a reboot of sorts for the Bond universe within the movie. That allows the filmmakers to explain the minimal gadgetry, to use the classic Aston Martin, to re-introduce obligatory characters. All of this is seamlessly interwoven into a very modern story about cybercrime and terrorism.

The imposition of MI6’s crisis mode is especially effective given the involvement of established characters (namely, Craig’s Bond and Judi Dench’s M), as the circumstances distill them to their essence. Their fall from grace and subsequent action has embedded meaning for the audience. Significantly, the within-movie reset button thus doesn’t necessitate the same heavy plot burden borne by the true franchise reboots: consider the awkwardly tacked-on, Vesper-driven third act in Casino Royale (2006)*, or the wedding(!) in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). In Skyfall, Bond and MI6 are targeted from the beginning. It’s like this summer’s The Dark Knight Rises, but stripped of the first hour of extraneous, convoluted bullshit. Here, the protagonists spend the vast majority of the film clawing back. The fact that Bond and M confront their pasts in moving forward only underscores their redemption. Additionally, that element gives a franchise best known for its familiarity a novel sense of progress.

*Largely because of that and the interminable poker sequence, I didn’t love Casino Royale as much as most.

The overall result is that Skyfall manages to feel concurrently timely and timeless. This is no easy task; Bond, after all, is an anachronistic character in nature, a spy who thrives in a secretive world dominated by Cold War tensions.* However, the flaws of so many of the movie’s predecessors didn’t lie with the concept of Bond. It was actually the idea that Bond needed a counter – not just an antagonist but a de facto supervillain – that accounts for the franchise’s most groan-inducing moments. Ernst Blofeld and SPECTRE represent the most obvious manifestation of this quest: consider the volcano headquarters and rogue space program in You Only Live Twice (1967) (which obscured the smart underlying story about mutually assured destruction), or the brainwashed femme fatales in the Swiss Alps in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Overall, most of the villainous plots have been so grand as to be absurd, Moonraker (1979) worst of all.

*A debate over the role of James Bond in today’s world is actually introduced within the script. Its treatment is one of the few disappointments in the movie, as any nuance is lost in a literal gunfight during a government hearing. I’m not convinced that there was a real argument to be made against Bond (and MI6) – at least with Craig’s version – and neither were the writers, it appears.

The best Bonds have been the ones somewhat grounded in reality, even if they contain a trace of the larger-than-life element that gives the series its charm. Goldfinger is about a fat guy who seeks to upend the global economic structure by attacking Fort Knox. Goldeneye centers on two men who feel betrayed by their respective countries, who then commit electronic warfare for personal gains. The motivations are clear, the means and goals are relatively straightforward. No underwater civilizations (1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me), secret Asians (Die Another Day), or circus troupes (1983’s Octopussy). Skyfall falls on the right side. Even with an abandoned island getaway, Silva is essentially a mercenary. Yes, Javier Bardem makes the character unique, and supremely memorable. But his is not equivalent to Blofeld’s elusive global mastermind. Rather, at the base of it, he is a former agent with a personal vendetta in the tradition of Sean Bean’s Trevelyan. The movie is all the better for it.

Skyfall also manages to skirt another problem prevalent throughout the series: blatant misogyny. Certainly, the franchise has made tremendous inroads on this front over the course of 50 years, easing gradually from the vile lines in the Sean Connery-era Bonds* to the adolescent humor (and underlying sexism) of the Brosnan-era Bonds. The Craig additions has been far better in that respect, and Skyfall continues the trend. After all, the most compelling character is M. And of the two so-called Bond girls, only Bérénice Marlohe’s Sévérine falls into the trap of being primarily eye candy – yet, even she gets the opportunity to emote in some highly affecting scenes. The other female character, Naomie Harris’ Eve, has a story arc that is in fact one of the movie’s highlights, culminating in a nice payoff in the epilogue.** It may not be completely progressive, but Skyfall marks another step forward, to the benefit of its watchability.

*Product of their time or not, I’ve found that the encompassing misogyny places an indelible stain on some of the more well-regarded Bonds (most notably, 1962’s Dr. No and 1963’s From Russia with Love).

**Though I was really hoping her full name would be revealed as “Robin Eve Blake.”

Overall, Skyfall is incredibly entertaining and well put-together. At 142 minutes, it registers as one of the longest entries in the franchise. But it never feels as episodic as Casino Royale (144 minutes) or as busy as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (142 minutes). By and large, it’s incredibly smooth from start to finish, even managing a false resolution about halfway through that echoes the one in The Dark Knight. Skyfall’s structure is not perfect, nor is its content; the final Home Alone-inspired act in particular is a stretch. But it is also in that section that it achieves a depth unmatched by any Bond movie in a long time. Yes, while the series has always been cyclical in nature, it finds its footing at the end of Skyfall in a way that eluded even Casino Royale. The franchise feels real, reinvigorated. We’re presented with the definitive modern Bond, the Daniel Craig Bond. It’s a Herculean achievement.

In Defense of Mike Trout

Miguel Cabrera had a fine season. A great season, really – even a historical one. But he wasn’t the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 2012. That was Mike Trout.

There are two broad lines of argument people can draw from in rationalizing an MVP choice (a regular-season award): team success and individual achievement. Let’s explore each.

1. Team Success

To begin, team success is an unfair barometer for an individual’s value. Baseball is a sport with a 25 man roster, 9 guys in the everyday lineup, and an entire half of the game that a position player has little involvement in (even on offense, a player gets just 3-5 at-bats a game). The notion that any single player controls his team’s destiny is quite detached from reality. A player can thus have tremendous value on a terrible team. Indeed, the history of the award is filled with examples of divergence between individual accomplishment and team success. Andre Dawson’s 1987 MVP campaign on the last-place Cubs is perhaps the most famous. More recent MVP cases include Alex Rodriguez’s 2003 (last place), and Albert Pujols’ 2008 (fourth). In the last ten years, 14/20 MVPs – an underwhelming 70% – have come from first place teams, while only two – 10% – were from teams that held the league’s best record. Even voters agree that an MVP is not simply “the best player on the best team.” To extrapolate, a team’s win-loss record is not the ultimate indicator of individual value.

The reason I discuss this is because some people have suggested Cabrera deserves the award because his Detroit Tigers made the playoffs, while Trout’s Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (ugh) did not. I have demonstrated the flawed logic underlying this claim. But even if we were to accept the ‘team success reflects individual value’ argument, this line of logic is utterly specious as it applies to Cabrera vis-à-vis Trout. The Angels had a better record than the Tigers (89-73 to 88-74), won by a bigger margin (overall run differential of +68 to +56), and competed in a better division – significant given the unbalanced schedule. The AL West had a combined winning % of .542 (351-297). The Central? .468 (379-431). The 1st place Tigers would have placed 4th in the West with their record, while the 3rd place Angels would have won the Central with theirs. Notably, the Tigers were just 13-20 against the West, while the Angels were 25-20 against the Central (the teams were split, 5-5, in head-to-head matchups).

A corollary of the “Tigers made the playoffs” argument is the “Cabrera came up big when it mattered” narrative. This doesn’t hold water either, from a team perspective (I explore the individual aspect of this argument in the next section). From September 1st on, the Tigers were a strong 18-13. But the Angels were actually better, at 19-11. Over the last 15 games, when the Tigers caught the White Sox, they went 10-5, while the Angels finished 9-6 in fading from the playoff picture. The only real difference then involved the performance of the teams ahead of them, with the White Sox fading (4-11 in their final 15*) as the Oakland Athletics soared (10-5). Add the fact that Trout was in the minors when the Angels scuffled in April (starting 6-14), and they were overall a much better team with Trout in the lineup (81-58, .583) than the Tigers with Cabrera (87-74, .540). Look, the Tigers should be commended for feasting on the Central (43-29), but their winning an inferior division with a worse record doesn’t make them a better team. Regardless, team success shouldn’t be significantly factored into an MVP selection, if at all.

*Ironically, the Tigers didn’t play the White Sox once in this span, but the Angels did – and won all three of their match-ups.

2. Individual Achievement

Okay, let’s get to the meat of it. I’m going to break down the individual comparisons into three categories: offense, defense, and other. Pretty self-explanatory.*

*One note: The words ‘Triple Crown’ will not be mentioned until the ‘other’ category. I’m invoking only stats when I discuss offense – not historical significance or labels or anything else.

a. Offense

Cabrera and Trout finished 1-2 in the AL in batting, .330-.326. Cabrera was 2nd in hits (205), while Trout was 9th (182). These are negligible differences, especially since On-Base Percentage (which factors walks, hit by pitches, and sacrifice flies into the equation) reverses their order: Trout and Cabrera were 3-4 there, .399-.393. Both men were thus near the top of the league in terms of getting on base, setting aside the means.

The power numbers are where Cabrera has major advantages. He led the league in slugging (based on total bases over at-bats), .606, and in OPS (on-base + slugging), .999. He was also 1st in HRs (44), RBI (139), extra base hits (84), and total bases (377). Looking at advanced statistics, he was 1st in runs created (139), and 3rd in isolated power (.277). Remarkable. In comparison, Trout finished 3rd in slugging percentage (.564), and 2nd in OPS (.963). He was 13th in HRs (30), 23rd in RBI (83), 15th in extra base hits (65), and 6th in total bases (315). And again, returning to advanced statistics, he was 2nd in runs created (138), and 8th in isolated power (.283). Trout’s numbers are strong, but they obviously don’t match up.

However, there’s more to the story.

1) Cabrera batted third for the Tigers, while Trout was the Angels’ lead-off guy. Consider this. Trout led Cabrera in runs scored (129-109, 1-2 in the league), stolen bases (49-4, Trout was 1st there, and 5th in success rate), going from first to third (63%-29%), and scoring from 2nd base (68%-63%). He grounded into 7 double plays, Cabrera 28 (most in the league). Overall, Trout’s baserunning alone added 12 runs, best in the league, while Cabrera’s cost the Tigers 4. In short, you could make the case that Trout was every bit as good a lead-off guy as Cabrera was a heart-of-the-order guy. That’s in addition to Trout’s strong power numbers.

2) Sophisticated statistics suggest the two are even closer.* This is a huge simplification, but most of the following essentially measure the team’s place before and after the batter stepped to the plate, adjusted for the ballpark. In other words, given the batter’s performance, was the team more likely to score or win? Looking at Adjusted Batting Runs, Cabrera leads Trout, 57-55 (1-2 in the league). In Adjusted Batting Wins, it’s Cabrera again, 5.6-5.4 (1-2). But the two are tied in Situational Wins Added, 6.0 (1-1). And many other categories favor Trout, including Offensive Win Percentage (.786-.745, 1-2), Adjusted OPS+ (171-165, 1-2), Base-Out Runs Added (53.85-47.13, 2-5), Wins Probability Added (5.3-4.8), and Base-Out Wins Added (5.4-4.5, 2-5). In the cumulative Offensive WAR (wins above replacement), Trout beats Cabrera handily, 8.6-7.4 (1-2).

*Baseball-Reference outlines how each metric is put together. You might question their validity, but traditional numbers have their own obvious flaws (more on this later). The fact remains that many of the advanced statistics have become widely disseminated and respected in the industry. Moreover, none of them suggest that Cabrera didn’t have an amazing offensive year.

3) Trout’s spectacular power numbers (again, from the 1-spot) are even more impressive given the fact he played in 22 fewer games than Cabrera (139-161 games, 639-697 plate appearances, 559-622 at-bats). Balance the at-bats, and the categories that currently favor Cabrera the most – HR, hits, extra base hits, total bases – tighten considerably. Now, I’m not suggesting that Cabrera should be penalized for playing 161 games. But it reinforces my broad argument in this section:

Trout’s offensive output is a lot closer to Cabrera’s than you might think. By many measures, Trout’s offensive efficiency outpaced Cabrera’s.

b. Defense

A defensive comparison between two different positions is admittedly difficult (if you don’t know that Trout is a center fielder and Cabrera is a 3rd baseman, I have no idea why you’ve read this far). There is also less agreement regarding the utility of advanced defensive metrics. But is there anyone who thinks Miguel Cabrera is a better defensive player than Mike Trout? Limitations of isolated data points aside, did you see this play? How about this one, or this one? Sorry. Okay, I’ll go ahead and humor you. Let’s compare Trout and Cabrera’s defensive years.

Cabrera committed 13 errors, 4th in the AL at his position. He was 3rd in fielding percentage (.966) and 4th in range factor (2.52). Trout committed 2 errors, tied for 5th at his position. He was 5th in fielding percentage (.993), and 4th in range factor (2.70). In terms of peer standing then, it might seem as if Cabrera was as good a defensive player as Trout was. But this is a huge mischaracterization. Consider the difference in range factors, a statistic that 1) has nothing to do with position, and 2) dictates the amount of chances any player would have in the first place. In other words, while Cabrera handled his chances fine, Trout created more chances by getting to a lot more balls (that he wasn’t expected to) than Cabrera did.

Building on that, Baseball Info Solutions has a statistic called “Defensive Runs Saved,” in which they review every play on video to consider whether a player made or missed a play that an average player at his position would have made (including plays specific to positions, such as bunts and double plays for infielders, and throws for outfielders). By that metric, Trout saved 27 runs (2nd best for all players in the AL), while Cabrera was a -4. 27 to -4. Overall, Trout’s Defensive WAR was 2.2, 3rd best at his position in all of baseball (and 7th overall), while Cabrera’s was a 0.2 (tied for worst at his position). Again, Trout did this in fewer games, and thus, with fewer opportunities.

By almost all measures then (at least those that indicate range), Trout had one of the best defensive years of any position player in the league. Cabrera had a below average year at third base.

c. Other

If Mike Trout had nearly as good an offensive year as Miguel Cabrera (if not downright better), and had a substantially better defensive year (Trout beats Cabrera in overall WAR, 10.7-6.9; they finished 1-4 in the league), then how can Cabrera be more valuable to his team than Trout was to his? Let’s explore some of the ‘other’ explanations out there.

Cabrera gave up first base (his natural position) for Prince Fielder.

I’ve actually heard this line of logic, which doesn’t really deserve a response (I’m convinced the lowest forms of life are found on sports talk radio). But I’ll provide one anyway. Does the fact that Cabrera is a good teammate make up for his atrocious defensive play? This should have as much bearing on MVP talk as the price of tea in China. You play where you play.

Trout isn’t even the best defensive center fielder on his own team.

True, Trout occasionally moves over to left field in late-game situations for Peter Bourjos. Bourjos boasts a range factor for 2.98 (2nd best for his position), and despite playing approximately just 40% of the innings that Trout did, was 9 Total Zone fielding runs above average (to Trout’s 13). But so what if Bourjos happens to be the best defensive center fielder in baseball? Trout was still superb when he did play center, and he was superb when he was shifted over to left field. Bourjos or no Bourjos, Trout’s overall defensive year far eclipses that of Cabrera’s (-9 in the Total Zone stat).

Cabrera came up big down the stretch.

Cabrera hit .333 from September 1st on, with 11 HR, 30 RBI, 0 SB, and 23 runs scored. His OBP was over .378, his slugging over .654. In contrast, Trout hit .289, with 5 HR, 9 RBI, 7 SB, and 23 runs scored. His OBP was over .380, his slugging above .455. Yes, Cabrera was a better offensive player than Trout down the stretch. But the only way this argument gains traction in the MVP race is if team success is accounted for. In other words, “Cabrera willed the Tigers into the playoffs.” As I’ve already discussed though, individual value exists irrespective of team success.* The other fundamental problem is this: games don’t count more in September and October than they do in May or June.

*Besides, even if you account for team success, the Angels were as good as the Tigers down the stretch. And if you say this only demonstrates Cabrera’s greater value (since the Angels won without Trout at his best), this is too small of a sample size to make that claim. Looking at the overall population – that is, the entire season – easily refutes this. Again, the Angels were 6-14 at the beginning of the year without Trout, second worst in all of baseball. They played .580 baseball the rest of the way.

Cabrera is the first Triple Crown winner since 1967.

Ultimately, for Cabrera apologists, this is what it comes down to. Do I think it’s awesome that Cabrera won the Triple Crown? Certainly. But just because someone won the Triple Crown doesn’t mean they should be guaranteed the MVP award. In fact, since the latter came into existence in 1931, four of the nine subsequent Triple Crown winners were not voted MVP (Chuck Klein in 1933, Lou Gehrig in 1934, Ted Williams in 1942 and 1947). So the correlation isn’t there. Moreover, the historical feat is insufficient to demonstrate that Cabrera should win the award.

After all, the Triple Crown is an artificial label. Cabrera won batting .330, with 44 HR and 139 RBI. Impressive numbers in those traditional metrics, but is that a better year than Barry Bonds’ 2001 (.328, 73, 137), Sammy Sosa’s 2001 (.328, 64, 160), A-Rod’s 2007 (.314, 54, 156), Jimmie Foxx’s 1938 (.349, 50, 175), and other non-Triple Crown campaigns? On the merits of those three categories, it would be hard to argue that was the case. Look, Cabrera had an amazing (offensive) year. But not only is the Crown a random thing, it’s also comprised of three statistics that have been widely attacked as fundamentally flawed*.

*To whet your appetite, RBI doesn’t account for percentage and opportunity. It suggests that a man who gets 2 RBI but leaves 5 on base in a game is as efficient (or valuable) as a man who had 2 RBI and left none on base. Also, how is batting average more important than on-base percentage? If a man walks or gets hits by a pitch, doesn’t he end up on first, just the same as if he had singled?

Given all this, is Cabrera’s feat any more impressive than Mike Trout being the youngest player ever to have 30 HR and 30 SB in a single year? Being the first player in the history of baseball to hit 30 HR, have 48 SB, and score at least 129 runs? How about Trout having the highest WAR in ten years, and the 9th highest WAR per game in a single season ever? By the way, that latter list now reads, in order, Ruth, Hornsby, Ruth, Ruth, Bonds, Ruth, Brett, Mantle, Trout, Bonds. The point is, Cabrera made history. But so did Trout, and on an arguably grander scale. Just because there’s no easy label affixed to what Trout accomplished doesn’t mean his feats should be diminished in any way.

Conclusion

Let’s review the various arguments for Miguel Cabrera as MVP.

Cabrera’s team made the playoffs; Trout’s didn’t.

First, it doesn’t matter. Second, the Angels were the better regular season team. You might as well give the MVP to the unbalanced schedule, or to geography.

Cabrera had a better offensive year.

Depending on what indicators you use, not by much, or not at all.

Trout’s case is based solely on unproven advanced statistics.

Categorically untrue. Besides, traditional measures have their own problems. Saying, “Argue Trout’s case without using WAR” makes about as much sense as me saying, “Argue Cabrera’s case without using RBI.” If anything, RBI statistics are less fair and more nonsensical. Given that no statistic is comprehensive, and all have their own flaws, why wouldn’t we use all the tools at our disposal?

Cabrera had a better defensive year.

No one is suggesting this, not even the Cabrera family.

Cabrera won the Triple Crown.

Cool, but this literally means next to nothing.

I rest my case. Mike Trout, 2012 American League Most Valuable Player.

Statistics courtesy of ESPN.com, fangraphs, and baseball-reference.com, unless otherwise indicated. I also invite you to examine the works by Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron (and again), Andrew SchwartzESPN’s Stats and Info, and ESPN’s David Schonfield. Finally, full disclosure, I am a die-hard Angels fan, as irrelevant as that is in the case for Trout.

Trying to get it together, always.

%d bloggers like this: