Tag Archives: baseball

A Sunday

Telling a drunk story entails risk. For those who weren’t there, who weren’t involved, the recounting is never as enjoyable. Their appreciation – if it is to be found – derives not only from the merits of the story , but from how the story plays off their knowledge of the storyteller. Yet, even with the proper level of familiarity, finesse is required. Drunk stories, after all, are not intended to make the storyteller look good.

I’ve always said on these pages that I’m not much of a storyteller. With the right audience, however, in the right context, this is one of my stories. I’m not quite sure how it’ll translate to this format. But my buddy Jim is getting married next month. And in honor of that, a drunk story:

Kurosawa made this classic film called Rashomon. It centers on a crime that takes place, and the truth of that crime being reconstructed piecemeal through the recollections of three or four different characters. There are contradictions in each of their stories, embellishments, obvious lies. Each version though adds depth, each calls into question objective reality and whether it exists at all. This day was kind of like that for the three of us involved.

This drunk story takes place in Japan. Naturally. I don’t know how much longer my liver would have held out living in that country. It was the land of all-you-can-drinks, where getting fucked up under the cherry blossoms was not only socially acceptable but a national pastime. On weekends, public bathroom sinks were sporadically filled with vomit; pillars and walls in train stations adorned with slumped figures of the wasted, of both genders and all (adult) ages.

It was a Sunday.

Once, maybe twice a year, this sake brewery 90 minutes northwest of Tokyo would open its doors to the public. There’d be samples, sales, food: a grand old time. I hadn’t heard about it. It was the kind of festival that attracted primarily natives and presumably drunkards. Katsuya was a native, maybe a drunkard. I’d actually never met him before but he was a friend of Jim’s, which was good enough for me. He was the one who passed along the word.

The gates opened at 10 or 11, I forget. Either way, it seemed excessively early for a sake festival. It worked out nicely for me and Jim though, at least in theory. We had tickets that evening for a baseball game, and not just any regular baseball game. A Major League Baseball all-star team was in town visiting. American all-stars. We were American, so we wanted to be there. We’d check out the festival, stop home, then pop over to the game. Easy as pie. American apple pie.

We met at the train station near the brewery, the three of us – Katsuya, Jim, and I. We all had arrived about 20 minutes before opening, as per Katsuya’s instructions. Introductions were made, and we shared an easy laugh about the absurdity of preparing to get (reasonably) drunk before noon. Japan, right? We started walking towards the brewery, but stopped about halfway there. There was already a line about three blocks long – like it was Black Friday outside Best Buy, only with more alcoholics.

Once the gates opened at 10 or 11, the hordes streamed onto the brewery grounds. It was a bit chaotic, as you might expect from any alcohol festival, but not too much so, as you might expect from any alcohol festival in Japan. We got in line for a couple of sake samples here and there; generous portions were provided.* There might have been some informational displays around, but like everyone else, we didn’t pay much attention to them.

*I nearly got into a fight when this guy blatantly cut ahead of us in line. When I started to make a scene, his response was to repeatedly say “Chill, we’re all having fun here”; he then proclaimed that he would have expected a reaction from the Japanese, but not from another expat. I didn’t even know what that meant, but I wanted to stab him.

After downing several samples, we headed off to gauge the food situation on the grounds. The crowd was by now immense. It was at critical mass; the situation seemed less fun than overwhelming, as events in and around Tokyo can be sometimes. So, after each purchasing a wooden sake cup – filled with sake, of course – we huddled and considered our options. It was Katsuya, I think, who came up with an inspired plan: buy a bottle, get some food, and have an impromptu picnic at a nearby park.

In line, ostensibly to purchase a single bottle to share, was where it all started to fall apart. Katsuya deftly jumped ahead of me and Jim at the last second, then selected and paid for a bottle before either of us realized what was going on. It was a gesture to old friendships and new, he said. A genuinely touching sentiment. But in the heat of the moment, Jim and I responded in the only way that made any sense. We bought additional communal bottles. We ended up with six in all (roughly 750 ml apiece).

I was already drunk when we left the grounds of the brewery for a park Jim had located on Google Maps. We each had had at least three servings of sake by then, between the samples and the overflowing wooden cups. At a convenience store, a konbini, we bought some onigiri (rice balls) and chips, plus a few beers for alcoholic variety; I grabbed a piece of fried chicken as well, devouring it en route. It was well before noon when we arrived at the park.

We drank nearly four entire bottles of sake there.

Katsuya left us at the park. He had mentioned earlier that he needed to meet his wife and child. They were nearby, or back in Tokyo, or something – it was a little mysterioso. But at some point in my drunken stupor, I noticed he wasn’t with us anymore. While the trek to the bathroom in the park was substantial, he had gone for what felt like ages. He did reappear momentarily, presumably from the bathroom. Then he left for good. Jim and I both thought he seemed remarkably sober.

Ironically, Katsuya would later mention he thought Jim and I seemed to be in surprisingly good shape when he left us. All three of us were wrong. Later that day, Katsuya drunkenly dropped his baby while on public transit. …Yeah. Fortunately, there was no lasting damage, though Katsuya’s wife understandably was quite displeased with both him and us. To this day, and perhaps on a related note, I have not met her.

It was still early, maybe 1 or 2, but now windy bordering on uncomfortable. At some point, Jim and I realized we needed to make our way back to Tokyo. My head was pounding; I was blackout drunk. Jim still had the wherewithal to use his phone to figure out which way the train station was, so I followed blindly. I couldn’t walk straight. My head was slumped down; I was dragging myself along, hoping I wouldn’t slam into anyone or anything.

Of this journey, Jim does remembers being strangely overcome with a singular focus on reaching the station. He knew I was behind him, primarily because he heard this distinct clopping noise. That turned out to be me as I kept looping from sidewalk to street and back, in diagonals and circles. But we were both in dire straits. At the station, it took Jim about four tries to get his metro card properly scanned.

We must have been a sight at the station. Past the ticket gates, I made it up a set of stairs one at a time, slumped over the railing, hoisting myself along. I don’t know how I didn’t fall. Maybe I did and forgot about it. Thankfully, it was the terminus, so there was a train sitting, waiting to begin its journey back to Tokyo. Jim and I made our way aboard, collapsing quickly onto a bench. I closed my eyes a moment and lost consciousness.

I was sprawled on the train bench when I came to. I felt like garbage, even moreso now than before, as drunkenness gave way to the in-between before the hangover fully appears. It took a minute to process my reality, but I soon realized that:

  1. I was alone;
  2. The train was rested and emptying; and
  3. There was a Japanese woman yelling at me.

I dealt with the last and most immediately pressing bit first – the yelling and gesticulating stranger. Judging from her tone and volume, she was chiding me for being wasted on a train at 2 on a Sunday afternoon. But past her disgust, she seemed to be trying to convey something else. Eventually I followed her gestures, looking beneath my seat. And on the floor, I saw a cell phone: mine. I looked up to thank her but she was already gone. Eventually, I dragged myself off the train too.

I didn’t know where Jim was, but I was feeling worse and worse. I went straight to the bathroom in the train station, locked myself in a stall, and sat on the ground. It might have been a public bathroom in Japan, but it was not the kind of public bathroom in which anyone should be sitting on the ground; it was a squat toilet for starters. But I was in no position to be particular. I sent Jim a text, then rested my head on the floor and started moaning.

There, behind the locked doors of a squat train station toilet, I passed out again.

At some point, someone started banging on the walls, perhaps with an emergency of their own. I tried to respond by moaning my pain, but I couldn’t put words together. I was a drooling mess. Eventually they left me be. I ended up spending about an hour in the bathroom, lying down. Eventually, I used the squat toilet properly and without incident, a remarkable deed given my condition. When I felt slightly better, I checked my phone. There was a text: Jim was back in his Airbnb.

Halfway through the train ride towards Tokyo, Jim had apparently gotten it in his head that we needed to make a transfer. We did not. So, while I was passed out, he stepped off intending to check a map. The train took off, as a train does. Jim pounded on the window to try and get my attention, but to no avail. Then, left behind, he wandered that station for a bit. He vomited in public. Then he boarded another train back towards Tokyo.

The station I was at was about a 20 minute walk from the Airbnb, a mile away. In my condition, it might as well have been a million miles away. I threw myself into a taxi on the north side of Shinjuku Station – the busiest train station in the world. I thrust my phone at the driver, but he couldn’t make heads or tails out of the display. I couldn’t form coherent sentences yet, so eventually I grabbed the phone, dropped a pin near where the address was, or seemed to be, and handed it back.

The driver kept looking at my phone over the course of the drive – always a great sign. He ended up dropping me off at a hotel by the south exit of Shinjuku Station. My brain was fried though, and I figured it was not worth it to steer him to steer me in the right direction, so I paid and left.* Then I stumbled down the streets in search for Jim’s place. I got lost twice before I found the complex. I climbed up the stairs and banged on the door. …There was no response.

*To recap, I paid 1,000 yen (roughly $10) to take a cab from the north side of a train station to the south side of a train station.

The lights were out. It didn’t make any sense to my feeble and fragile brain. I still felt awful, so I lied down on the ground in front of his unit and curled up in a ball. I tried to catch a nap, but it was too cold, too windy by then. I checked the address again and again on my phone, shivering on the floor. Finally, after probably 10 or 15 minutes but what felt like 45, I banged on the door again. This time, there was some noise, some feet shuffling. Then the door opened.

Jim was holding the knob. He didn’t say a word and neither did I. We both turned into the living space, where two double beds decorated either side of the room. Jim fell into his bed, I fell onto the other one. I passed out immediately.

It was pitch black.

Groggily, I checked the time. More than an hour after first pitch.

I felt like garbage, of course. But I had a singular thought. We had spent about $35 apiece on our tickets, and we were going to this baseball game.

Jim would later tell me that his first memory of the late afternoon was waking up to my repeated cries of: “It’s gametime, man! Gametime!” After the transfer mishap, he had successfully made his way back to Tokyo and the Airbnb, but he had no recollection of my banging on the door the first or second times, let alone getting up and letting me in. I’m not sure why he didn’t protest when I insisted we go to the game 90 minutes late.

We made it to the Tokyo Dome that night around 9 pm. It was the seventh inning when we took our seats. But baseball being baseball, the game lasted another hour – enough time for the American team to score a few runs, enough time for us to get some curry rice. Mostly though, we sat still, moaning every once in a while, sipping our sodas. When the game finished, we joined the masses walking to the station. Jim rode to his Airbnb, and I went home.

I didn’t drink sake for about a month after that.

(Photo by Ralf Steinberger, CC BY 2.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

A Case for Baseball

A lot of people don’t give a shit about sports. Somehow, I’m friends with some of them, related to a few even. “A bunch of millionaires throwing a ball around,” they say dismissively. Worse, they point out the prima donnas are often egged on by crowds of drunken assholes who throw objects at one another, stab each other in parking lots, and most astonishingly – when their teams actually fucking win – go out and riot and loot like it’s the end of the world. Sports to them appear uncivilized, inside and out.

Baseball, I think, presents the biggest and easiest target. After all, the significance of the Olympics and the World Cup are obvious; meanwhile, the purity and chaos of collegiate athletics elevates events on that level. The artistry of basketball, the violence of football – made bare for all the world to see, if not understand. But baseball doesn’t quite fit; it’s a sport that often remains defined by its romanticism. The game itself is marked by inaction rather than action, through not only the course of the season, but the course of the game: inning breaks and pitching changes, steps off the mound and foul balls, sunflower seed spitting and cup adjustments.

Baseball, people invariably say, reveling in the simplicity if not the originality of the sentiment, is boring. And they’re not necessarily wrong. I’ve been a fan for over 20 years and have never once tried to keep score at a game. I lose track of innings and outs and balls and strikes, even lose consciousness with some degree of regularity while watching the national pastime. I’m the first to complain that games are way too long, and I’ve arrived late to and left early from the stadium more times than I care to admit – in a quintessentially Southern California move. An individual baseball game can in fact be a grind, a slog, yes, a bore. But that’s beside the point.

What sets baseball apart after all, is that the game cannot be taken on its own; indeed, it does not exist on its own. The sport derives meaning from its interconnectedness, from its very ubiquity. From April until October, earlier if spring training is included and later if winter ball is included, baseball is there: every day for hours on end. It doesn’t demand constant attention for every pitch of every inning of every game – only true psychopaths would consider the proposition. But it’s nonetheless comforting to know that the game goes on, on television, on the internet, in newspaper box scores. It’s there, and it will always be there.

Life is unremarkable a lot of the time. There might be a nice meal, a productive few hours at work, a solid conversation, a connection. Most days bleed together though. And they need to. Because the triumphs achieved are earned through these seemingly indistinguishable hours and days. The big moments in life would mean nothing without the grind, the slog, yes, the bore. Baseball, in a manner unmatched by any other sport, replicates that process naturally. The game never needs to impose a narrative: it creates its own by sheer duration, building history. Nothing memorable happens most games. Yes, there’s a frozen rope of a throw, a mammoth home run, a sharp breaking ball – they are world-class athletes, after all. But most games come and go.

What makes baseball remarkable is what that endurance builds up to. It is the pause, the inaction, yet also the constant presence that offer meaning to the bigger moments when they do come. This is true not only of the individual game but of the entire season, the former a microcosm of the latter. It is because even the greatest players fail seven out of ten times that it feels monumental when they don’t with the game on the line. It is because there are 162 games on the schedule that a must-win game in October looms inconceivably larger than life. It is precisely because baseball is so often boring that it is anything but.

Earlier today, I watched my team come back from a four run deficit in the top of the ninth inning to win a game they absolutely had to in order to keep their playoff hopes alive. It was nothing short of a miracle: teams had lost the last 1,761 games in that same situation on the road, dating back to June 2012. But the thing is, none of that will matter in less than eight hours. They’ll have to win again, against a guy whose team hasn’t lost a game he’s started the past two months. And even if they do win, they would have to get some outside help to force a tie-breaker for the right to play another elimination game on the road. See, that’s the amazing thing about baseball. There’s always tomorrow – until there’s not.

The Last Boy

I was 13 when Mickey Mantle passed away. I still remember the moment vividly. I heard the news in bed, under the covers, clutching a radio that was tuned into the local sports station. This had become a routine for me, a product of my teenage insomnia combined with a budding love for all things sport. The host made the announcement, succinctly, but with great sadness: The Mick was gone. I wept.

Mantle’s death was the first time I encountered true loss. It’s a ridiculous statement, I realize, but a true one nonetheless. Three of my grandparents had passed away by the time I was two, and I was fortunate enough not to experience further loss on a personal level since. I was naïve, innocent – even for a 13-year-old. But I had come to love baseball.

I reveled in baseball’s storied past, immersed myself in books about bygone eras. I recognized Mantle as one of the final links to that rich history, to a period that seemed more myth than reality, and one that would never be duplicated. Through a remarkable Sports Illustrated feature detailing his alcoholism, I had a sense of his complications as well. It reinforced the tragedy. A fallen legend. And so I wept.

But it was was not until I picked up Jane Leavy’s The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood this past month that I truly came to appreciate the nuances of Mantle. Leavy tackles the legend, deconstructs the myth, delves into both the ballplayer and the man, and analyzes what was and could have been. It is unequivocally the best sports book, arguably the best book, I have ever read.

Leavy structures the book around twenty specific days that cover the spectrum of Mantle’s life. Smartly, she does this loosely: a pivotal injury during a World Series game on October 5, 1951, for instance, allows her to consider Mantle’s relationship with Joe DiMaggio (who played no small role in that injury), to chronicle Mantle’s struggles throughout that rookie season.

Or take November 2, 1953, when Mantle was brought to Burge Hospital for his knee to be operated on. Leavy details the different injuries Mantle experienced in his career, explores his experiences with a wide range of doctors (and discusses treatment options had he been a modern ballplayer), and sheds light on the daily hell Mantle put himself through to be on the field.

It’s an understatement to say that the book is well-researched. Leavy interviews hundreds of individuals: family members, friends, ex-teammates. She supplies a multitude of perspectives, ensuring that we are never left with just a single anecdote or recollection. Where appropriate, she corrects the narrative history. While unrelentlessly truthful, the book is never boring, establishing a gripping narrative.

One of my favorite chapters, for instance, deals with a home run ball Mantle crushed in D.C., well out of the stadium. Leavy convincingly makes the case that the event marked the beginning of the sport’s obsession with ‘tape-measured’ balls. She notes the irresistible story in the papers the next day: the reporter who determined the distance, the neighborhood boy who retrieved the ball.

How far did the ball actually travel? Leavy finds a physics professor. She reconstructs the flight of flight, notably from a stadium that no longer exists, into a neighborhood that has changed dramatically, based on accounts that are more mythical than real. She tracks down the boy who found the ball, contrasts his recollection with that of the reporter. Poignantly, she traces the life of that boy, who died at 71, who still considered it the best day of his life.

Despite these sporadic – and fascinating – interjections, despite the commentary about memory and history, ultimately, The Last Boy is about Mickey Mantle. It is about a man who lived with a ton of demons, a man with a deeply complicated relationship with his father. About a man whose failures became most manifest in his marriage and family, a man who became all too conscious of his own shortcomings.

Of course, the book deals with the legend as well. He was an all-time great ballplayer, yet one who never quite lived up to the promise he showed in his first healthy few years. Leavy paints a picture of a shy Oklahoman kid, incredibly immature, but also insanely driven and fiercely loyal. It’s about how people treated him because he WAS Mickey Mantle… and the damage that that ultimately caused.

Interwoven through all of this is Leavy’s own relationship with her childhood hero, established through a 1983 interview in Atlantic City when Mantle’s alcoholism ran rampant. It adds yet another dimension, and even more of a personal perspective, to one of the most thorough and richest biographies I’ve ever read. The Last Boy is not about baseball. It’s about a man. I can’t recommend it enough.

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.