Explaining Cabrera, Trout and WAR

Several Brilliant Readers have written in to ask -- I think in a curious and serious way -- how it is possible for Mike Trout to lead Miguel Cabrera in WAR. They readily concede that Trout is a faster baserunner and a better fielder. Still, they wonder (and I’m lumping seven or eight people together here, so I’m generalizing) how 30 more points in on-base percentage, 100 more points in slugging and 20 more home runs could not POSSIBLY make up that ground.

One BR sums up the question neatly: “Last year, I understood the difference,” he writes. “Trout had a better on-base percentage, was only 42 points behind in slugging, hit only 14 fewer homers -- I could see how his defense and base-stealing might make him the better overall player. But this year, it makes absolutely no sense to me at all.”

I think it’s a fair question and so I went to the incomparable Tom Tango for some assistance in explaining the math here (and by this I mean explaining it to ME). And let me say up front that, I readily admit it’s possible you will come away certain that WAR is just wrong and Cabrera absolutely is having the better season. I know a few BRs have come to think I don’t like Cabrera -- and I don’t mean to protest too much, but it’s really not true. I don’t like Bowie Kuhn very much. I don’t like the NCAA very much. I don’t like white chocolate at all. But Cabrera: Love the guy. I think he’s the best hitter on earth. I love watching him play. I also love Trout, love watching him play, and I’m fascinated by the question of which one is better.

We’re going to break down Baseball Reference WAR by runs -- that is, runs gained and runs saved. So let’s start with the obvious stuff first, the stuff Trout excels in.

* * *

Base running

Trout is a better baserunner than Cabrera. I think reasonable people acknowledge this. Baseball Reference figures baserunning runs based on stolen bases/caught stealing and various other events like going first-to-third on a single, second-to-home on a single, first-to-home on a double, tagging up to advance a base, and so on.

Baseball Reference determines that Cabrera, though not fast, is an above-average baserunner. He has stolen three bases without getting caught and has shown effectiveness on the bases. B-Ref has Cabrera’s base running worth one run above average.

B-Ref determines that Trout’s baserunning is worth six runs. He has stolen 28 of 32 bases, scores from second pretty much every time and is effective going first-to-third.

So far, I think it makes sense -- no?

Trout leads Cabrera by five runs.

* * *

Fielding

Last year, fielding was the most controversial part of WAR, I think (although, as you will see, there might be something a bit more controversial this year). Last year, WAR estimated that Trout was worth an extra 21 runs for his defense while Cabrera cost his team four runs with his defense. That 25-run difference is GIGANTIC.

This year, the difference is much smaller. Basically, the defensive measure that WAR uses shows both Cabrera and Trout to be below average fielders. Again, Cabrera is viewed as the lesser fielder but it’s not that dramatic a difference.

The system has Cabrera being worth 15 runs below average as a third baseman and Trout being eight runs below average.

Again, you can argue with particulars but it’s pretty easy to follow so far.

Trout Leads Cabrera by 12 runs.

* * *

Double Play Groundouts

Here’s a small adjustment based on hitting into double plays. Cabrera has hit into 16 double plays this year -- about 12% of the time he’s been in a double play situation. Trout has hit into seven double plays -- about 7% of the time.

Basically, Trout gets one extra run because he’s hard to double up, and Cabrera has two runs taken away because he hits into more than his share of double plays.

Trout leads Cabrera by 15 runs.

* * *

Positional Adjustment

Another minor adjustment, this one takes into account the position of the player. This is so that a shortstop will get more credit than a left fielder. This adjustment goes Cabrera’s way because he has played third base exclusively, a core position, while Trout has played 88 games in center, 42 games in left and three games as a DH. Cabrera gets two runs and Trout gets zero.

Trout leads Cabrera by 13 runs.

* * *

Offense

Now we get to offense -- and I know what you’re thinking: There is simply no way that Cabrera’s advantages in on-base percentage and power do not make up 13 runs. In a way you are right. Let’s go to our resident expert, Tom Tango, for some explanations.

Start where Trout has an advantage.

“Mike Trout has 9 more doubles and 7 more triples than Cabrera. That is worth roughly 14 runs to a typical team, if those events occurred in typical fashion. Trout also has 16 more walks plus hit batters (excluding intentional walks), which is worth roughly five runs. In these categories, Trout has a roughly 19-run advantage.”

That would give Trout a 32-run lead. But now, finally, we get to what makes Miggy Miggy.

“Cabrera has twenty more HR, which is already a 28-run advantage. He also has five more singles, which is worth just over two runs. Cabrera has made 24 fewer batting outs, which is worth nearly 7 runs. Put it all together, and in these categories, Cabrera is 37 runs ahead.”

And there you have it.

Defense, baserunning and other adjustments: Trout +13

Doubles, triples and walks: Trout +19

Homers, singles, fewer outs: Cabrera +37

Total it all up and Miguel Cabrera leads by five runs.

Now, you could argue that Cabrera should lead by MORE than five runs. You might want to include clutch performance. You might want to include high-leverage situations* . You might disagree with the defensive rankings.

*The interesting but flawed statistic “Win Probability Added” -- which adds up the value of every single play in a game -- has Cabrera WAY ahead of Trout. Cabrera’s WPA is 6.6, Trout’s is 4.1. But before anyone gets too excited about the stat, Chris Davis actually has a 7.4 WPA and leads the American League.

Anyway, no matter how we got here, Miguel Cabrera should lead Trout in WAR.

Except, there’s another step …

Cabrera leads Trout by 5 runs.


Context

Of the many, many ways that Bill James has contributed to the game, the most fascinating and controversial might be how he explains baseball as a contextual game. That was pretty subversive when he first started doing it. In many ways, Bill burst on the national scene because of what not seems only a mildly interesting prediction. He predicted that when Fred Lynn left Boston and Fenway Park his numbers would fall DRAMATICALLY. On May 25, 1981 -- less than two years after Lynn hit .333/.423/.627 with 39 homers and 122 RBIs - James told Daniel Okrent at Sports Illustrated that Lynn would hit .285 and between 18 and 24 homers while with the Angels.

From 1982 to 1984, Fred Lynn hit .281 for the California Angels. His home runs: 21, 22, 23.

It was a brilliant prediction, but one that Bill didn’t think was a particularly strenuous. It was context. In 1979, Lynn hit .386/.470/.798 with 28 homers in 77 games at Fenway Park, which was then an extreme hitters ballpark. Away from home he hit .276/.371/.461 with 11 homers. Double those road numbers, add a little something for home field advantage (players do tend to hit better at home) and, voila, you have yourself a prediction for what Lynn likely would do in Anaheim. It seems semi-simple now.

But then? It was revolutionary. It was jaw-dropping. People generally expected Lynn to go to California and play exactly as he had played in Boston. It wasn’t that people were unaware that players played in vastly different environments, it’s just that few people too it to the next step, as a way to EVALUATE players. Everybody knew, for instance, that Fenway Park was a good hitters park and Baltimore had this amazing defense. But you didn’t hear people talk about the major role that played in, say, Fred Lynn’s MVP season in 1975 (he hit .368/.451/.609 at home, and .294/.347/.523 on the road) or Jim Rice’s MVP season in 1978 (He hit .361/.416/.690 at home with 28 homers; he hit .269/.325/.512 with 18 homers on road) or the fact that Orioles pitchers won SIX Cy Young Awards between 1969 and 1980. The context was known, but it did not interfere with the individual narratives.

Now, because of Bill and others, people think quite a lot more about context. Give you an example: In baseball history, only seven players have hit better than .360 with at least 42 home runs in a season -- something Miggy is trying to do this year. Those seven are: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Rogers Hornsby, Barry Bonds, Todd Helton, Larry Walker.

Now do those seven seem alike to you in any way? No, you see the names and you are IMMEDIATELY struck the context. Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx and Hornsby all had their seasons many years ago, before the game was integrated, before air travel, before the prominence of the slider, before specialized pitching. Bonds, well, everybody immediately grasps the Barry Bonds context. And the Larry Walker and Todd Helton seasons are immediately viewed through the prism of Coors Field when that place was a circus act. I should say that both those guys were amazing hitters who hit brilliantly on the road -- I actually think both have strong Hall of Fame cases -- but my point is the context is something we just naturally understand now.

But, I would argue that this is only true to a point. It’s only true in extreme cases. In smaller doses, when it comes to minor adjustments, many people are not nearly as interested.

Which brings us back to Trout and Cabrera. Trout plays in a tough hitters park. And because he’s in the American League West, he plays 10 games in Texas (a good hitters park), Houston (a pretty good hitters park), Seattle (a pretty extreme pitchers park) and Oakland (a pretty extreme pitchers park). The three toughest hitters parks in the American League are probably Anaheim, Oakland and Seattle. Trout plays 101 games in those three parks.

Cabrera meanwhile plays his home games at Comerica Park, which long had the reputation as a pitcher’s park but the numbers no longer show that to be true. For three years now, Comerica has been a hitters park. Meanwhile, Cabrera plays his division games in Cleveland (more of a pitchers park), Kansas City (a good hitters park except for home runs), Minnesota (a neutral park leaning slightly toward hitters), and Chicago (a hitters park and very much a home run park).

There are three parks in the American League that have a ballpark factor of 105 and higher -- 100 is neutral with every number above leaning toward the hitter. Cabrera will play 94 games in those three parks.

Now, you can take this for what it’s worth. You might not care at all. But WAR takes this into account. Tango explains:

“Baseball-Reference suggests that based in the parks they play in, you'd score ten percent more runs in all of Cabrera’s games than in all of Trout’s games. That ten percent is enormous. Baseball Reference has Cabrera as having created 145 runs, and Trout as 130 runs. A ten percent change will close that gap to almost nothing.”

And that’s why Mike Trout leads in WAR. While Cabrera leads in the raw numbers Trout plays in a tougher run-scoring environment. After all the adjustments are made, Baseball Reference has Trout being 54 runs above average, and Cabrera being worth 50 runs above average. When you add in the replacement level runs (same for both) and convert it to Wins Above Replacement, this is what you end up with, at least for today:

Mike Trout: 7.7 WAR

Miguel Cabrera: 7.0 WAR


A Final Thought

I was trying to explain this whole thing to a friend of mine -- trying to explain it to him while working it out in my own head -- and he said something interesting. He said, “I know that to be perfectly fair, you have to judge context. But I don’t think baseball is perfectly fair. And it’s too much math for me.” I took his point to mean that all these contextual adjustments leave him cold. I find them fascinating because we are trying to level the playing field, trying to figure out who is REALLY the better player, not who is the player who looks the best because of ballpark or the weather or whatever. He yawned.

“The guy’s having a better year,” he said. “I’ll grant you that it’s fairly close because Trout can do so many things. But when you start taking away Cabrera’s lead because he has a better hitting ballpark, you’ve lost me.”

My friend thought, all in all, that Trout had a better year than Cabrera last year. He followed that logic. But this year, he thinks its Cabrera, and it’s not that close, and he is unimpressed by the math that shows Trout ahead. I have to say, I think most people probably agree with him.