Why the Triple Crown is Overrated when Determining Baseball’s MVP

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While much of the nation was focused on preparing for the Super Bowl last Friday, ESPN’s Jim Caple instead had his eyes on baseball and the latest trend of the statistical revolution.

In the article, Caple takes a closer look at Wins Above Replacement (WAR, for short) and how it ended up causing baseball’s latest statistical Holy War in this year’s MVP debate.  Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels had the statheads on his side, leading the league in WAR (among other stats) by a significant margin.  Voters, however, elected to go with Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers, who led the league in batting average, home runs, and RBI to become the game’s first Triple Crown winner in 45 years.

I do not want to dismiss Cabrera’s season, as he is clearly a worthy MVP candidate and has been one of baseball’s best hitters since taking the game by storm in the 2003 World Series.  But why are people making such a big deal about him winning the Triple Crown?  After all, there are many reasons why it is fairly overrated when building an MVP case.

1.  It is an arbitrary achievement.

Why, exactly, does the Triple Crown consist of batting average, home runs, and RBI?

It is easy to understand why home runs are a factor, as they are the single most valuable thing that a hitter can do at the plate. 

But why, exactly, are Runs Batted In considered more important than runs?  These two stats are literally two sides of the same coin; if anything, runs are slightly more accurate, since runs that are the result of a fielding error count towards run totals but not toward RBI.

Similarly, why is batting average included in place of on-base or slugging percentage, or even OPS?   Statisticians long ago pointed out that the two traditional stats with the highest correlation to runs scored are OBP and SLG, yet both are on the sidelines while a far less accurate stat gets a place in what is advertised as the pinnacle of hitting achievements.  Speaking of which…

2.  The Triple Crown relies on flawed measures.

Again, it is easy to see why home runs are included.  While there is some context that is needed (it is much easier to hit homers in some ballparks than others), there are very few stats in baseball that the hitter controls to such an extent.

RBI, however, is heavily reliant on factors that are completely outside the batter’s control.  Players with high RBI totals tend to have a lot of RBI opportunities, meaning that they are often hitting with runners in scoring position or at least on base.  As such, players who hit in the middle of the order (the 3-4-5 spots) tend to have higher RBI totals than those in the 1-2 spots, who begin the game with no people on-base and then follow the worst hitters in the lineup for the remainder of the game.

Batting average, meanwhile, paints an incomplete picture of a hitter’s effectiveness, as a lot of information gets left out.  The stat says nothing about a player’s power or plate discipline, and the exclusion of walks and other numbers means that it also gives an inaccurate measure of the times a hitter reaches base.  

Statisticians would do well to replace batting average with OPS, which is a simple addition of on-base and slugging percentages.  While this measure is still context-driven, it at least better addresses a player’s total contributions at the plate.

3.  It is far more complex than people realize.

One of the biggest complaints about WAR is that nobody understands exactly how it is calculated, and in fact the two main providers of the stat (Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs) utilize different formulas that can result in wildly different measures.  This has given WAR the reputation of a “made-up stat” in the eyes of many fans, particularly when compared to the easy-to-calculate stats that make up the Triple Crown.

These fans should probably take a closer look at those stats before making such a claim.

Nobody will ever make the mistake of claiming that home runs are difficult to calculate, as they are one of the most basic counting stats in the game.  RBI is a little more difficult (again, errors are excluded), but it is still fairly easy to keep track of them over the course of a season.

On the other hand, batting average might have the most ridiculous calculation of any of baseball’s traditional stats. 

On its surface, the formula for batting average (Hits divided by At-Bats) is fairly simple.  But the reason it seems so is because statisticians have done part of the work already:  At-Bat totals exclude walks, HBPs, sacrifices, and interference calls, while hit totals exclude times reached by error or fielder’s choice. 

If baseball cards had elected to put Plate Appearances on the back of baseball cards instead of At-Bats, people would not be claiming that the formula was so simple.  In fact, I would wager that a lot of people would think batting average to be just as made-up as WAR.

4.  It ignores defense completely.

Okay, this is cheating a bit, as the Triple Crown was always meant to be a hitting achievement. 

But the Triple Crown played a major factor in last year’s voting for the AL MVP, as it was the central argument for Miguel Cabrera winning the award over Mike Trout.  Cabrera was the first player since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to lead the league in all three Triple Crown categories, which voters deemed a trump card over Trout’s sizable lead in WAR in both major calculations of the stat. 

Herein lies the problem.  The MVP is not an award for the most valuable hitter; it is for the most valuable player, which is why pitchers are also eligible to win the award.  Therefore, while winning the Triple Crown is a nice achievement, it is not the ultimate trump card in deciding the best player in baseball.

Conclusion

It is safe to say that any player who wins the Triple Crown in baseball undoubtedly had an excellent season.  But it is not the Triple Crown itself that validated that excellence; on the contrary, Cabrera’s 2012 season would have been just as great had Curtis Granderson or Josh Hamilton won the home run title or if Trout had finished the year with three additional hits to win the batting title. 

Cabrera, in fact, might actually be the best example.  Many statheads pointed out that, while he did not win the Triple Crown, Cabrera was actually a better all-around hitter in 2011 than he was during his 2012 MVP season. 

Jim Caple is right when he says that WAR is not the be-all, end-all when it comes to the MVP award.  However, neither is the Triple Crown.  Just because something is rare does not make it the greatest thing ever to occur.