Nate Silver jumps into another election

With the election over, the stats whiz dives back into baseball. Can he have an influence on the AL MVP award?

Topics: Nate Silver, Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, American League MVP,

Nate Silver jumps into another election

Republicans will forever fear the predictive power of Nate Silver. Now you can Detroit Tigers fans to the list.

In a New York Times column, Silver — who correctly called all 50 states last week for the second presidential campaign in a row — made the statistical case for why Anaheim Angels rookie Mike Trout deserves the American League most valuable player award over Tigers outfielder Miguel Cabrera.

The winner will be announced today, and no mater which player earns the award, the debate between old-school fans who marvel at Cabrera’s power numbers and new-school stat fanatics now able to measure Trout’s overall influence on the game will continue. Guess which argument Silver makes?

Cabrera earned baseball’s first Triple Crown — leading the league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in — since 1967. But in a devastating piece, Silver — who devised the PECOTA system for evaluating ballplayers before turning his attention to politics on his fivethirtyeight blog — takes Cabrera’s claim on the MVP award apart.

* Despite Cabrera’s gaudy power numbers, Trout had the higher on-base percentage and helped create more runs for his team.

* Trout is a better baserunner and defensive player than Cabrera, according to modern statistical standards.

* Comerica Park, where the Tigers play, is an easier stadium in which to hit than Angel Stadium in Anaheim. As Silver details:

Angel Stadium is shallower in straight center field, making up for much of the difference, but since most of Cabrera’s home runs came to the power alleys, playing in Anaheim would likely have hurt his statistics on balance. Trout, who hits to all fields, is less sensitive to his ballpark, and had slightly better overall numbers than Cabrera in road games.

* Cabrera drove in more runs in clutch-hitting situations. But Silver argues that’s partially due to where Cabrera hits in the Tigers lineup, and adds that leading off an inning, as Trout often did, could be more of a clutch situation as far as a team’s chances of scoring that inning than coming to the plate with runners on base.



* Cabrera’s numbers, despite the Triple Crown, weren’t “historically great,” he notes. In only one other season since 1972, he notes, would they have been good enough to lead the league.

And while the Tigers made the playoffs and the Angels did not, Silver notes that Trout’s team still won more games; the Tigers went to the post-season because their division was easier to win in 2012.

As Silver concludes:

Perhaps 10 or 20 years ago, when evaluations of base running, defense and clutch hitting were murkier, stat geeks would have argued that Cabrera deserved the M.V.P. on the basis of the hard evidence.

Now that some of the “intangibles” have become measurable, we know that Trout did more of the little things to help his team win.

It’s the traditionalists who are using statistics in a way that misses the forest for the trees.

David Daley is the editor-in-chief of Salon

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