I wanted to wait a little bit before following up on my post about the AL MVP race. A week from today, it looks increasingly likely that Miguel Cabrera will be named the AL MVP over Mike Trout, an objectively wrong decision by any definition of the award. If this is the case, the decision will have been made solely based upon use of three statistics-runs, RBIs, and home runs-that are obsolete, useless, and misleading.
Let’s get something out of the way. This is not a case of “quantitative vs. qualitative” or “scouts vs. nerds” or anything like that. Runs, RBIs, and home runs are statistics. They are aggregated records of events that happened in baseball games, just like on base percentage, slugging percentage, .wOBA, UZR, DRS, or whatever else you pick.
Every single person uses statistics to determine who the better MLB baseball player is. No one watches all 162 games per year of every single baseball club, and even if they did their brains would not be physically capable of remembering and aggregating the individual details of the games that they watched in order to make a determination of who is better. These are not prospects with whom you are trying to look into the crystal ball and predict the future, and that qualitative stuff that doesn’t show up in the statistics becomes relevant.
The only question is what statistics we use to evaluate players. Any person who is capable of using a human brain to form thoughts can figure out that RBIs, home runs, and batting average produce almost no useful information about a player. I could make those arguments right now, but I shouldn’t have to. Moneyball happened, and thousands of people on and off the internet had those arguments. Batting average tells you a little bit about how a player goes about providing a piece of his value, but requires tons and tons of context and understanding of luck to be useful. Home runs tell you about one way in which a player can add value, but talk to Curtis Granderson or Adam Dunn this season if you think its a real measure of value. In Moneyball terms, batting average and runs are statistics that tell you something but lack the power of language.
RBIs and runs are useless statistics to determine how good a player is. This is a fact, not an opinion. And they are where the real problem is.
A long time ago, we used to use alcohol as anesthesia and primitive bone saws to amputate limbs. Then, we invented power tools, real anesthetics, and penicillin, and we started using those, and the old stuff became obsolete. That’s how things are supposed to work. You figure out objectively better ways to do things, and you stop doing the old stuff.
But that metaphor is actually wrong. Bone saws and booze didn’t do their job well, but they accomplished something before being replaced by better versions of themselves. Think of them as OBP and Slg%, which were eventually replaced by OPS+, which was eventually replaced by wOBP, etc.
In this metaphor, RBIs and runs look like how doctors used to use leeches to bleed the crap out of patients for no good reason. At some point, doctors just woke up and realized that they had been colossally stupid for centuries, and just killed the whole bloodletting idea.
Giving Miguel Cabrera the 2012 AL MVP award because he won the Triple Crown is equivalent to handing out the 2012 Most Valuable Physician award to the guy who was best at bloodletting.
We need to dig a hole, throw the old statistics inside it, and bury them below 10 feet of dirt. We need to just stop using them, ever. They need to get the hell off stadium scoreboards, Fangraphs dashboards, the Yankee Analysts blog, all of it.
If you haven’t read Eder’s post about how PECOTA inventor Nate Silver predicted the 2012 election (and 2008-2010 elections, and 2008 primaries) dead-on, I highly recommend you take the time. The great lesson of the last few weeks–where Silver faced mountains of criticism from all sorts of people who didn’t want to believe or even make the effort to think about basic math–was that rationalizing stuff works.
Math works. Logic works. If we make the choice to ignore math and logic, we’re doing something very stupid. If we use the RBI or runs statistic as anything other than fun, meaningless trivia, we are ignoring objectively true math and logic. The Triple Crown is a meaningless trivia fact, not something that people who aren’t being stupid put any value in.