Mike Trout should have won the American League Most Valuable Player award. He didn’t, for reasons ranging from Cabrera winning the Triple Crown (a three-stat measure that conveniently leaves out a whole host of factors that point to Trout’s season trumping Cabrera’s) to Cabrera’s team making the playoffs while Trout’s went home (the Angels won more games than the Tigers, and basing an individual award based on the quality of a player’s teammates is interesting) to Cabrera putting up better numbers down the stretch (as if wins don’t matter in May, June, and July).
Several Cabrera voters took the time to explain their vote, and either downplayed those factors, or didn’t cite them at all. Instead they went with another tack: The players they talked to overwhelmingly backed Cabrera, so they would, too.
Another term for this approach is appeal to authority. It’s not a dishonest evaluation method per se. There are times when it can even be the right way to go. If you have a tickle in your throat and don’t know if it’s the sniffles or cancer, you ask a doctor. There are some doctors who might misdiagnose the situation. But it’s also fair to say that most doctors will have more expertise on the subject than you will.
Most professional baseball players have more expertise on many of the intricacies of the game than do laypeople, or even serious students of baseball, be they fans or writers. If you want to know what a curveball looks like when it’s spinning toward you, ask a player. If you want to know how to grip a splitter, ask a player.
But when it comes to figuring out which player provided the most value to his team, players are unreliable sources. Not because they don’t know the game. It’s because of the way the game doles out incentives.
One of the reasons most commonly cited by players interviewed on the AL MVP race for Cabrera’s supremacy was runs batted in, or more broadly, the general skill of run-producing. Ever see a player hit a sacrifice fly, scoring a runner from third with less than two outs? Watch the dugout reaction. The player who scored the run might’ve worked an eight-pitch walk, stolen second, hustled to third on a grounder, and scored on a relatively shallow fly ball. The player who hit the fly ball is still going to get the majority of the back slaps in the dugout. If the player who drove in the run did so by hitting a ground ball to the right side, there’s a non-zero chance the umpires will stop the game, so everyone in attendance can throw a parade to honor the hitter’s incredible selflessness and team play. But now try the same exercise at the end of a game, in a walk-off situation. No matter the circumstances, no matter what lengths the player who scored the winning run went to before crossing home plate, the mob of ecstatic teammates always gravitates toward the player who drove in the run. This is one form of incentive — the respect and admiration of your teammates.
Then there’s the financial incentive. Jason Bay was recently asked about driving in runs. Whenever he’s asked that question, he doesn’t use the common RBI acronym to describe the feat. Instead, he calls them “steaks.”
The players who make the most money tend to be the ones who put up the best power numbers, namely home runs and RBIs. The process starts in arbitration, where those tasked with doling out financial awards lack the baseball knowledge and analytical skills to see past traditional stats. Moreover, their job is to follow precedent. If a hulking first baseman drives in 120 runs while hurting his team on defense and on the base paths, but reaps a gigantic arbitration award, the next player up with that profile should expect similar rewards.
The trend continues in free agency. Throughout his career, Prince Fielder has been an excellent hitter who hurt his team in every other facet of the game. He also topped 100 RBIs four times heading into free agency last offseason. It’s certainly true that Tigers owner Mike Ilitch’s burning desire to win a World Series, as well as the overall trend of rising salaries, contributed to the $214 million deal that Fielder finally got. But if Fielder’s skills were more subtle and more varied — say, lots of doubles, speed, and defense, far fewer home runs and RBIs, while still delivering similar overall value — it’s a mortal lock that he wouldn’t have made anywhere near that much money.
So what would you expect the players to say? Every piece of evidence in front of them, be it dugout handshakes or mega-dollars, points to home runs and especially RBIs being the best way to get rewarded. When presented with what seems to them like overwhelming proof that Cabrera was far more valuable than the player who scored 20 more runs, stole 45 more bases, took the extra base far more often, hit into 21 fewer double plays, and played overwhelmingly superior defense, they’re going to side with Cabrera.
That doesn’t make players experts on the subject. It just means they respond to rewards, like all other human beings. And like all other human beings, they make mistakes. They just made one here.