In defense of honest debate and the Triple Crown

I apologize. This barely counts as a baseball card.

Nothing brings out the worst in baseball fans and writers quite like a good ideological battle disguised as an MVP debate. And it’s as annoying as any late-season collapse or New York-based division title.

In one corner is Mike Trout, the Angels’ wunderkind center fielder who burst on the scene as summer approached. He already plays the position as well as anyone, he leads the American League with 48 stolen bases, and his 30 home runs and .963 OPS are remarkable in their own right.

His 10.7 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-Reference, is good for first in the American League. FanGraphs has him at 10.3 by their calculations. But whatever the number, it doesn’t take much hard analysis to see that Trout is head-and-shoulders above most of his peers this season. The fact that he’s only 21 makes him as tantalizing a rookie as 19-year-old Doc Gooden for the 1984 New York Mets.

On the other side is Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers’ re-converted third baseman who has come on incredibly strong in the second half to lead the league in the three Triple Crown categories — batting average, home runs and RBI — while pushing Detroit past the Chicago White Sox for the AL Central title. Cabrera has been a tremendously talented, albeit troubled, hitter his entire career, but he’s saved his greatest performance for this season , and it’s just in time to help the Tigers get back into the playoffs. And he’s still only 29. He could have an encore performance in his bat still.

A little while after the World Series, one of these two is going to win the AL’s Most Valuable Player trophy. It’s either going to the rookie who has played like Fred Lynn stuck out of time or the veteran who pushed his team through a heated pennant race.

But thanks to hotheads, jerks and alarmists, it can’t be that simple.

No, like so many baseball discussions of the past decade, this had to devolve into a turf war between SABR-minded writers and the keepers of baseball card stats. Those on each side have dug in their heels, and those who can see that this is not a ideological battle and simply a discussion of two great players are rare, indeed.

It’s sickening. It’s enough to make me hope that Josh Hamilton or Josh Reddick come away with the MVP trophy and leave everyone unhappy. But that won’t happen, nor should it. One of these two is going to walk away with the trophy, and who ever does will not be the harbinger of an entire movement.

Much of Mike Trout’s candidacy rests on his tremendous achievement with the WAR stat, one that is even more impressive given that he started the season in the minor leagues. The screaming over the legitimacy of WAR, as well as the crowning of it as a holy, end-all stat, are each irritating. While it’s been a slow climb into the minds of casual fans, it’s gaining ground. But the fact that there are still conflicting versions will continue to hamper it, as will the fact that it’s not a simple stat. It requires a certain amount of faith in fans that it really does reflect the truth.

In one form or another, WAR is not going away anytime soon, nor should it. It’s an interesting talking point and a piece of the puzzle. But so is the Triple Crown.

Is the Triple Crown arbitrary? By today’s standards, maybe. There’s no special designation for a hitter that leads his league in batting average, on base percentage and slugging. Nor is there one for someone who leads the league in hits, doubles and home runs. Why the powers that be picked those three is something I can’t answer. But to call the Triple Crown meaningless is to be needlessly cold.

For a good number of baseball fans, the Triple Crown is a spectacular achievement for a hitter, one that isn’t typically cracked by less than future Hall of Famers. There have only been 15 Triple Crowns passed out in baseball history. Of them, only the two who played before 1901 — Paul Hines and Tip O’Neill — are absent from Cooperstown. The rest are the guys we all read about when we first discovered the game: Nap Lajoie, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby (twice), Chuck Klein, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Ducky Medwick, Ted Williams (twice), Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson and Carl Yastrzemski.

In my lifetime, it has never happened. It’s only been a small handful of occasions where someone has been close. Larry Walker gave it a shot in 1997, finishing first in home runs, second in batting and third in RBI en route to the National League MVP. In 2010, Albert Pujols led the senior circuit in home runs and RBI, but finished sixth in batting, finishing 24 points behind Carlos Gonzalez. That season, Gonzalez himself finished one run batted in behind Pujols, but eight home runs back, good for a fourth-place finish.

Since this has picked up steam in the past few weeks, I’ve been rooting hard for Cabrera to finish first in all three categories, simply because I’ve never seen it. There’s nothing wrong rooting for greatness, just as there’s no such thing as being the wrong kind of fan.

The MVP has always been a maddeningly ambiguous award. Some seasons, the best player on a first-place team takes the trophy — Vladimir Guerrero in 2004, for example. Sometimes, it’s the best player in the league regardless of a team’s finish — Cal Ripken in 1991, or Alex Rodriguez in 2003. And sometimes, as with Justin Verlander last season, a pitcher wins it. This debate has elements of best player versus best player on a first-place team, but it’s obviously gone deeper than that. To too many, there’s far too much riding on this.

I thought this nonsense had calmed a bit in the past few seasons. The open warfare of those who trust WAR versus those who still admire batting average seemed, at the very least, a bit quieter. Obviously, I was wrong. There still exists in the gloriously dumb realm of baseball fandom a religiously deep divide between those who see themselves as the game’s wholesome keepers, and those who want to bury the dinosaurs in righteous technological revolution.

To those on each side who insist on making this a fervent, close-minded rant, please know you’re wrong. This is not and has never been an all-or-nothing enterprise. There is room for the fans who think the 1950s were baseball’s glory days. There is room for the fans who read FanGraphs night and day. There is room for fans who still care about batting champions. There is room for every kind of fan. There’s no need for either side to just dismiss the other as a group of sepia-toned idiots or computer geeks hiding in the proverbial mother’s basement.

To act otherwise is simply to be stubborn and childish. This is a kid’s game, but that shouldn’t give adults license to act so pigheaded and foolish.


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