A sabermetric case for Miguel Cabrera as MVP

First, the traditional introductory self-deprecation: Hey, gang. This is my first FanPost, I hope you like it. I welcome constructive criticism and cogent argument. Also, I realize this post is about a week (or even a year) too late to be timely. I also don't know if I'm going to have enough to say to make this particularly meaty, but I haven't seen this particular angle discussed much if at all (which might just mean I'm not reading the right sites), so here goes.

The last two years have seen a pretty amazing contest for MVP between Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera, pitting the statheads (Trout's ~10 fWAR per season) against the traditionalists (Triple Crown!) in a "debate" the likes of which the Internet, sadly, sees every day.

I work from the assumption that, like me, most of those reading this lean heavily toward the WAR interpretation of player quality, and a simple comparison on FanGraphs for the 2012 and 2013 seasons shows that Trout brought more wins to his team in each year than Cabrera, and it's not even very close.

But. There has to be a 'but', right? Otherwise why am I writing this, and why are you reading it?

But the Angels and the Tigers occupy very different spots on the win curve. We're accustomed to valuing a generic win around $5M, because that's what the free agent market tells us teams are willing to pay for one. But what folks seem to be forgetting is that that five million is an average, not an indication that each win is identically valuable to each team. Wins are important to teams-as-businesses because teams that win generate more revenue, and the win curve indicates how valuable each marginal win is.

We know that a team that wins 85 games is probably not going to make the playoffs. Similarly, we know that a team that wins 95 games probably is going to still be playing in October. A playoff appearance is one of the most important factors in forward revenues for a team (we seem to be particularly susceptible to this in Seattle, but it's true around the league), and so the wins that get a team from 85 wins to 95 are much more valuable than the ones that take a team from 61 to 71 wins (2013 Mariners), or even the ones that take a team from 106 to 116 wins (2001 Mariners).

Vince Gennaro speaks to the win curve here, along with the concept that each team has its own characteristic win curve, such that the marginal value of win 90 to one team might be very different than the value of win 90 to another. The important concept, though, is that every team values the wins that get them to the playoffs more than the ones that don't make that difference.

In 2013, the Angels won 78 games, and missed even the expanded wildcard by fourteen games. The Tigers won 93 games and made the playoffs. Trout's fWAR in 2013 was 10.4. Cabrera's was 7.6.

Leaving aside the playoff appearance, the wins Trout brought to the Angels are clearly on the shallow slope of the win curve, and those that Cabrera brought to the Tigers are clearly on the steepest part of the curve. I don't have access to the actual revenue projections for each team (or if I do, I don't know where to find them), but I find it very easy to believe that Cabrera's 7.6 wins meant far more to the Tigers' revenues than Trout's 10.4 wins meant to the Angels'.

Would I rather have Trout than Cabrera on my team? Yeah, probably. But it's the Most Valuable Player award, not the Best Player award, or the Highest Return On Investment Player award. Besides, if I'm dreaming, why can't I have both?

(One problem with this analysis is that Josh Donaldson brought 7.7 wins to the Athletics this season at a very similar place on the win curve to the Tigers, but I hand-wave that away by pointing out that it doesn't seem to matter what the A's do, their fanbase is going to be jaded and apathetic until they get out of the hellhole where they're currently playing. Put into the terms of the article, the A's win curve is probably flatter than the Tigers' at every point along the spectrum, so even at the steepest point, Cabrera's wins are worth more in terms of revenue. Another problem is relative salaries, since the Tigers obviously paid more for Cabrera's wins than the Angels paid for Trout's, but I hand-wave that one away by framing the argument in terms of forward-revenue-achieved and utterly ignoring the costs associated with achieving same. Hey, I'm trying to construct a case for Cabrera being the MVP here.)