Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 9/27/12
Science is neat. In many scientific experiments, you can run trials, generate results, slightly change the conditions, run trials, and generate other results. Then you can compare those results to measure the effect of the change that you made. I used to work in a neuroscience lab with fruit flies, and one of the first projects to which I was assigned attempted to measure the draw of potential mates against the draw of fresh food. Without going into detail, we were constantly futzing with the method and seeing what happened to the numbers in the end. It was not a very good experiment and it never came close to getting published. At least there were usually donuts.
Baseball isn’t like science. In baseball, there is but one trial, and it’s always going on. We can speculate about the effects of certain things, and we can feel pretty confident about our speculations, but we can never know for sure. We can never know for sure how many wins above replacement a player is or was worth. We can never know for sure the significance of a borderline pitch call. And we might never know the meaning of a play that Alex Gordon made in Detroit Wednesday evening.

This highlight, it turns out, is embeddable, owing to MLB.com’s Keep-’Em-Guessing embeddable video policy.

That’s Alex Gordon going up and taking a home run away from Miguel Cabrera. While this home run would’ve broken a tie at the time, we know this play didn’t cost the Tigers an important win; the Tigers still won, 5-4. It’s possible, somewhat counter-intuitively, that had Gordon not made this play, the Tigers ultimately would’ve lost. This play changed the entire sequence of events after it and we don’t know how the alternative events would’ve played out.
I’m not here to discuss the meaning of this play to the Tigers as a team, though. I’m here to speculate about the potential consequences for Miguel Cabrera the individual, the individual who’s lately been receiving an awful lot of media attention.
Before we proceed, let’s look at a couple screenshots, just to establish that Cabrera’s fly ball likely would’ve left the yard:


It’s close — about as close as you can get — but it looks like a would-be dinger. Interestingly, nearly seven seconds elapsed between contact and catch. According to Greg Rybarczyk, during the Home Run Tracker era — 2006 to the present day — the longest hang time for a home run is 7.13 seconds, and that home run was hit by Miguel Cabrera, just a few days ago. Had this been a home run, it wouldn’t have beat out that other home run, but it would’ve come close. Miguel Cabrera hits some towering fly balls, some of which are home runs.
So Miguel Cabrera is in the news, for three reasons, which kind of overlap. One, he’s trying to help push the Tigers to the playoffs after what had been for a while a difficult season. Two, he’s chasing the American League Triple Crown. And three, he’s one of two strong candidates for the AL Most Valuable Player award. Let’s look at where Cabrera is in the Triple Crown standings right at this moment:
Batting average

Miguel Cabrera, .327
Mike Trout, .323
Joe Mauer, .323
Derek Jeter, .320

Home runs

Josh Hamilton, 43
Miguel Cabrera, 42
Edwin Encarnacion, 42
Adam Dunn, 41
Curtis Granderson, 40

RBI

Miguel Cabrera, 133
Josh Hamilton, 124
Josh Willingham, 110, what, holy crap

With a week left in the regular season, Cabrera basically has the RBI category locked up. He’s leading the batting average category, although not by so much that he couldn’t lose his position in a day. And he’s just behind in home runs, and it’s clear that with so little time left, the home-run title is going to be decided by a very small number. It might even end up as a tie.
Alex Gordon’s play cost Miguel Cabrera a home run and a tie atop the home-run leaderboard. To say nothing of the boost another hit would’ve given to Cabrera’s batting average. As more and more people are coming to know, nobody has won the admittedly arbitrary Triple Crown since 1967, or, if you don’t like ties, 1966. We all understand that the Triple Crown doesn’t mean what it used to, when we were lesser informed. We all understand that winning the Triple Crown would also be a pretty sweet achievement. If one were to calculate Cabrera’s odds of winning the Triple Crown, they’re a lot lower than they would be had Gordon failed to make that catch. Cabrera’s behind in home runs, and home runs are hard to hit. Even for Miguel Cabrera!
We can take this even further. Gordon’s catch reduced Cabrera’s odds of winning the Triple Crown, and it stands to reason — even though it shouldn’t, really — that winning the Triple Crown would have an effect on Cabrera’s odds of winning the MVP. All of us here at FanGraphs know with a high degree of certainty that Mike Trout has been more valuable than Miguel Cabrera overall. People on FanGraphs aren’t the MVP voters and my sense is that the voters are looking for a reason to give Cabrera the nod. If the Tigers make the playoffs and the Angels don’t, that could do it right there. And if the voters get to say that Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown, well, who could turn down a Triple Crown winner? Nobody ever wins the Triple Crown anymore.
All other things being equal, I think Miguel Cabrera would have X odds of winning the MVP if he won the Triple Crown, and Y odds of winning the MVP if he didn’t win the Triple Crown, where X > Y. I don’t know the magnitude of the difference but I’m almost certain a difference exists, because the Triple Crown can be psychologically persuasive. These are sportswriters who are voting, not scientists. And even scientists are human (for now).
Alex Gordon took a solo home run away from Miguel Cabrera. As such, Alex Gordon reduced Miguel Cabrera’s odds of winning the Triple Crown. As such, Alex Gordon presumably reduced Miguel Cabrera’s odds of winning the MVP. When you put it that way, it sounds ridiculous, but it’s equally ridiculous to think that a Josh Hamilton homer could similarly reduce Cabrera’s odds of winning the MVP. So many MVP arguments end up looking ridiculous when you break them down.
Now, if you’re uncomfortable with all this, maybe you could say that Gordon didn’t really rob Cabrera of a homer. Perhaps no homer can be robbed — perhaps there are just homers and non-homers, where a homer needs to be hit beyond the reach of the outfielders. Cabrera’s fly ball was within the reach of Alex Gordon, just as a routine grounder to second is within the reach of the second baseman. We don’t say that the second baseman robbed a hitter of a hit when he scoops up a grounder. Gordon’s catch wasn’t even a spectacular one, like Mike Trout’s in Baltimore. He barely had to leave the ground, and it was all a matter of timing.
But the bigger point is that Cabrera came awful close to a dinger right there. We’ll never know what might’ve happened had that gone for a home run, but we can speculate to extraordinary lengths. Alex Gordon might’ve made a bigger difference than he knew.
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