Why Justin Masterson, Not Asdrubal Cabrera, is Indians' 2011 MVP

By Lewie Pollis

Making its way around the news the last few days is Manny Acta’s declaration that shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera has been the Cleveland Indians’ 2011 team MVP:

“From Day One, he’s been our guy,” said Acta. “Look at his batting average with runners in scoring position (.320). His consistency, his ability to stay on the field the whole season has helped us out.”

It’s hardly a controversial notion. When he reported the story, The Plain Dealer‘s Paul Hoynes called Cabrera “the player the Indians miss the most when he’s not in the lineup” and quoted Shelley Duncan wholeheartedly concurring with Acta’s accolades.

A look at the numbers shows Cabrera’s been great. Among qualified hitters, he leads the team in average (.271), homers (22), RBI (82), runs (80), steals (17), and OPS (.788), and he’s done it while playing shortstop. Not to mention his leadership and seemingly innate ability to come through in the clutch.

But, great as Cabrera has been for the Tribe, he’s not the Indians’ MVP. No, the team’s highest honor should go to Justin Masterson.

Masterson’s 11-9 record might not look too impressive, but that just shows why win-loss records are misleading measures of pitching ability. He owns a sterling 3.01 ERA in just over 200 innings, backed up by a 2.93 FIP and a 3.41 SIERA. He’s also notched 22 quality starts and has a solid 1.23 WHIP.

But comparing pitchers and position players is like apples and oranges. Why should Masterson get in over Cabrera?

Using wins above replacement, we can at least get an idea of their impacts relative to each other. FanGraphs has Cabrera at 3.5 WAR—i.e., the Indians have won about three or four more games thanks to him than they would have had they replaced him with a Triple-A journeyman. He’s had a very good season, and it’s safe to say the Indians would have fallen out of the race a lot faster without him.

But Masterson’s been much better. At 5.4 fWAR, he’s been nearly two wins better than Cabrera. It’s hardly an exact statistic and a small difference would be negligible, but given that the discrepancy is greater than the value provided by Josh Tomlin (1.8 fWAR), it’s safe to say Masterson has been more valuable.

Baseball-Reference essentially agrees, with their more conservative model putting Masterson at 4.3 WAR and Cabrera at 3.7. In a vacuum that difference wouldn’t be enough from which to draw major conclusions, but it reinforces the notion that Masterson has been better.

Not a fan of WAR? Using win probability added, we can measure production by how much each player has improved his team’s chances of winning within the context of individual games—i.e., if Cabrera homers in a tie game and the Indians’ chances of winning improve from 50% to 75%, he would be credited with 0.25 WPA for the at-bat.

One would guess this methodology would play to Cabrera’s strengths (how many times has he come through with a big hit?) but Masterson has the edge here, too. The right-hander has been worth 2.38 WPA to date, while Cabrera is at just 1.68.

Another factor some like to take into consideration when assessing value is consistency—another area in which Masterson comes out ahead. Cabrera’s OPS+ has fluctuated wildly in 2011: he peaked in May (164), then gradually declined before stumbling in August (92) and September (43—yikes). For what it’s worth, his best performance came when the rest of the team was also performing well, whereas a hot streak would have done more good as Detroit began to pull away from the pack in the AL Cenral.

Masterson, meanwhile, kept his ERA at 4.00 or below in each of the first five months of the season, and his FIP has stayed below 3.65. He hit his best stretch in June and July, just as the rest of the team’s early season sheen began to wear off. It’s not something that I would consider much when making my decision, but for those who do care, Masterson is the one who really carried the team.

I in no way want to downplay what Cabrera has meant to this team—he’s been Cleveland’s biggest offensive contributor, he’s gotten some big hits, and boy—is he fun to watch. But with apologies to Droobs, Masterson has to be the team’s MVP.

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