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.
...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.