As the leaves change colors and drop to the ground, it seems appropriate that we mourn the looming demise of another regular season of baseball and reflect on what the baseball gods hath wrought. While the Wild Card races still have the potential to excite, the division races, well, not so much. The most semi-interesting division race is the AL East, where Boston is holding on to the closest division leads of five games and close out the season with a three game series against the next team in the standings (Toronto). The next most interesting would be the NL West, where the Dodgers have a six-game lead and any hopes of the Giants reclaiming the division disappears further into that dark night with each and every blown save, even if they close out the season against each other.
While the Wild Card races offer up the potential for intrigue, especially in the NL, where there is the (albeit unlikely) possibility of a glorious five-way tie that would result in utter and absolute chaos to determine who gets to unwrap the postseason present of playing the Cubs in the NLDS, it’s still too early to do anything other than dream on it. Rather, with almost the whole season in the rearview, let’s take a look at the MVP race in the American League, which is indubitably of interest. As we mentioned when discussing the Rookie of the Year awards for both leagues, the Most Valuable Player award comes with the dubious distinction of involving some serious semantic debating. The primary debate is centered around an age-old proverb: If a Trout hit falls in the bleachers and the Angels are nowhere in the standings, does it make a difference?
Mike Trout should be, by all measures, the man to beat. While WAR is not a perfect stat, there are no perfect stats. WAR is our best effort to quantify all the things that baseball players do into a single metric and distill them down to something that is tangible. Is it without flaws? No, but that does not mean it’s worthless; it’s the best tool we have for figuring out how much individual players do to help their respective teams win or lose games. As usual, Trout is your all-MLB leading WARrior. Obviously, we will focus on his American League competition only, in keeping with the purpose of this article. If Baseball-Reference is your preferred flavor of WAR, Trout has 10 bWAR, with Mookie Betts coming in second with 8.9 bWAR. If your prefer the flavor of Fangraphs, Trout has 8.8 fWAR, with Betts again in second, this time with 7.4 fWAR.
We’re not talking about 2015, where Josh Donaldson’s campaign was neck-and-neck with Trout, with Donaldson at -0.3 fWAR (basically a rounding error) or -0.8 bWAR. Trout is miles away the better choice here and either leads the board or is right up at the top in so many other statistics that it’s almost futile to go over them, but we’ll cherry pick some of the choicest. Trout is sporting a .437 OBP that is the best in MLB thanks to a career-best 16.5 BB%, his .318 AVG (tied for third in MLB) and, if we’re being honest, a little help from Joey Votto and his slow first couple of months. Trout’s .966 OPS is 2nd in MLB only to David Ortiz (who we will get to below). Trout is also back to being an excellent base runner, with 26 steals on 32 attempts.
Basically, just about everywhere you look, Trout is up there, either at the top or flirting with it. This includes Win Probability Added, where Trout is miles ahead of the competition at 6.45. Trout easily leads MLB in a stat that literally attempts to determine whether a player increases his team’s chances of winning. I’m not sure if there is a better definition of “valuable” in sports than “increases his team’s chances of winning.”
If you add up his all hitting contributions, he has a 171 wRC+ (1st in MLB overall) and a 175 OPS+ (again, 1st in MLB overall). Trout is the best hitter in baseball this season. He hits for power, gets on base better than everyone else and is a threat to steal once he’s there. All of this while playing solid defense at an up-the-middle position. You can argue semantics about what the “V” means in “MVP” and attempt to move the goalposts until the cows come home, but just because Trout is playing for a lousy team doesn’t change the facts.
The only reason that any GM in baseball would turn down a straight player-for-player swap of Trout for any player on their team would have to do with contract issues (cost and length of service time). If you believe that someone else should take home the hardware, the onus is on you to argue otherwise and prove your case. Would you actually take another player first in your fantasy league next year?
If, despite the fact that the instructions for voting actually say: “The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier,” you believe that the MVP must go to a player on a contending team then Mookie Betts would be a solid choice, the most solid even, since Betts is, as mentioned above, in second place in the WAR war. Betts’ slash line is .318/.360/.542 against Trout’s .318/.437/.559. One of these hitters is better than the other, but, you know, potayto/potahto. You can argue about defense if you want, but we’re not going to go that far down the rabbit hole. Betts winning would be a disservice to Trout, but not the greatest disservice.
I am a very, very big Jose Altuve fan and I would love for him to win the award. When we checked in on him earlier this year, it certainly seemed like he could, thanks to an increased ability to hit for power which pushed him from a really good player into the upper echelons of really great players. While he still leads the league in good ol’ AVG, he hasn’t been as immortal in the second half, which is not to say he hasn’t still been a supremely excellent hitter, just that he hasn’t been as out-of-this-world as he was in the first half. Most importantly (unfortunately), the Astros are currently fighting tooth and nail for a Wild Card spot, so this might end up as moot as our discussion of Trout. No offense to Betts, who is quite likely the more deserving candidate anyway, but, apart from the correct thing happening and Trout winning the MVP, nothing would make me happier than Altuve winning it, even if I would bemoan another Trout loss.
David Ortiz has comes up a lot on the hitting leaderboards will certainly get some votes. In fact, as of the the writing of this article, if you want to gamble on the MVP award, he’s the second favorite behind only Betts at Bovada (and it’s pretty close). There’s even more wrong there than there is with the MVPs-must-contend issue. If the award were for the Most Valuable Hitter, then, yes, you could at least argue that Big Papi was deserving of the award. Not to belittle the season that Ortiz is having, it is something that is worthy of awe and amazement, but the value that any designated hitter provides his team will always be mitigated by the fact that he isn’t providing any value whatsoever for half of every inning. While it’s a testament to just how amazing a hitter that Ortiz has been this season that his WAR total is as high as it is (4.9 bWAR/4.4 fWAR) as a DH, if Ortiz was already your MVP pick, then it’s pretty likely that nothing I’m going to write is going to change your mind. But, at least let me say: please let it be Betts, Ortiz has had his farewell tour and doesn’t need to be the reason that Trout is robbed of another MVP award.
As it stands, there is a legitimate possibility that Trout will once again come in second and be elected the MVeeP. It can’t be said enough, though, Trout is the best all-around player in baseball and, it follows, is the Most Valuable Player in the American League. The fact that we have to have this conversation every year is starting to get a bit old at this point, but we’re going to keep having it every year that Trout is this good and that the Angels are this bad.