Mike Trout and the Credibility of the MVP Award

Tonight, the results of the voting for the AL and NL MVPs will be announced. In the NL, Kris Bryant will likely win in a landslide, as he was the league’s best player, played on the league’s best team, and put up big numbers in the categories that get the most attention. Daniel Murphy and Corey Seager also had terrific years, but I’d be surprised if either got more than a handful of first place votes. And when Bryant wins, everyone will mostly nod along in agreement, as the process will have worked to select the right candidate.

In the AL, though, it’s going to be a different story. Mookie Betts is probably going to win, and instead of celebrating the accomplishments of one of the best young players in the game, there is going to be outrage. There is going to be yelling. There is going to be anger and frustration. Twitter is going to be a dumpster fire, even more than usual. Because once again, Mike Trout is going to finish second, and the best (human-sized) player we’ve ever seen is going to say something nice about an inferior player who got rewarded for having better teammates again.

And then there’s going to be the same arguments that got trotted out every year. “It’s the Most Valuable Player Award, not the Best Player Award”, they’ll say. And then people will point out that it’s a distinction without a difference, and back-and-forth things will go until everyone gets distracted by a trade or something. And then we’ll do all this again in another 12 months, since the Angels don’t look like they’re really in any kind of position to put Trout in the playoffs. And round and round we’ll go.

Tonight, we could be celebrating the fact that we’ve had the privilege to watch a guy who has outgrown the Mickey Mantle comparison. We could be talking about the obvious greatness of one of the very best baseball players who has ever lived. We could be collectively thankful that we happen to be alive at a time where everyone gets to watch Mike Trout play, to see what an all-time great in his prime looks like.

But unless things have changed more rapidly than we currently think, we’re going to end up debating the meaning of the word valuable, and congratulating Mookie Betts for having the good fortune to be drafted by a team that has other good players too.

Because, let’s be honest, no one thinks the Red Sox would have won fewer games had they engineered a preseason trade of Betts for Trout. No one thinks Betts would have magically carried the Angels to the playoffs if he was in Anaheim this year. No one thinks Betts had a better year than Trout, because it’s a demonstrably false claim.

But Betts is likely going to be named the AL MVP because, we’ll be told, the MVP isn’t about recognizing the best player in the game. This award is apparently about recognizing the best player on a winning team, or at least a team that won enough games for voters to feel good about their predetermined decision to vote for him, even though the instructions on the ballot specifically say that’s not the criteria voters should use.

But I continue to not know why anyone would care about an award with that kind of criteria. Who was the best player in the league this year? That’s an interesting question. That’s a question worth answering. Who was the best player in the league among the teams who made the playoffs, excluding all those guys who were individually great in an environment where greatness wasn’t the norm? Who gives a crap. That’s a question that is only ever asked by baseball writers looking for a reason to continue illogical voting traditions, and no one else.

No fan in the world cares about the answer to that question, and yet, we have an award that has been molded to fit that criteria. And so we don’t have an award that answers the question that people actually care about. Who is the best player in the world? Mike Trout. Everyone who follows baseball in any real way knows that’s the truth. Why don’t we have an award that let’s us recognize that fact?

Every year we choose to give the award to someone other than the guy who is clearly the best (non-big-head-division) player we’ve seen in 75 years, the award itself loses credibility. We’re past the point of Mike Trout needing some hardware to cement his legacy; we’re now at the point where the award needs Mike Trout to win in order for a large portion of baseball fans to stop thinking of the voting process as a joke. The BBWAA needs to honor Mike Trout more than Mike Trout needs to be honored by the BBWAA.

This change is coming. Trout’s going to get some first place votes tonight, and maybe even get enough to make it a close race. The electorate is evolving, and the voters are less uniform on this issue than they were even a few years ago. At some point in the not too distant future, there will be enough voters who reject the must-play-on-a-winning-team canard that the award will become a credible piece of hardware again. And hopefully, that will happen soon enough to give Mike Trout another trophy or two, since he should be picking up his fourth tonight.

But I don’t think we’re there yet. I think Mookie Betts is going to win tonight. Mookie Betts had a great season. I wish we could spend the night talking about how great a season Mookie Betts had. But that he’s going to win is incredible, in the sense that it’s not credible. On a planet where Mike Trout exists, spending time honoring everyone but Mike Trout makes the whole thing feel like a farce.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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soddingjunkmail
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soddingjunkmail

“Everyone who follows baseball in any real way”

Not your finest moment, IMO. There’s more than one way to be a fan, even if I disagree with them.

EF
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EF

Are there actually serious baseball fans who don’t recognize Trout as the best player in baseball? Serious question.

Pirates Hurdles
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Pirates Hurdles

This is the problem with Dave’s tact and yours. You change the question to belittle those that disagree with you. No one is saying that Trout isn’t the best player in baseball or that he didn’t have the best season. The argument is about the MVP award and its traditional inclusion of value to a team as a qualifier. You may prefer an award go to the best player, but that has not been the MVP award now or ever.

The original comment is spot on despite many down votes. Dave likes to think he is so much smarter than everyone else and often takes this approach. Its actually quite ignorant to view things as completely black and white when we know that most of what we discuss regarding sports is anything but. Belittling those that disagree with you is a non-starter in a meaningful debate. This is the same approach Murray Chass gets killed for here.

Hank G.
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Hank G.

You may prefer an award go to the best player, but that has not been the MVP award now or ever.

Then how do you explain Ernie Banks winning two MVP awards and Andre Dawson winning one on non-competitive Cubs teams?

grandbranyan
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grandbranyan

Banks & Dawson won because they drove in more runs than anyone else in the league in their respective MVP seasons.

MikeS
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Member
MikeS

Didn’t read the article, did we?

Chill
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Chill

100% agreed. The holier than thou, one size fits all mentality too often displayed by both writers and readers on this site gets in the way of genuinely edifying debate. Dogmatism is the enemy not differing opinions and interpretations of the same set of facts.

Samuel
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Samuel

I’m a serious fan. I think Kershaw is better. What’s up?

Twitchy
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Twitchy

The only reason to be upset with that specific quote is if you believe Mike Trout is not the best player in baseball.

bananas
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bananas

Another reason to be upset is if you believe that Real Fandom is a condescending tone that connotes that analyzing the minutiae of player performance is the only way to enjoy the game.

I was once a 12 year old playing little league shortstop in central connecticut, debating with my friends whether Jeter’s elite jump-throw defense or Nomar’s absurd idiosyncratic batting averages were more desirable. Sorry I wasn’t a Real Fan for not recognizing A-Rod as the actual best shortstop.

Twitchy
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Twitchy

You can still debate about Nomar’s skills or Jeter’s defence. I can appreciate Jeter’s jump throws, while recognizing that, yeah, he misses more plays than he gets too. That he is a below average defender, but when he does make a great play, it looks absolutely stellar. And that he’s got a high baseball IQ, and can make some creative plays on the fly. I can recognize his greatness and his flaws at the same time.

By the same token, I can recognize that Mike Trout is a pretty amazing player, and that nobody else on the planet is on his level.

bananas
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bananas

I’m telling you that 12 year old me thought that Nomar was The Best. MVP. Numero Uno.

Obviously I was wrong, but I guess the way i followed baseball wasn’t “real” enough for FG?

troybruno
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troybruno

yes, clearly the point of this article was about REAL and non-real fandom.

and your multiple posts about when you were 12 have set Dave straight.

thanks. now stop.

prankmunky
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prankmunky

Its okay, most of us were naive at 12.

glenstein
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glenstein

Bananas, the problem is when you get so lost in sentimentality that it interferes with meaningful analysis.

Jeter was incredible. Nomar was incredible. We should all be able to appreciate them without going the extra length of saying “… and therefore we shouldn’t decide the MVP based on analysis.”

Mike
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Mike

I think that your Nomar support was a perfectly reasonable stance for a 12-year-old to make. Hell, I still think Eric Davis circa 1987 is the best player of all time. (Obviously, I’m wrong about that, too – but it’s a hell of a lot more fun for me to think that way.)

Maybe the point is that we should expect more from sportswriters – guys (presumably adults) who get paid to write about the sport.

I don’t begrudge anyone’s fandom, and I agree with you that trying to characterize any worldview as “REAL FANDOM” is condescending and ultimately counter-productive.

But when it comes to MVP voters, I expect the writers to be smarter than you as a 12-year-old worshiping Nomar and me as an 8-year-old worshiping Eric Davis. (And I recognize that this is just my opinion – I’m not saying it’s WRONG to vote for Betts over Trout. But it IS the type of thing a kid would do.)

I guess my point is this: Eric Davis was amazing.

devo1d
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devo1d

I thought Barry Bonds was the best player I had ever seen in 1992 when I was 10….wait, I have nothing in common with you two. I killed it at 10. Carry on….

maguro
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maguro

If the question of which player is better than which is minutia to you, you’re probably on the wrong site.

swrights
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swrights

First of all, no one cares about your 12-year old experience.

Second of all, during the combined 1998-1999 seasons those three SS ranked in WAR:

Nomar Garciaparra: 13.6
Derek Jeter: 13.6
Alex Rodriguez: 12.6

So it probably made a lot of sense to debate who was the better player.

Third of all, no one cares about your 12-year old experience.

AnalyticsByProxy
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AnalyticsByProxy

I think you are confusing “being a fan” with “following baseball.” The difference is big and applies to breadth of thought, not depth.

csw117
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csw117

It does have rather unfortunate connotations of the sort of crap people like Bissinger would emit (http://www.firejoemorgan.com/2005/07/buzz-bissinger-thinks-we-cant-love.html) to show that anyone interested in analysis wasn’t a true fan. I’d like to think we’re better than that.

bananas
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bananas

I guess my comments are a little flowery but this was my point. We can appreciate Mike Trout without discrediting the ways others enjoy the game, and IMO Dave’s language in this article is crossing that line.

Makes it a lot harder to have conversations with less-saber friends when they read articles like this and feel turned off because their view of the world is invalidated from the start.

glenstein
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glenstein

If you think you should vote for an underserving MVP because you can’t think of how else to venerate a player, that really is a way of thinking that deserves to be discredited.

bananas
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bananas

I don’t know why you’re getting down-voted so hard. I agree the tone is condescending, elitist, and purist, even if the underlying argument is valid.

Discrediting someone’s fandom because of their frame of reference is absurd and should be called out as lazy journalism.

Scoreboard
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Member
Scoreboard

As a long time reader, it’s rare that I deviate from the views of the broader community. That said, I think bananas’ statement is pretty on point.

Yes, Mike Trout is the best player in baseball. Yes, he deserves several more MVPs than he has received. Yes, the voting system does not properly recognize the “best player”. Dave’s argument is rock solid and something I buy into 100%.

That said, calling someone a “real fan” is in fact discrediting and disenfranchising. It’s the same as when Jon Stewart would call out Fox News for describing parts of the US as “Real America”. It’s insulting and discrediting to the rest of the population. It’s elevating one at the cost of the other instead of just highlighting differences.

Article is still dead on, but it is clear Dave was (rightfully) struggling with the emotions of watching an injustice process trot on for another year. This is one of the most passionate articles I’ve seen him right and sadly — in this one instance — I think he misstepped in his articulation of the differences of fans.

Dswagon
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Dswagon

I kinda agree. 12-year-olds SHOULD think some halfway decent player on their favourite team is the best player ever.