Mike Trout and the Need for Logical Consistency

On Monday night, Ken Rosenthal wrote something of a plea to his fellow BBWAA members; stop looking for reasons to give the MVP award to anyone besides Mike Trout.

My fear is that in 20 years people are going to say, “Trout led the majors in combined OPS-plus from 2012 to ’16 and won only one MVP in those five seasons? What the heck were the writers thinking?”

Shame on us if, instead of celebrating Mike Trout, we keep looking for the next best thing.

It’s a good piece, and given Rosenthal’s standing in the baseball writing community, it could have some influence on the 30 voters who have AL MVP ballots this year. And if you’ve read FanGraphs for the last few years, you probably know that most of us writing here agree with his stance; the idea that Trout is somehow less valuable because his teammates stink is not an argument that I give much credence to.

But I also have been doing this long enough to realize that a good number of people are entrenched on this issue, believing that production on a losing team is not valuable; we’ve all heard some version of “The Angels could have finished in last without him” trope. The (unfortunate) reality is that this idea isn’t going away any time soon, and it’s likely that a bunch of AL MVP voters will continue with the tradition of voting for the best player on a playoff team.

So here’s what I would like to add to Ken’s plea to our BBWAA brethren; if you’re going to argue that Trout cannot be more valuable than one of Mookie Betts, Josh Donaldson, or Manny Machado, because his teammates didn’t let him turn his production into value, then extend that belief throughout your ballot. Own the idea of value being exclusively created by team wins and playoff appearances, and apply it to every place on the ballot, not just the top spot.

The results of the last four MVP votes show just how inconsistently this philosophy is applied, as Mike Trout has finished second in all three of the years he didn’t win the award. The year he did win, of course, the Angels won 98 games and advanced to the playoffs, but in the other three years, he finished behind Miguel Cabrera (twice) and Josh Donaldson, who played on playoff teams, and clearly got a voting boost because of it. But in those years, he finished ahead of other great players on playoff teams; Adrian Beltre and Robinson Cano in 2012, Donaldson in 2013, and Lorenzo Cain last year, for instance.

Those guys weren’t as good as Trout in those years, but if Trout’s performance couldn’t create enough value to rank ahead of Cabrera or Donaldson because his team was bad, why did it create enough value to rank ahead of other great players whose teams did make the postseason? Why are we only applying this idea that production is not value to the top spot on the list, then ignoring it entirely in spots 2 through 10. Either Trout’s performance on a losing team is valuable or it isn’t; putting him behind one inferior player on a winning team, but in front of the other players with similar cases, doesn’t work logically.

With all due respect to Betts, Donaldson, and Macahado, the race, once again, isn’t all that close. This isn’t like last year, where Donaldson was basically Trout’s equal, and there was nothing wrong with picking one or the other. As Neil Weinberg wrote a few weeks ago, Trout is running away with the title of best player in the AL no matter what kind of metrics you want to use. He’s been the best hitter in the league, the third best baserunner, and he plays an up-the-middle position. If we’re basing the voting on production, it’s just not close; no one is anywhere near matching Trout’s individual performance.

So if a voter wants to apply a big enough penalty for playing on a losing team to push any of the three winning-team candidates ahead of him, then that penalty necessarily has to be large enough to push Trout behind all three of them. And maybe even behind Adrian Beltre, who has combined terrific context-neutral numbers with a crazy clutch performance for a team that is winning the AL West almost entirely because of clutch performances.

If Mike Trout isn’t valuable enough to finish first this year, he’s also not valuable enough to finish second. There’s just not a consistent logical thought process than can translate his production into value at a rate that allows him to finish behind Betts but ahead of Donaldson or Machado. Really, if you’re going to argue that the Angels could have finished in last place without Trout too, then he shouldn’t even really appear on the ballot at all; there are clearly 10 players on winning teams who have produced real value this year, after all.

But no one actually believes that production on a losing team is entirely valueless, which is why Trout keeps finishing second. Everyone agrees that Trout has been one of the most valuable players in the AL this year. And if he can be one of the most valuable, he can be the most valuable.

Let’s stop treating the top spot on the AL MVP ballot like it is some kind of special place reserved for only certain types of candidates, especially when the voting instructions expressly state that “the MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.” Like Rosenthal said, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room; one of the greatest players in baseball history is performing at historic levels before our eyes, and he deserves recognition for his accomplishments.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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6 years ago

That doesn’t fit the writer’s narrative though, so it won’t matter. They have players they WANT to vote for, and they build a case around that one player and deny all the other facts.

chuck e
6 years ago
Reply to  abney_mi

are you talking about Cameron here?

The Ghost of Stephen Drews Bat
6 years ago
Reply to  chuck e

Cameron’s last paragraph addresses this question.