With postseason awards ballots due in a few days, we’re getting a bunch of writers publishing their hypothetical votes today, including national writers like Ken Rosenthal and Jon Heyman. As has become an annual custom, one of the primary points of contention is whether to give the AL MVP to Mike Trout, far and away the best player in the game.
Rosenthal, who definitely ascribes value to playing on a contender, stumps for Trout anyway.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I prefer my MVP to come from a contender. A preference, though, is not an absolute. Trout has been the best by such a wide margin — his OPS is nearly 100 points higher than Betts’, thanks to his league-leading .441 on-base percentage — it would be foolish to deny him.
Heyman takes the more traditional path, arguing for Mookie Betts because he had better teammates, even though he puts Trout second, ahead of plenty of other good players on winning teams. In support of his belief that it’s close enough to give the edge to the guy was fortunate enough to get drafted by the well-run organization, Heyman puts for this argument.
Some say his age-23 season has been comparable to Joe DiMaggio’s. I’m not sure about that. But it’s good enough to take the AL MVP in a tight, tough, interesting year. He gets the nod over David Ortiz for playing defense (and an outstanding right field), and he gets it over Trout as he was almost as brilliant as Trout (9.5 WAR compared to Trout’s 10.2). That 0.7 extra WAR (based mostly on more walks) isn’t enough to disregard how Betts helped his team win baseball’s best division, and dominated games in the division, especially against the Orioles.
In the blurb on Trout finishing second, he repeats the claim that the difference is just some walks, saying “But his numbers are almost identical to those of Betts, except for the walks.”
Now, sure, that’s one way to look at it. If you just look at the traditional baseball card numbers, they are very similar.
But just for fun, let’s add another traditional baseball number to the column. It’s not going to be anything scary. It’s not a formula. It’s a counting stat, just like home runs and RBIs.
Heyman framed the difference as just some walks, and because walks are easy to dismiss — they’re not driving in runners, the guy didn’t really do anything to earn them, it’s just the pitcher being wild, etc… — it’s a good way to pretend that Betts and Trout have had similar offensive seasons. But instead of talking about walks, what if we just called them something else; non-outs. Because we know outs are bad, right? When a guy on the team we’re rooting for makes an out, we’re sad, because that means that our team’s offense has fewer chances to score the rest of the inning.
Mookie Betts has made 86 more outs than Mike Trout this year; in fact, Betts is sixth in the AL in outs made. Now, certainly, some of that is because he’s just hit a lot; his 718 plate appearances are second most in the AL, as the Red Sox offense has turned over the lineup frequently, allowing Mookie to come to the plate 49 more times than Trout, despite playing in the same number of games. But even Trout magically batted 49 more times than Betts this weekend, and made outs in every single one of those plate appearances, he’d still be almost 40 outs behind Betts on the season.
Betts has made three full games — plus a few leftover — worth of outs more than Trout has this season. That is an enormous difference, and can’t just be hand-waved away as “some walks”. And that’s why Trout is crushing Betts in any kind of calculation of offensive runs produced this year.
wRC is closer than the rest because, as a counting stat with a base of zero, it isn’t accounting for opportunities, so Betts’ extra trips to the plate help him rack up some more value. In the other three, where an average hitter is the baseline, Trout pulls away, as he produced more raw offensive value while using many fewer outs to get there.
OFF is the combination of park-adjusted batting and baserunning value, and here, Trout has a 26 run lead. Twenty-six runs is almost three wins. The idea that it’s a close race when you look at their batting lines is simply factually incorrect. The 86 out difference makes it entirely clear that Trout trounced Betts as a hitter this year. That’s nothing against Mookie, who I continue to love; Trout trounced everyone as a hitter this year.
So while I appreciate Heyman looking at WAR in determining his ballot, the reality is that the argument that it’s a close race depends entirely on the acceptance of an enormous gap in defensive value as measured by Defensive Runs Saved, which is the fielding component used in Baseball-Reference’s WAR, which Heyman is citing. DRS gives Betts credit for 32 runs saved — 10 runs more than the next best player, Adam Eaton — which is almost double his +17 UZR.
Betts is clearly a fantastic defensive player, and he deserves credit for his all around game, but the reality is that the argument that Betts and Trout have had similar 2016 seasons is an argument for accepting the validity of single-season DRS at face value. We’ve probably done more to advocate for the acceptance of stats like UZR and DRS as anyone, but even I wouldn’t look at Betts’ 2016 defensive numbers and argue that we should accept that he was the best defender in baseball this year, and far more valuable defensively than Trout, who still plays the more demanding defensive position.
And unlike single-season defensive metrics, which continue to have some noise influencing their results, we can very easily identify the offensive difference between Trout and Betts. It wasn’t just “some walks”; it was 86 outs made. And those 86 outs are why, with all due respect to Betts as a great player who had a great season, it isn’t really all that close this year.
Trout was the best player in baseball, by a lot. If you want to give the award to Betts because he plays on a winning team, we can’t stop you, but let’s not pretend that Betts and Trout had similar offensive seasons. When it comes to offensive production in 2016, it’s Trout, a huge gap, and then everyone else.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.