The Case for Jose Altuve for American League MVP

This week, we’re going to run a series of posts laying out the case for the most compelling candidates for the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award. These posts are designed to make an affirmative argument for their subject and are not intended to serve as comprehensive looks at every candidate on their own. The authors tasked with writing these posts may not even believe their subject actually deserves to win, but they were brave enough to make the case anyway. The goal of these posts is to lay out the potential reasons for voters to consider a variety of candidates and to allow the readers to decide which argument is most persuasive.

Other cases: Mike Trout for AL MVP.

Mike Trout leads the American League in every major calculation of WAR: Baseball Prospectus’ version, Baseball-Reference’s version and our very own version right here at good ol’ FanGraphs. This unsurprising fact is true because the guy is so damn good at every aspect of baseball. He gets on base. He hits for power. He’s a shockingly productive base-runner. The only area in which he lags a bit is in defensive value, but his offense puts him so far above the competition that no one can surpass Mike Trout’s overall production on the field right now.

That said, let me tell you why Mike Trout isn’t the Most Valuable Player in the American League.

It’s not an easy argument to make. Sure, numbers can be manipulated but not to a degree that allows a straight-up objective argument for any American League player being better than Trout. Comparable? Perhaps. But better? That argument doesn’t exist. We’re here at FanGraphs because we like numbers and objective truths — and all of those indicators point to Mike Trout as the best player in the American League this season. But… I can’t believe I’m about to write these words in this cliché order… let’s talk about the meaning of the word valuable. I think there’s a remarkably valid interpretation of that word which makes this year’s most deserving AL Most Valuable Player candidate a diminutive second baseman from Houston.

We’re all capable of going to a dictionary and finding a definition of the word valuable that fits with what we’ve known to be true since elementary school. What that word means with regard to baseball specifically, however, is the source of heated debates each fall. I don’t believe there’s a right answer and, absent any clarification in the meaning, there’s an excellent argument for wanting the award to simply go the best player each season. However, for the purposes of the argument I’m going to attempt to make here, I contend that a critical component of valuable is the connotation of importance.

Trout’s on-field production is important to the Angels inasmuch as it gives them a tremendously marketable player and may serve to keep them in fourth place rather than fifth place. He’s a predictably great player putting up a predictably great season for a predictably non-competitive team and, as a result, his performance is woefully lacking in gravitas. The same cannot be said, however, of one of the stars of another AL West team.

It’s hard to watch Jose Altuve play a major-league baseball game without immediately noticing him. Our eyes and attention is naturally drawn to that which is different, and Altuve’s size is undeniably different. As a petite person myself, I’ve always had a soft spot for short players and, from that angle, I find it very easy to root for him. What makes Altuve different from most other short players for whom I’ve rooted in the past, though, is that he’s putting up truly elite offensive numbers this season.

Altuve has the highest batting average in the American League by 20 points this season and is making a run at securing the most hits in the league for the third straight season. Is batting average the be all and end all? No, but it’s a great starting point and Altuve has the peripheral performance numbers to effectively supplement that base production level. This season he’s walking more than ever before — which has given him a .409 OBP (second only to Trout) — and he’s in the midst of a tremendously unexpected power surge which has led to him surpassing his previous career high in isolated power by nearly 50 points. His resulting .211 ISO ranks 28th of the 77 qualified hitters in the AL. While the power isn’t quite elite, it’s worked in combination with his high average and excellent on-base skills to give him a 159 wRC+ which ranks fourth in the league behind Trout (175), David Ortiz (164), and Josh Donaldson (161). Add in that he plays an up-the-middle position (even though defensive metrics aren’t terribly complimentary of his skills) and Altuve has amassed more WAR (6.7) this season than all other American Leaguers except Trout (8.3) and Donaldson (7.1). Not bad for the short guy. Not bad at all.

This base of elite-level performance is critical to the MVP argument and the implications of importance. It’s possible that on the last day of the season a Quad-A player will pull a 2011 Dan Johnson and hit a home run with massive implications for his team’s postseason chances. In a very real way, that single swing will have more importance than any swing Mike Trout takes this season, but no reasonable person would argue that hypothetical player should win the Most Valuable Player award over Trout. There’s a requisite balance between the season-long on-the-field greatness and the other, more context-specific criteria. Altuve’s performance hasn’t been Troutian, but it’s kept him close enough in the discussion that the importance can put him over the top, so let’s evaluate the more context-specific aspects of his MVP candidacy.

The most blatant difference between Altuve and Trout is that Altuve is playing for the postseason. The Astros are currently a prohibitive 8.5 games behind the Rangers in the division, but now sit just 2.0 games out of Wild Card position. On a basic level, this means Altuve’s performance has meant more to his team’s chances of achieving the ultimate goal of postseason success. It may not be fair to Trout (or to baseball fans being denied postseason Trout for another year), but it’s true nonetheless.

Where I think Altuve further distinguishes himself, however, is in the expectation game. The Astros were attempting to build a winning team this season and they had internal expectations for Altuve. Precisely what those expectations were, we can’t know, but we do have our own preseason projections for Altuve and they are striking when placed to the actual result.

2016 Jose Altuve Projections vs. Results
Preseason ZiPS 693 .309 .346 .432 .123 .335 3.7
Preseason Steamer 684 .307 .350 .431 .124 .336 3.3
Actual 612 .346 .409 .557 .211 .405 6.7

Perhaps the Astros knew better, but even acknowledging their information advantage, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could have fully projected the power surge that has led to Altuve being roughly twice as valuable as we projected. He’s been an excellent major leaguer for the past two years, but the jump he made this year to elite player provided significant unexpected value of immense importance to a team with playoff aspirations. No player in the American League has outperformed his ZiPS projected wOBA or WAR by more than Altuve.

2016 AL Leaders Preseason ZiPS Outperformance
Name pwOBA awOBA Diff Name pWAR aWAR Diff
Jose Altuve .335 .405 .070 Jose Altuve 3.7 6.6 2.9
David Ortiz .362 .423 .061 Ian Desmond 1.2 4.1 2.9
Brian Dozier .327 .378 .051 Dustin Pedroia 2.4 4.8 2.4
Jose Ramirez .305 .354 .049 Brian Dozier 2.9 5.3 2.4
Dustin Pedroia .322 .367 .045 Jackie Bradley Jr. 2.1 4.3 2.2
Jackie Bradley Jr. .316 .359 .043 Adam Eaton 2.8 4.9 2.1
Michael Saunders .321 .364 .043 David Ortiz 2.0 4.0 2.0
Josh Donaldson .371 .413 .042 Carlos Beltran 0.3 2.1 1.8
Carlos Beltran .319 .361 .042 Evan Longoria 3.3 5.0 1.7
Kyle Seager .332 .372 .040 Travis Shaw 0.1 1.7 1.6
pwOBA = Projected wOBA
awOBA = Actual wOBA
pWAR = Projected WAR
aWAR = Actual WAR

Trout has been the better player, but there’s a case to be made that Altuve has been more important and, by extension, more valuable to his franchise. Context is relevant. It may not be fair, but it’s relevant. The story of Altuve’s 2016 season is an impressive one and, yes, a valuable one worthy of celebration. Whether that is enough to elevate him to the Most Valuable Player award is up to the voters.

Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.

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7 years ago

Yeah sorry, but I don’t see the logical argument in here anywhere. Trout should not be punished because he is on a team with 1 other good OF, and a good SS that was hurt good portion of the year. Arguably the 4th best position player on the Angels is a 3B who can hit but now is awful at everything but hitting. And they have no piching this year.
Trout has had a larger effect on the Angels W-L record, it should not matter that the difference is one team being a playoff contender and the other having the worst record in baseball. The MVP is a individual reward, and to take away Trout’s argument just cause of his awful teammates is silly.

7 years ago
Reply to  matt

By reading this article and the Trout one it very much seems like Trout shouldn’t just win the MVP but should win it unanimously.