The Case for Mike Trout 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.

Two-and-a-half months from now, after the World Series is over and clubs are in full offseason mode, the BBWAA will announce its end-of-season awards winners live on MLB Network. Given the way the public conversation is going and the way voters have traditionally cast their ballots, it appears likely that someone other than Mike Trout will win the American League’s Most Valuable Player honors.

The MVP award traditionally goes to the best hitter on a playoff team. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but it’s been 13 years since a player won the AL MVP award without making the playoffs, and only one pitcher has won since the strike. Not every BBWAA writer believes in this particular definition of MVP, but enough of the population does to ensure its continued observance. National League voters have been a little more forgiving about making the playoffs, but Trout doesn’t play in the NL.

The Angels are not going to make the playoffs even if they win all of their remaining games, so Trout’s odds of actually winning the award are minimal. Unless the group of writers chosen to vote for AL MVP this year is particularly unrepresentative of the BBWAA as a whole, someone like Josh Donaldson or Mookie Betts will win. Donaldson and Betts have had excellent seasons and should be recognized for their performance, but if you apply any reasonable criteria beyond team performance, Mike Trout should be the AL MVP.

In order to determine how to vote for the MVP, you have to first decide on a criteria. According to the BBWAA, these are the instructions to voters:

Dear Voter:

There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.

The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:

1.  Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.

2.  Number of games played.

3.  General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.

4.  Former winners are eligible.

5.  Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

You are also urged to give serious consideration to all your selections, from 1 to 10. A 10th-place vote can influence the outcome of an election. You must fill in all 10 places on your ballot. Only regular-season performances are to be taken into consideration.

Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters.

The instructions specifically note that the MVP “need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier” and that the voter should consider the “actual value of a player to his team.” Additionally, Trout has played in as many games as the other contenders and is considered above reproach in terms of character, disposition, loyalty, and effort. As a voter, you have to decide what “actual value of a player to his team” means, but the instructions are very clear that you should not exclude a player from your ballot simply because his team did not qualify for the postseason.

There are a variety of ways to measure individual player value. Let’s start with Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Trout leads the AL in all three of the major versions of WAR (FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus) by reasonably comfortable margins. His lead could vanish over the rest of the season and it isn’t so large the margins of error are irrelevant, but at this particular moment our best context-neutral measures of value all tell the same story: Mike Trout has been the most valuable player in the AL this year.

2016 American League WAR Leaders
WAR Version AL Leader WAR AL Runner-Up WAR
FanGraphs Mike Trout 8.2 Josh Donaldson 7.1
Baseball-Reference Mike Trout 9.2 Mookie Betts 7.9
Baseball Prospectus Mike Trout 8.2 Kyle Seager 7.0
SOURCE: FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, Baseball Prospectus

Perhaps you’re a context-neutral voter and want to consider each player’s contributions on his own, but aren’t a fan of defensive metrics for one reason or another. If you want to lean on the offensive component only, Trout is still the player to beat. He leads the AL in wRC+ and is second in our version of bas- running runs behind Rajai Davis. A cleaner way to look at the race is by using our Offensive Runs Above Average, in which Trout leads Altuve and Donaldson by more than 17 runs.

2016 AL Offensive Runs Above Average Leaders
Player Offensive Runs Above Average
Mike Trout 61.5
Jose Altuve 44.0
Josh Donaldson 43.0
Mookie Betts 35.5
David Ortiz 33.2

In other words, if you believe that value is a measure of the player’s individual contributions, there’s no credible case against Trout. Certainly, some of these metrics have uncertainty surrounding their implementation, but Trout leads in all three WAR versions and each site’s primary offensive metric.

Now, of course, there are other ways to define value. Perhaps you think players should get credit for the runs they help produce rather than their individual offensive actions. If that’s the case, RE24 is a helpful statistic. RE24 tells us how each player’s plate appearances and stolen-base attempts have impacted their team’s odds of scoring runs throughout the year. When we use something like wOBA or wRC+, all singles count the same, no matter what. When we use RE24, singles with men on second and third count more than singles with the bases empty. RE24 is agnostic about the inning, score, and team record.

2016 American League RE24
Player RE24
Mike Trout 68.01
Josh Donaldson 53.38
David Ortiz 48.23
Jose Altuve 42.30
Mookie Betts 36.11

Trout leads the league in RE24 by 14 runs. In order to believe Donaldson is a more valuable player than Trout under this paradigm, you have to believe that he is more than 14 runs better than Trout in the field and on base-running plays other than stolen-base attempts. Our measures are imperfect, but there is nothing that suggests Donaldson is able to close that gap.

Maybe you want to take it a step further and add in the inning and score to your calculations. After all, getting a hit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to take the lead does help your team more than that same hit in the fifth inning of a 10-1 blowout. So for that, we want to look at Win Probability Added (WPA). While RE24 looked at run-expectancy changes, WPA looks at win-expectancy changes.

2016 American League WPA
Player WPA
Mike Trout 6.05
Josh Donaldson 5.07
Zach Britton 4.85
Andrew Miller 3.79
David Ortiz 3.62

Again, Trout leads Donaldson (in this case, by 0.98 wins) and the rest of the pack by far more. Defensive metrics like Donaldson more than Trout, but neither DRS nor UZR puts the difference at ten runs, and that’s before we factor in Trout’s edge in base-running on balls in play. It’s a slightly closer race, but Trout still comes out on top.

So if you care about totally context-neutral performance, Trout is the clear winner. If you like situational hitting? Still Trout. Even if your preferred method of player evaluation factors in the odds of winning individual games, Trout has been the best player in the AL this year.

The only argument you can make against Trout is that his teammates are bad and, that most of the time, he was playing in meaningless games. To make the case for Altuve, Betts, or Donaldson, you have to argue that Win Probability Added doesn’t go far enough and that you need to measure a player’s contributions relative to his team’s overall odds of making the playoffs.

Fortunately, Dan Hirsch’s Baseball Gauge calculates Championship Win Probabiltiy Added (cWPA). Using this method, Altuve, Betts, and Donaldson are better than Trout — but also Zach Britton leads the AL and is one of five relievers among the top-nine players. This metric favors players who deliver at big moments in individual games (Trout does!) and whose team is on the playoff bubble for most of the year (not Trout at all!).

But even if you like the idea of cWPA and want to reward players based on the importance of the games themselves, cWPA ignores the fact that, while the Angels played most of the season from the bottom of the division, they were playing against teams who were very much in the race. Sure, whether the Angels win or lose this weekend against the Blue Jays is basically irrelevant to the Angels’ playoff odds, but it will have a huge impact on the playoff odds of many other teams. Trout’s performance won’t impact the Angels’ October plans, but you can’t simply state that his performance in these games doesn’t have playoff implications.

Personally, I think an individual award like the AL MVP should be given to the player who performed the best regardless of context. A single is a single, no matter when it happens or what its direct impact is. But there are certainly other points of view and Trout is happy to satisfy those criteria, as well. The only way to argue against Trout is to suggest his performance, even his performance in critical moments, is irrelevant because his team is not in the thick of a postseason race. And if that’s your criteria, you’re not really interested in handing out an individual award at all. Every measure of performance points to Mike Trout and the only way to give the award to someone else is to define the award as measuring something other than individual performance.

Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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Thanks, Neil. I don’t expect him to win, but think he should. I think it’s particularly noteworthy that he not only leads the AL in WAR at all three major sites, but that the runner-up is different at each site. In other words, while there are enough differences in the metrics used by those three sites to get significantly different results for different players, Trout ‘s edge is great enough that he’s first no matter what the metrics are.