The Mike Trout MVP Precedent

Most of the time when we talk about Mike Trout, we ask if anybody has ever done what he’s doing. Sometimes the answer is Mickey Mantle or Ty Cobb or Albert Pujols, but a lot of the time the answer is no and what Trout is doing is unprecedented. Today, we are asking two related questions:

  1. Could Mike Trout deserve the American League Most Valuable Player Award despite missing 39 games earlier this season?
  2. Does Mike Trout have a realistic chance to win MVP despite missing 39 games earlier this season?

While answering the second question might help prove the first through precedent, let’s restrict ourselves in the first part to the value Mike Trout provides. On Friday, I talked about Jose Altuve’s candidacy for MVP and showed this chart:

American League WAR Leaders
Name WAR ROS WAR EOS Projection
Jose Altuve 5.7 1.7 7.4
Mike Trout 4.5 2.8 7.3
Aaron Judge 5.8 1.4 7.2
Mookie Betts 4.4 1.8 6.2
Jose Ramirez 4.2 1.5 5.7
Andrelton Simmons 4.3 1.4 5.7
George Springer 3.8 1.5 5.3
Justin Upton 3.5 1.2 4.7
Justin Smoak 3.7 0.8 4.5
Carlos Correa 3.9 0.2 4.1

Through August 3

Things have already changed considerably. This is what the top of that chart looks like now.

American League MVP Candidate Projections
Name WAR ROS WAR EOS Projection
Mike Trout 5.1 2.6 7.7
Jose Altuve 5.9 1.6 7.5
Aaron Judge 6.0 1.3 7.3
Andrelton Simmons 4.6 1.3 5.9
Mookie Betts 4.2 1.5 5.8
Chris Sale has 7.0 WAR, but the above list only includes position players.

So Trout is currently projected to be the AL position player WAR leader at the end of the season. If he keeps up his current pace and gets close to the the 200 more plate appearances he is projected for, he is going to get above 8 WAR. Trout is currently above a 200 wRC+, a number that hasn’t been reached since Barry Bonds and done by only nine players in non-strike seasons in history. He will actually have to exceed his projections in PAs to qualify for the batting title, as he is currently set to fall eight short.

While the above information isn’t definitive and there are a lot of ways to define value, it certainly seems that Trout is likely to have a strong argument at the end of the season that he has been the AL MVP. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is realistic. He’s likely to get dinged by voters for missing nearly a quarter of the season with an injury. To potentially strengthen Trout’s argument, let’s take a look at previous MVP races and see if we can find any similar situations.

Since 1961, when the season was expanded to 162 games, there have been 97 position players with MVP awards in non-strike seasons (1981, 1994, and 1995 were strike-shortened). The graph below shows the PAs of every one of those MVP winners. As you can see, MVPs generally play a lot.

That chart might be tough to read at the bottom, but in summary, MVP winners have averaged 666 PAs since 1961. Only nine failed to reach 600 PAs, only four didn’t make it to 550, and only two MVPs didn’t qualify for the batting title. Let’s take a closer look at the far right of the chart and look at the nine players plus Trout who didn’t make it 600 plate appearances.

In 2003, Barry Bonds put up 10.2 WAR despite only coming to the plate 550 times, in the middle of winning four consecutive MVPs from 2001-2004. Rickey Henderson exceeded 10 WAR in 1990 on his way to MVP. Josh Hamilton was pretty comfortably leading the AL in WAR back in 2010. Joe Morgan was coming off an 11-WAR season in 1975 when he nearly reached double digits in winning the award again in 1976. Elston Howard had a ton of days off throughout the season as the Yankees had a massive lead in the standings for most of the summer back in 1963. Bob Allison actually led the AL in WAR that season, but Howard was on the better team and slightly more productive per plate appearance. Willie Stargell was a platoon first baseman for the “We Are Family” Pirates. he hit for power, but Dave Parker was the best player on that time by quite a bit. The other two players on that list provide some interesting comparisons for Trout this season.

In 1962, Mickey Mantle was coming off a 10-WAR, 54-homer season where he didn’t win MVP as Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single-season record. He hit almost as well in 1962 with fewer homers and less playing time due to missing 25 games in May and June with a thigh injury. In terms of value, Mantle’s 6.0 WAR was very close to Rocky Colavito and Brooks Robinson though Mantle was much more efficient and neither of those contenders finished anywhere near the top of the MVP voting, something that would likely be more difficult to occur today. All George Brett had to do win the MVP in 1980 was carry a .400 average to the middle of September. Brett missed 25 games with an ankle injury around the same time of year as Trout, and then hit .421/.482/.696 from July to the end of the season to win MVP. Brett’s 9.1 WAR topped the AL.

Mantle and Brett provide some pretty good company and precedent for a season like Trout’s winning the MVP award. Seasons like these are fairly unique, but it is also worth taking a look at seasons like Trout where a player was denied the MVP. Going back a bit further to 1931, here are the seasons of at least 7 WAR and 550 PAs or fewer.

Best WAR in Fewest PA Since 1931
Name Team Season PA WAR WAR Rank MVP Rank MVP Winner-WAR
Barry Bonds Giants 2003 550 10.2 1 1 Bonds
Ted Williams Red Sox 1957 546 9.7 2 2 Mickey Mantle-11.4
George Brett Royals 1980 515 9.1 1 1 Brett
Joe DiMaggio Yankees 1939 524 8.5 1 1 DiMaggio
Ted Williams Red Sox 1954 526 8.4 1 7 Yogi Berra-5.9
Mark McGwire Athletics 1996 548 7.3 5 7 Juan Gonzalez-3.5
Ted Williams Red Sox 1955 417 7.1 3 4 Yogi Berra-5.2
Chipper Jones Braves 2008 534 7.1 6 12 Albert Pujols-9.2
Al Kaline Tigers 1967 550 7 4 5 Carl Yastrzemski-11.1
Chris Hoiles Orioles 1993 503 7 3 16 Frank Thomas-6.3
Non-Strike Seasons

We’ve already talked about the Bonds season as well as the Brett season. Joe DiMaggio missed most of May in 1939 with a leg injury, but still led the league in WAR and won MVP. The players at the bottom half of the chart are players with very good seasons in limited time, but who weren’t the league leaders in WAR that season, even if the league leader didn’t win. The only time a player led the league in WAR in under 550 PAs and didn’t win was in 1954 when Ted Williams, despite the fact that he posted a 207 wRC+. He didn’t play a game until the middle of May and then missed a huge chunk of June before putting together a great season. Boston’s 69-85 season probably didn’t help matters though Minnie Minoso, Mickey Mantle, and Bobby Avila might have had better seasons than eventual winner Yogi Berra.

If you are looking for precedent to give Mike Trout the MVP award despite missing so much time, it is definitely there. We aren’t just talking about exceptions, either. When a player has a truly great season and is best in the league, he generally wins MVP despite the lack of playing time. The incredibly high level of play over a short duration has been deemed more valuable than lesser value with more time on the field. There’s still a ways to go, but if Trout keeps this up, he might win MVP, and he’ll probably deserve it.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

“Chris Sale has a 6.5 WAR projection, but the above list only includes position players.”

Doesn’t he already have 7 WAR with 2 more projected ROS?

5 years ago
Reply to  Charles

His fWAR jumped a lot in the last couple days. Looks like this article was brewing for a while, and that footnote was researched a little bit ago.

5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Specifically, he had +0.6 WAR in last night’s game. Or +0.7 RA9-WAR.