Sports

Schapiro ’19: Anyone but Trout is a fish out of water

By
sports columnist
Friday, September 23, 2016

The word “valuable” can mean many different things, especially in baseball, which requires a multitude of different skills to compete successfully. Every September and October, the debate is brought to the forefront of sports news, as fans and writers argue over what “valuable” really means and who should win each league’s MVP award. And somehow, they always seem to get it wrong.

For some reason, the National League MVP honor has been given out with much less controversy than the American League award in recent years. Bryce Harper won the award unanimously in 2015, and while Clayton Kershaw’s selection in 2014 raised some eyebrows, as pitchers aren’t usually chosen as MVPs, he was by far the best selection available. Going back to 2013 and 2011, two dubious selections presented themselves, but even so, the National League has generally avoided full-blown MVP controversies.

The American League, by contrast, has not been so lucky. Every year, it seems, the AL MVP argument breaks down to two groups: for and against Mike Trout.

Those against Trout don’t really have one defining argument: They simply contend, every year, that the other option is better. Since 2012, Trout has finished in the top two in AL MVP voting each year. Yet, despite leading all of the league in wins above replacement by a substantial margin over that span, Trout has only taken home MVP honors once, in what was arguably his worst season. This year, despite being at or near the top of the field in nearly every important offensive statistic, Trout is likely to finish second in the MVP balloting, and maybe as low as fourth.

Why hasn’t Trout been recognized more favorably? There are numerous reasons. 

In both 2012 and 2013, Trout finished second to Miguel Cabrera. Both years, Cabrera’s superior power numbers probably sealed the deal: Cabrera hit 88 home runs over the period, compared to Trout’s 57. But while I won’t argue that Cabrera didn’t deserve both those awards, Trout was putting on a show on the field as well: Trout stole 82 bases over the period to Cabrera’s seven and was worth 20 wins over the two seasons to Cabrera’s 14.5.

Trout finally took home the award in 2014 ­— by both WAR and conventional statistics, his worst season — but lost out to Josh Donaldson in 2015, despite being worth 0.6 more wins. This time, Donaldson likely won the award because his team made the playoffs, while Trout’s Angels did not. The Angels have made the playoffs only once since Trout made his debut, in 2014, Trout’s worst — and only MVP — season.

This year, coming down to the wire, the situation is similar: Trout’s 10.0 WAR leads MLB by more than a full win, and he is also leading the American League in on-base percentage by 33 points. He’s batting .318, has 28 home runs and has even stolen 26 bases — his highest total since 2013. His OPS is .996, the highest of his career. Trout deserves to win MVP. Indeed, he deserves to win his fifth MVP.

But it seems more likely that he will not, because once again, the Angels are foundering. They’re 66-86, mathematically eliminated from postseason contention. Besides Trout’s 10.0 WAR, the next-most valuable player on the Angels has been worth only 4.0 wins.

By contrast, all of Trout’s competitors play for teams with legitimate chances to make the playoffs and far more talented rosters. Yes, the Angels have been bad, but compared to where they’d be without Mike Trout, 66-86 doesn’t sound terrible.

The irony here is that MVP voters who base their decisions on the success of candidates’ teams aren’t voting for the Most Valuable Player at all: they’re voting for the Most Valuable rest of team. Value is value, whether a team is 20 games over, .500 or 20 games under: Mike Trout’s 10.0 wins contributed to the Angels this season are his value, and his competitors’ lesser contributions are theirs. Mike Trout has made the Angels, an almost historically awful team without him, 10.0 wins better — no one else has done nearly as much.

Even the voting guidelines make it clear that team success need not figure in to MVP voting. According to the guidelines given to voters, the “MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.” The qualifications listed for consideration are as follows:

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.

Mike Trout’s strength on both offense and defense is unrivaled, as all available statistics clearly demonstrate. Of his team’s 152 games this year, he’s played in 149 of them. His character and effort, whether on the field or in front of the media, have never been anything short of excellent. In short, he’s a model MVP.

Mike Trout deserves to win a fifth MVP this year, or estimating extremely conservatively, a third or fourth. Giving him his second won’t solve that problem. But it will certainly be a start.

James Schapiro ’19 also thinks Mike Trout is pretty good-looking. He can be reached at james_schapiro@brown.edu. 

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