In 2012 and 2013, Mike Trout was considered by most in the sabermetric community to be the most valuable player in the American League. That Miguel Cabrera ended up winning in both years was the source of much debate and consternation, to say the least. Analytically-inclined fans and writers were fed up, frustrated, and outright angry with the “old school” writers voting for Cabrera based on a different set of values. Now, in an amusing twist, it appears that this year Trout has his best chance yet to wind up with the award, in large part by having a season that is less aligned with what the sabermetric community values, and more aligned with what the majority of the voting population values. I took a look at the changes in various aspects of Trout’s game and analyzed how the regressions/improvements will impact his candidacy, based on what voters traditionally have cared about.
A large part of Trout’s previous MVP candidacy (particularly in 2012) centered on his defense — an area that traditionally has had fewer metrics to quantify a player’s value (as compared to say, hitting). In 2012, DRS had Trout as worth 21 runs above average; UZR had him at 13.3.
In 2013, Trout’s defensive value declined to the point where he was worth -9 runs by DRS and +4.4 runs by UZR. This discrepancy was a major reason why Baseball-Reference’s DRS-based WAR for Trout was 8.9 while FanGraphs’ UZR-based WAR was 10.5.
This year, Trout’s worth -6 by DRS and -7.2 by UZR.
In actuality, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to predict this regression; Trout’s arm has been consistently slightly below average, and his range ended up over-contributing in 2012 thanks to a handful of plays that broke his way. Interestingly enough, the sabermetric crowd didn’t call any attention to this detail in 2012, choosing instead to use Trout’s defensive numbers to bolster their MVP case; now this year they’re bending over backwards to try to discredit Alex Gordon’s defensive numbers so they can justify giving the MVP to Trout as they’ve hoped to be able to do all season long…but that’s a post for a different day.
Likewise in 2012, Trout’s baserunning was valued at 12 runs above average, which included his other-worldly 49 SB and 5 CS. In 2013, his baserunning added 8.1 runs, including 33 SB and 7 CS — still a great 82.5% success rate.
This year, Trout’s been worth all of 1.5 runs on the bases, with just 13 SB and 2 CS.
Trout’s offense is down slightly, but not nearly to the extent that his defense and baserunning have been. Like his defense, this regression was fairly predictable, given Trout’s unsustainably high BABIP in 2012 and 2013. His OPS is down to 0.934 compared to 0.963 and 0.988 in 2012 and 2013, but he still has plenty else to hang his hat on: he leads the league in total bases; he’s already hit 30 homers, a total he hasn’t surpassed before; and, with 94 RBIs, he’ll easily pass that magical/meaningless 100 threshold soon as well. The voters as a whole still like HRs, RBIs, and round numbers.
In previous years, Trout was criticized (at least by me!) for not getting hits in key situations. Here are Trout’s offensive splits with Bases Empty versus with Runners on Base:
In 2012-2013, he performed significantly worse with runners on. Presumably most folks here would no doubt cling to the notion that this is entirely luck, and that sequencing like this is entirely unpredictable and out of players’ control. I argue that even if so, if we’re talking about how much value a player added to his team in a given year, he’s adding more value in years when he gets clutch hits than in years when he doesn’t. And this year, he’s actually reversed the trend. His 2014 WPA of 5.52 has already exceeded his 2012 and 2013 marks of 5.32 and 4.60.
Fortunately for Trout this year, there haven’t been many other position players giving him a run for his money. Josh Donaldson has cooled off as expected after a hot start. Alex Gordon’s case is even more heavily dependent on defensive metrics than Trout’s was in 2012, and I don’t see many voters slotting him above Trout. After that, I just don’t see the award going to Robinson Cano or Kyle Seager (the only other 2 AL players in the top 10 for position player WAR as of this writing), unless Cano truly catches fire in September and leads the Mariners to the playoffs. In fact Trout’s best competition for the MVP may well end up being a pitcher (another Mariner, no less!), Felix Hernandez. And we know how hard it is for a pitcher to win the MVP even when his WAR outpaces that of position players (“They only pitch every 5 days!”).
Last and perhaps most importantly, I present the Angels’ records and division finishes over the past 3 seasons:
2012: 89-73, 3rd
2013: 78-84, 3rd
2014: 81-53, 1st (through 8/30)
FanGraphs gives the Angels a 99.9% chance of making the playoffs. In fact, as of this writing, no other team in baseball has more than 78 wins, while the Angels have 81. This should finally appease the “MVPs should lead their team to the playoffs” voters.
So Trout’s hitting is slightly down and his defense and baserunning are way down from when he had his previous “MVP-caliber” seasons. Fortunately for Trout, the voters by and large don’t value defense and baserunning as much as they probably should (though that’s starting to change, albeit slowly). And as for hitting being down, 2014 Trout is doing more of what they value: hitting homers and driving in runs. The only thing that might work against him is if he doesn’t bat .300 (he’s at .290 as of now), and the voters like nice round numbers (and they value BA over newfangled mumbo-jumbo like OBP and OPS). Overall though, with the Angels in line for their first playoff spot since 2009 and no other traditional MVP-makeup players in the field, Trout seems like a shoo-in.
|Criteria||As Compared to 2012-2013||Do Voters care?|
|Defense||Way Down||Not much|
|Baserunning||Way Down||Not much|
|Overall Hitting||Somewhat down||Somewhat|
|Playoffs||Angels in much better position||Yes|
|Field||Not as many standouts as 2012-2013(Alex Gordon != Miguel Cabrera)||Yes|
So there you have it: Trout will win the AL MVP award for all the wrong reasons.
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