Mike Trout and the MVP

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.

Clutch Hitting

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:

 Year  Split  BABIP  OPS  tOPS+
 2012  Empty  0.403  0.985
 2012  RoB  0.343  0.917  90
 2013  Empty  0.399  1.023
 2013  RoB  0.339  0.934  90
 2014  Empty  0.343  0.916
 2014  RoB  0.348  0.944  104

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.

The Field

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.

The Vote

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
 HRs, RBIs  Up  Yes
 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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18 Responses to “Mike Trout and the MVP”

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  1. Yalingto says:

    How about Jose Bautista? He’s kept a 400obp for most of the season and is going to have over 30HR

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    • Neil S says:

      But the Jays aren’t in the playoff picture. He’d need to magically lead them into the LDS to earn any consideration at the top of the ballot.

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  2. george says:

    it is pretty ironic. it’s a shame abreu doesn’t play for a good team. or someone like brantly isn’t putting up good defensive numbers. it could have been a real entertaining debate. but it seems trout has the “traditional” credentials this year, and there really isn’t anyone with the right offense and defense combo to get a push from the saber crowd. too bad

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  3. DavidKB says:

    There’s also something to be said for agreeing with your critics, but on your own terms. All the noise the analytics community has been making about Trout may actually help his case this year.

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  4. You're Biased says:

    “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.”

    Great, great point. When you take away those few great plays by Trout, it becomes obvious that his 3.3 (THREE POINT THREE) difference in WAR is negligible. Clearly, that situation is very, very analogous to 2014 Trout who is within .1 WAR of Alex Gordon.

    You, sir, win the internet for today.

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    • Huge Giant Fan says:

      I think you’re missing the point. It’s not that Trout’s MVP candidacy is somehow analogous to previous years, or that his WAR was completely invalid in those years or something (though you shouldn’t base the MVP solely on WAR anyways).

      It’s that, based on the way the voters have demonstrated they vote, Trout may well have a better chance to win this year than he did in 2012/2013, *even though it’s not as much of a runaway by sabermetric standards (i.e. WAR) this year*. Which seems true to me.

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      • You're Biased says:

        I fully understand the main point of the article. Why would critiquing one point of the article show in any way that I didn’t understand the main point?

        Regardless, the author did make an analogy there; maybe you didn’t see it? The author said:

        “…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.”

        That’s a direct analogy between 2012 and 2014. He’s saying the sabermetric crowd is hypocritical because they used defense in one setting and then disregarded defense in another setting. That’s just flat-out wrong, because the situations are not analogous. The argument this year is not that defensive statistics shouldn’t be valued highly, but is that a difference of a few tenths of a point is well within an error bar for WAR; thus, you can regress the defensive statistics slightly and make a solid argument that Trout has been better.

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        • Andy says:

          There are actually three main differences between Trout vs. Cabrera in 2012 and 2013, and Trout vs. Gordon (or Donaldson or Seager) this year:

          1) Trout led Cabrera in WAR at all three main saber sites. No AL position player leads Trout at more than one site (though Stanton has led for a long time at one, and sometimes at a second)
          2) As you note, the difference in WAR between Trout and Cabrera was huge, whereas it is very close this year between Trout and any other AL position player
          3) Often overlooked is that in 2012 and 2013, Trout led everyone, including Cabrera, in offensive runs created. So even if defensive stats were thrown out entirely, he had a very good case. And guess what? He leads everyone in offensive runs created this year, too, except Stanton, some times, depending on the site.

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  5. Paul says:

    This is an awful article. Trout beat Miguel Cabrera by 3.3 WAR in 2012. Trout is currently (9/4) leading the MLB in WAR, and it very conceivably will come down to within a few tenths of a point (well within an appropriate error range).

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    • Giant, Huge Fan says:

      Yes Trout had far higher WAR than Cabrera (and everyone else) in 2012, yet he didn’t win because of old-school idiots who think the MVP should go to the guy on a playoff team with the most RBIs. Ironically Trout’s 2014 candidacy is more in line with what old-school voters want, hence he has a better chance of winning this year even though he isn’t running away from the field as much.

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  6. boomer says:

    No matter which way you slice it – 2012, 2013 or 2014 – Mike Trout is good and very deserving of the MVP. He will continue his ascent towards greatness with this award notched on his belt.

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  7. Jon L. says:

    The bottom line over the last 3 years is: Trout clearly deserved the MVP (yes, including credit for his opportunity-based homer-robbing), Trout clearly deserved the MVP, Trout probably deserves the MVP.

    Why you seem distressed by #3 I don’t know.

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    • Mike Pozar says:

      Distressed? Not distressed. Just pointing out the irony that even though he “less clearly” deserves it this year (based on your comment), he has a better chance of winning it this year (IMO). Expanding on what you’re saying:

      2012: “clearly deserved the MVP”: didn’t win
      2013: “clearly deserved the MVP”: didn’t win
      2014: “probably deserves the MVP”: seems like the front-runner.

      If you asked me on October 1st, 2012 to bet on who would win the MVP (not who *I* thought should win, but who the voters would give it to), I would have picked Cabrera. And I would have won that bet.

      If you asked me the same on 10/1/13, I would have picked Cabrera and won that bet.

      If you ask me today, I would pick Trout. I think I’ll win that bet too.

      To me this is noteworthy, especially since the MVP race appears much closer than in 2012/2013. If you don’t find it noteworthy that’s fine.

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  8. KK-Swizzle says:

    Ignore the trolls, this is a well-written piece and brings up an extremely interesting and painfully ironic point: Trout will get his MVP, but it won’t be due to a shift toward sabermetric thinking in the mainstream. I suppose we’ll have to call it a draw for now :) Thanks for writing!

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    • You're Biased says:

      Yes, all people who disagree with anything in article is a troll. Good point.

      I don’t see a single comment disagreeing with what you said after your rubbish first sentence.

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  9. John C says:

    In a nutshell:

    This should be the third consecutive year that Mike Trout has deserved to win the AL MVP award, but it will only be the first time he has actually won it.

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  10. cburns says:

    this was a gimme to trout for being beat out by cabrera 2 yrs in a row. trouts numbers against 5th place jose bautista are very similar. the only obvious difference is trout made the playoffs. but this is the regular season mvp. the indians also did not make the playoffs but look at brantley and kluber. both indians had great seasons and finished higher than bautista. take trout off of the angels and they still might have made the playoffs. take bautista off of the jays and they would have been 30 games under 500 easily

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