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What the AL MVP Debate Means for Fantasy

Personally, I hold the old-school belief that the well-rounded player with speed and defense is the best selection for the MVP hardware, but that’s of no concern until I have a vote. In the meantime, I’m left wondering what this debate means for fantasy.

We fantasy-obsessed know that this debate foreshadows a more important one: who should be the number one pick next year. Maybe the things we know about the players now can help us make that decision a little easier, but the conversation can still tell us something about the things we value in the fantasy game.

Defense doesn’t matter in most fantasy leagues. But speed does. And Mike Trout‘s combination of 30 home runs and 48 steals, along with a plus batting average, is unmatched. Almost. Take a look at the top 35 in stolen bases, and there are three players that managed to hit more than 20 home runs along with their 30+ steals: Trout, B.J. Upton, Ryan Braun and Jimmy Rollins. If you want the nice batting average, you’re left with Braun and Trout. Defense doesn’t matter, but Trout still has a nigh-unique combination of skills.

Then again, in a mirror of the national conversation, there’s the fact that Miguel Cabrera moved to third base. And since defense doesn’t matter, fantasy owners next year get to reap the benefit of his move all year next year, even if the Tigers reboot the idea and move him again. Add in the fact that he plays third base, and then there’s nobody with the combination of elite power and batting average like Cabrera… sort of. Adrian Beltre does have 36 homers and a .319 batting average, so if Ryan Braun is Trout-like, then Beltre is Cabrera-like.

Add it all up, and Cabrera and Trout have put up an almost identical value so far this season. If you’re in a five-outfielder league, it’s probably Trout that’s a nose ahead, and if you played in a three-outfielder league, it’s probably Cabrera that’s worth more. After all, there were more than twice as many homers as stolen bases this year, and even though there were only two 40-homer hitters that played anything other than outfield or first base, there were also only two 30-30 players. These guys are in a league of their own in fantasy (almost, given each has a shadow).

So what does the old-school conversation happening right now tell us about this debate going forward?

One thing that keeps coming up is that Miguel Cabrera does this every year and Mike Trout is just starting out. (“He’ll get his MVP later” is a thing that’s said.)

That’s true. Cabrera’s batting average has been over .292 since his rookie season, and he’s managed 100+ RBI every year since, too. It is worth pointing out that he hit ‘only’ 30 home runs last season, though. And that this is the first year he’s crossed the 40-homer threshold. If we look at this year’s third basemen with the 30-homer threshhold instead, you’ll find Beltre, Chase Headley and Pedro Alvarez hanging out, with Aramis Ramirez just a sneeze away. If Ryan Zimmerman stays healthy for a year, and Mike Moustakas or Todd Frazier or Will Middlebrooks have a breakout season next year, then Cabrera might only be the best of a group of three or four elite power third baseman next season, instead of alone at the top.

But the flip side also holds true — Trout’s a 20-year-old that just put up an ISO that outstripped anything he showed in the minor leagues. He also benefited from a .380 BABIP this season. He had some high BABIPs in the minor leagues, and he has the skills (ground-ball heavy approach with line drives and speed) to do that again. His xBABIP is .355, for example. He has all the tools to put up a strong batting average again, even with some regression.

There’s still the matter of that power. Even as he put up a .218 ISO in Double-A last season, he had a 13.1% home run per fly ball rate, which is a number he approximated in his rookie stint. Let’s say he regresses to that number next season. He’ll still have above-average power and wheels, but he might only hit around 20 homers. Guess what. The number of players with a good batting average and 20+ homers and 25+ steals is still… two. And who could join the party? Starlin Castro or Jason Kipnis with a power boost, maybe, and then a group that would need to show more wheels to join Trout’s tier: Bryce Harper, Alex Rios, Ian Kinsler, Andrew McCutchen, Ian Desmond or Jason Heyward. If Trout goes .300/20/40 (in a step back), is there a name on here you’d put up against him even money?

So the current AL MVP debate does tell us a little about the choices we’ll make in drafts next season. And though the focus is different, and the reasons for the debate are different, you might find the same answer at the end of this discussion. Elite power from a third baseman is rare, and the triple crown is nice — but getting great power and speed from one roster spot, that’s even rarer. Score another one for the well-rounded player.