An Early Look at the AL MVP Race

[This analysis is also featured in our emerging blog www.theimperfectgame.com]

With less than one month to go, the American League MVP race is very close. While usually nothing is set on stone in early September, during the last few years the AL MVP has been a two-man race (Mike Trout with either Josh Donaldson or Miguel Cabrera). This year, however, features five remarkable candidates: Mookie Betts, David Ortiz, Jose Altuve, Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson. Yes, I expect a few other to grab a few top-five votes (e.g. Cano, Cabrera, Lindor and Machado) but I don’t anticipate the award to fall outside those five players.

Let’s look at the classic, old-school numbers first, which not only are sometimes referenced in casual conversations at local bars and pubs but also frequently (and occasionally unfortunately) followed by voters. I’ve plotted R, RBI, HR, OBP, SLG and SB as percentiles of the entire population. Let’s take a quick look.

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If you like well-rounded players, probably this year you’re excited with Altuve, Trout and Betts, who dominate across the board. In an era where stolen bases keep declining, 20+ SB will get you to the 90th percentile. On the other hand, if you’re into true sluggers, then the show Ortiz has put this season should be one to remember. However, then again, these metrics paint only part of the picture — they don’t take into account when or where each event happened nor they include defense or base running on its most complete form.

Let’s take a deeper look at WAR and a quick indicator for each batting, fielding and base-running performance.

 

Player WAR wRC+ UZR/150 BsR
David Ortiz 4.0 164 0 -7.4
Jose Altuve 6.6 160 -0.4 0.3
Josh Donaldson 7.1 161 10.6 -0.8
Mike Trout 8.1 175 -2 8.0
Mookie Betts 6.6 138 16.4 8.0

Obviously when we move away from batting, David Ortiz loses ground — he only contributes in one aspect of the game, and while he has been outstanding in the batter’s box, likely it will not be enough for him to win. When we adjust by park and league, we realize the Trout – Betts race for the best OF is not as close as I initially thought. Trout has quietly put a(nother) great season on an awful team (again) — he’s already at 8.1 WAR and a 175 wRC+, with both easily leading the league. His defense is slightly below average at best but he compensates by running extremely well. Altuve and Donaldson have had similar seasons offensively. However, Altuve is having a down season in both defense and base-running (remarkably low on Ultimate Base Running (UBR), which measures how frequently and effectively a runner takes an extra base via running). Betts drives his value largely from his defense, where he’s settled in nicely as one of the best OF this year.

One of the metrics I tend to assess when I look at awards is how performance was spread the entire season. I want an MVP to be someone that I rely throughout the year, not only during a hot stretch. Additionally, having a big month can really uplift the numbers and build up a misleading argument in favor of someone. Let’s understand how wRC+ is split by month.

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This picture to me is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, part of the argument on Betts’ candidacy is that he’s getting better, and delivering when it matters the most — in the middle of a pennant race. After a below-average March/April, Betts has been a beast since July, when Ortiz cooled off a bit. Now, then again, Mike Trout has also followed an upward-trending curve — peaking at 206 in August — and his lowest point is at 144, which is the highest of all lowest points in the sample. From my perspective, if everything else is equal, I’d rather have a Trout-esque curve than Donaldson’s one, who has the highest single-month wRC+ (213 in June) but also with the largest swing (118 difference between May and June). And then you have remarkably constant Altuve — with the narrowest gap between highest and lowest points throughout the season and at least 140 wRC+ in any given month.

Now, most of what we have shown up to now is context-neutral. An argument could be made that every single game is worth the same, regardless of whether it’s in April or July — what’s really important is to deliver in key, high-leverage situations. There is where true MVPs show their full potential to influence a team and define its fate. As they say, a home run against a non-contender team when you are losing by five runs is not as valuable as a game-winning double against our wild-card-rival’s closer in the 9th inning. I’ll admit neither OPS in high-leverage situation or Win Probability Added (WPA) is the perfect metric to evaluate this, but they provide a very good proxy to how well they have fared in tough, game-changing situations. If you are not familiar with WPA, please click here.

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Again we see the usual suspect — Mike ‘King’ Trout — leading not only this graph but the MLB with his 5.66 WPA, closely followed by Josh Donaldson, and they’re the only two players from this sample to have a higher OPS in high-leverage situations than in low-leverage ones. Interestingly, Boston’s Betts and Ortiz’s OPS go down 9% and 15% respectively when the stakes are high. I definitely don’t want to say that Altuve’s 0.841 OPS in high leverage is bad, but I certainly want to recognize Donaldson’s and Trout’s clutchier performance.

Another way of looking at the MVP is to ask yourself: Where would that team be if that player wouldn’t have been part of it? While in essence it is impossible to know for sure the answer, a nice proxy is to measure what percentage of position-player WAR is that player responsible for, i.e. what percentage share does this player represent.

Player WAR Team WAR %
David Ortiz 4.0 28.7 14%
Jose Altuve 6.6 18.8 35%
Josh Donaldson 7.1 21.4 33%
Mike Trout 8.1 17 48%
Mookie Betts 6.6 28.7 23%

 

Well, this is another way to see Mike Trout’s leadership on the field. Almost half of the Angels’ WAR have Trout’s name attached to it, which is amazing. (For reference, the leaders in this table are Khris Davis and Marcus Semien with 122% (2.2 WAR each out of 1.6 Athletics total WAR). Now, Donaldson and Altuve have, too, a remarkable 33% and 35% of their total, but probably Betts falls short again with his 23%.

At the end, when all is said and done, it looks like numbers indicate it should go down to a Donaldson vs. Trout race, just as it was in 2015. Ortiz has had an amazing season but his base-running and defense (or lack thereof) limit his overall impact on his team. Betts is definitely an exciting, five-tool player, but his performance hasn’t been as good as Donaldson’s or as consistent as Trout’s. Additionally, Boston’s talent-loaded team reduces his value (this is the opposite of the Trout-Angels argument – how valuable can you be when your team would perform well, even if you’re not there?). His future is extremely bright though. Finally you have Altuve, who may have a legitimate case but falls (a bit) short on overall performance to Donaldson and Trout. Houston has under-performed and arguably that’s a worse outcome than Trout’s, because we knew the Angels were going to be bad, but we thought the Astros would be better.

Last year, Donaldson built his case with a magnificent August, when he posted a 1.132 OPS and Toronto got to first place in the AL East. This year it was Trout who had a torrid August, but the Angels are not in the wild card race. It surely seems to me as if we are measuring the MVP as a team award. Though I understand the rationale of having an MVP on a winning team, there is more to it. If I had a vote, and still being a few games away from the end of the season, I’d support Trout in his quest for his second MVP (as of today), but it looks like momentum and narrative are gaining traction around Donaldson — who has posted much better numbers than in his MVP season — Altuve — who brings new blood to the MVP discussion and might get an extra push if Houston makes it to the playoffs — and Betts — who is clearly the face of Boston’s extremely talented young generation. They, though, despite great Septembers, will post worse numbers than Trout. Yes, the Angels are a bad team — but to what extend is that Trout’s fault? What else could he have done? When did ‘valuable’ translate into ‘winning by himself beyond reasonable expectations’? When did we change this award to ‘best player on the best team’? In 2012 it was Cabrera’s Triple Crown and in 2015 it was Donaldson’s ‘ability’ to get Toronto to the postseason for the first time in many years. In 2016, Trout has been comprehensively better, avoided any deep slumps during the season, and performed very well under pressure and shown that you can put counting stats up on a bad team. We are running out of excuses this year.



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Oswaldo is a management consultant by day and a baseball blogger by night at www.theimperfectgame.com

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tz
Member
Member

Nice article. I agree with your stance that Trout’s team shouldn’t be held against him for the MVP race, especially when he’s been head and shoulders ahead of the rest of the pack this year.

Fun Trout/Angels factoid: from 2012 to now, the Angels are second in the majors in position-player WAR. Without Trout, the Angels would rank 22nd.

http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=bat&lg=all&qual=0&type=8&season=2016&month=0&season1=2012&ind=0&team=0,ts&rost=&age=&filter=&players=0

WARrior
Member
Member

This is an interesting complement to Neil’s article, which I’m sure you saw. I’m glad you considered consistency. Though a consistent player may not add any more wins than one who is up and down more, consistency is at least a better guarantee of the player’s true talent. Trout of course has been remarkably consistent not just over this season, but over his entire career, so we know that what he’s doing this year is not the result of chance (as could to some extent be the case for Altuve and Betts).

I also agree with you that after Trout, Donaldson has the best case. Last year the conventional wisdom was that he was having an outlier year, but he’s proved this year it was no fluke, he really is that good. Even so, considering from the point of view of what the actual voters will do, I think Donaldson’s having won last year will hurt his case a little. It’s not that you can’t win twice in a row—Cabrera did—but if both of your awards were over a player who by most metrics was better, it looks bad. Cabrera, though trailing Trout in WAR by more than Donaldson did last year or this year, was at least a better hitter than Trout in 2013, and had the triple crown narrative in 2012. Donaldson won last year because of better counting stats—largely fueled by being surrounded by a more potent lineup—and because his team was a contender. Even his strongest supporters had to acknowledge he was not a better hitter than Trout, that other than the team factor, his win could only be rationalized by better defense.

I think many voters will be reluctant to give him those benefits a second year in a row. Trout should be the beneficiary of this to some extent, and perhaps also Betts.. While his hitting production is significantly lower than Donaldson’s, this is not so obvious from the traditional/counting stats that seem to count a lot for many voters, as you alluded to.

eyesoverthecity
Member

A quick glance at where the contenders rank against the rest of the AL… sorry, this excludes Ortiz.

https://goo.gl/photos/tDgSchy4dNcGEEYb8

karabmar
Member

I disagree that you should use the percentage of team WAR to compare MVP candidates. It penalizes players who are on a good team. Also if you ask yourself “where would the Angels be without Mike Trout?”, the answer is last place in the American League West, and with a higher draft pick. The point being that the extra wins contributed by Trout mean jack squat if the team does not rise in the standings. That being said, I would vote for Mike Trout for MVP because he is the best player in the league.