Mike Trout’s Traditional MVP Award

If you read or surf through once in a while, you will surely venture across baseball job openings. It is enlightening to see an increasing amount of analytics positions looking to be filled, especially with major league teams. Advanced stats and sabermetrics have emerged in the last decade. This is clear. What is not clear yet is if the once niche perspective is fully sunk into mainstream baseball culture. Certainly, this wasn’t true a couple years ago, or Mike Trout’s MVP award would not be his only one.

It would be a lie to say that advanced statistics have been beyond the peripherals in major award voting in recent years. I am fairly certain that a league leading ERA and WHIP were not enough to win an AL Cy Young award this past season (poor Felix). Not to mention that the same Mariner took home the glory with a murky 13-12 record a few years ago. On the Gold Glove circuit, I can make the open claim that defensive metric leaders and Gold Glove victors lined up much more this year than they have in the past. Even Adam Jones’ defensive season was arguably deserving of a gold glove (not his 4th though…).

Let us focus on baseball’s best player (I can say that now, right?). Mike Trout has been juiced out of at least one MVP, and maybe two depending on what side of the fence you sit. From the table below you can see his “traditional” stats in both those years.

Year HR R RBI AVG fWAR
2012 30 129 83 .326 10.1
2013 27 109 97 .323 10.5

From analyzing the first table, he still had fantastic years. And as we know, he scored back-to-back 10 fWAR seasons. On the other hand, here is what Miguel Cabrera’s corresponding numbers look like:

Year HR R RBI AVG fWAR
2012 44 103 137 .348 7.6
2013 25 101 109 .313 5.4

Based on the tables, the main drivers year over year seem to be home runs and RBI. From 1993 to 2007, every single AL MVP had 30 homers and 100 RBI – aside from leadoff hitting Ichiro in 2001. In the NL, the song remains the same with only Barry Larkin failing to reach the 30 homer mark and two others merely totalling 90+ RBI. While this was a steroid heavy era, there is not enough reason to discredit the data, as with an even larger sample of MVPs, the same trends can be drawn. In 2012, Miguel’s “box” looks significantly better – 137 to 83 RBI is quite a large gap. To avoid sounding like a broken record, I will not mention the poor defense and baserunning that the Tigers corner infielder accounted for. That is why Trout’s standalone fWAR numbers are second to none. In 2013, it was more of the same from Trout. The 10 fWAR season was almost double Cabrera’s, but a 179 OPS+ (park- and league-adjusted) put him behind Cabrera’s 190 OPS+. With the defense and baserunning, it was still likely another Trout miss by the voters.

Arriving back to present time with Trout holding his trophy, it is worth understanding what he did differently. In short, he started being more aggressive and his whiff rate (number of swings and misses per pitch) rose. I would also speculate that with Statcast data, we would see ball speed off his bat is faster this year. As for his results, there is no surprise his strikeout rate jumped, nor is there for the home run total. As they positively correlate, the RBI came up too, leaving his “traditional” numbers looking like this. His fWAR total is also alongside.

Year HR R RBI AVG fWAR
2014 36 115 111 .287 7.8

While it is common on a typical defense and baserunning aging curve, the former and the latter did, in fact, take dives as well this year. Trout’s willingness to run decreased by more than 50% (18 total stolen base attempts) and he actually graded out as a relatively bad center fielder.

My claim here is simple. Mike Trout, whether acting purposeful or not, did what the classic MVP voting criteria wanted him to do – hit homers and drive in runs. This past season, Trout was significantly less valuable than he was in his previous two years, but according to the traditional measures, he was fabulous in the now hitting-depressed baseball. In September of 2012, Trout was quoted saying “I was trying to do too much, trying to hit home runs when I shouldn’t be.” Clearly, he has discarded this mentality, and because of it, he unanimously captured the MVP – the first American Leaguer to do so since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1997.

Can you see the irony here? Mike Trout manages two consecutive 10 fWAR seasons, a feat only done by Barry Bonds, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. He doesn’t win the MVP in either one. The next year he cuts his fWAR by almost 3 wins but adds 28 RBI and half a dozen homers to his totals. All of the foregoing occurs, in the era in which sabermetrics are undoubtedly now integrated into modern baseball. (Fortunately for him, he didn’t need 10 WAR to be seen as baseball’s best player). The fact is that Mike Trout just won the MVP – the traditional way.



Print This Post

newest oldest most voted
Luis Torres
Member
Member

I completely agree. I’m not sure that the anachronistic, obstinate voters learned anything this year. It looks like they gave Mike Trout the award based on the same outdated principles that they’ve always relied on. Bad process, good results.

It would be a shame if Trout changed his approach as a result of the MVP voting from the last two years. This past season, he sold out way too much OBP in order to hit for more power. It worked, but the cost was too high. With regard to his defense, I think the defensive metrics are way off. I would say he’s a tick worse than he was in 2012, as he sometimes gets bad reads on balls. I’d say that he’s definitely a plus defender, at least. He still runs the bases well too, even though he doesn’t steal as much.

KK-Swizzle
Guest
KK-Swizzle

He can still be a plus defender while having had a bad year defensively, in the exact same way that a good hitter can have a bad year at the plate (see Billy Butler’s projected 119 WRC+ despite a 97 last year).

In fact, this seems to be the case, as he is projected for 4 runs of defensive value above average next season. I comment because this is a common and misplaced criticism of defensive metrics. They aren’t fundamentally trying to describe how good of a defender a player is, but rather how well a player played defensively, much like batting average/HR/RBI’s attempt to describe how well a player has hit.

foxinsox
Member
Member

Interesting look. To me, even Cabrera’s traditional stats don’t look better in 2013.

However, I think you’ve left out a very important aspect here — team performance. The Angels had the best record in the AL this year, driven by Trout’s supporting cast (therefore causing an increase in Trout’s RBI).

Basically, I’m not sold on the “Trout sells out for power, gets MVP” narrative. Rather, “Trout’s team stops sucking, Trout wins MVP.”

a eskpert
Guest
a eskpert

You’ve got Miguel’s 2013 and 2014 performances, not 2012 and 2013.

KK-Swizzle
Guest

This is well written and a topic I’ve thought about a lot. I wonder if any insights into Trout’s approach could be found in interview transcripts or the like?