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Are we overlooking Mike Trout for AL MVP?

Despite putting up his own AL MVP case, Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout is being overlooked.

Amid the fervent debate over whether Mookie Betts or J.D. Martinez should be the American League’s Most Valuable Player, one name is conspicuously lost in the din: Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout.

This is true even if unlikely since Trout is a two-time former MVP and seven-time All Star having perhaps his best season. He’s hitting .317 and leads the American League in several categories that normally are MVP bellwethers, among them on base average (.463), OPS (1.088) and OPS+ (197). Beyond that, he has recently risen to the top of the list in the Fangraphs version of WAR, and although still trailing Betts in the Baseball Reference version, the difference is only 10.0 to 9.6.

When Trout won the MVP in 2016, he led the AL in on base percentage (.441) and OPS+  (173). Since 2009, six players have led their league in on base percentage, OPS and OPS+ as Trout presently does, and four – Joe Mauer and Albert Pujols in 2009, Miguel Cabrera in 2013, and Bryce Harper in 2015 – went on to win the MVP. The two exceptions – Andrew McCutchen in 2014 and Trout himself in 2017 – were both defending MVPs, perhaps suggesting that voters may eventually reach an expectation saturation level  that creates an unconscious bias against defending champs.

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Given that Trout Is not only a two-time winner but a three-time runner-up, that saturation bias may be undermining his candidacy in 2018.

It’s true that in having yet another MVP-caliber season, he is merely a slightly improved version of what he has always been. At the same time, his numbers are undeniably up.  Trout’s batting .317, 10 points above his career average. His .463 on base is 47 percentage points above his .416 career average, his .625 slugging average is 52 percentage points above his career norm, and that hikes his 1.088 OPS to 99 percentage points better than Trout’s usual OPS.

So if you are an MVP voter, what’s not to like? Some of the counting stats, that’s what. Trout has 35 home runs and 71 RBIs; the first is on pace with what he does every year, but the second projects to be off his 98 RBI career average. It also badly trails the other candidates, notably Martinez (123).

Yet the situation-dependency of RBIs is by now so widely understood, including among MVP voters, that its relevance ought to be discounted. That’s especially true in the case of Trout, who suffers by his association with the Angels. The team’s non-Trout on base average is .298. Without Trout — who single-handedly raises the Angels team on base average 18 percentage points — that .298 performance would escape being the American League’s worst only because the Orioles are at .297.

There is a clearer way to take the accurate measure of Trout’s value relative to the other major MVP candidates, and that is to look at the percentage and magnitude in each candidate’s “victories” in individual player-pitcher matchups, those micro-showdowns that are the heart and soul of baseball. The method is not at all complicated: divide total bases by plate appearances (assigning one base for walks and hit batters), and calculate the percentage of batter (or pitcher) “wins” in such matchups. When you do for rate-stat qualified players or pitchers, this is the American League’s top 10 as of Sept. 20:

  1. Mike Trout .701
  2. Mookie Betts .665
  3. J. D. Martinez .665
  4. Blake Snell .640
  5. Trevor Bauer .640
  6. Jose Ramirez .638
  7. Gerrit Cole .619
  8. Corey Kluber .610
  9. Alex Bregman .608
  10. Justin Verlander .602
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If a voter submitted the above as his or her AL MVP ballot, it would have the virtue of being correct.

 

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