Making sense of Bryce Harper's historically great season
2:47 | MLB
Making sense of Bryce Harper's historically great season
Thursday November 19th, 2015

Awards week comes to a close Thursday night with the announcement of the Most Valuable Player voting results, which will be revealed live on MLB Network as part of a one-hour special starting at 6:00 p.m. ET. As was the case for the Rookie of the Year awards, the voting will likely crown a unanimous winner in the National League and a largely expected result in the American League, but the latter may not necessarily reward the most deserving player.

Note: Ballots for all awards were submitted on Oct. 5, before the start of the postseason. I am a member of the BBWAA but do not have an awards vote this year. The finalists below are listed in alphabetical order. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics.

American League Finalists

Lorenzo Cain, CF, Royals
.307/.361/.477, 126 OPS+, 16 HR, 72 RBIs, 101 R, 263 TB, 28 SB (82%), 18 DRS, 7.2 bWAR

Josh Donaldson, 3B, Blue Jays
.297/.371/.568, 155 OPS+, 41 HR, 123 RBIs, 122 R, 352 TB, 6 SB (100%), 11 DRS, 8.8 bWAR

Mike Trout, CF, Angels
.299/.402/.590, 176 OPS+, 41 HR, 90 RBIs, 104 R, 339 TB, 11 SB (61%), 5 DRS, 9.4 bWAR

Cain had an outstanding season, building on his impressive postseason showing in 2014 to set career highs in nearly every offensive category and continuing to play elite defense in centerfield. Nonetheless, he will finish a distant third in this race and, in my opinion, should finish fourth behind Orioles third baseman Manny Machado.

This award, then, came down to a choice between Donaldson and Trout. I expect Donaldson to win comfortably, but to me, Trout was the most valuable player in the AL for the fourth season in a row.

The argument for Trout starts with his hitting. Despite playing in a more pitching-friendly ballpark, Trout bested Donaldson in all three slash stats, posting an on-base percentage 31 points higher than his rival and a slugging percentage 22 points higher. Both righthanded sluggers hit 41 home runs this year, but Trout did so while playing his home games at Angel Stadium, which, according to the Bill James Handbook, had a 94 park factor for righthanded home runs (meaning it was 6% more difficult for righties to hit home runs there than in a neutral park). Donaldson, meanwhile, played his home games at Rogers Centre, which had a 112 park factor for righthanded home runs. If you combine on-base percentage and slugging into OPS+, which corrects for those home ballparks, Trout had a 21-point lead on Donaldson in that category.

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As for Donaldson’s leads in other notable cumulative statistics—runs, RBIs, hits (184 to Trout’s 172) and total bases—those advantages had less to do with Donaldson out-hitting Trout than with his having a superior lineup around him, as well as that friendlier home ballpark. Batting average and slugging percentage tell us that Trout collected hits and total bases more frequently than Donaldson, even if his final totals were lower. Trout also appeared in one more game than Donaldson on the year (159 to 158) and started two more. He came to the plate 29 fewer times than Donaldson, however, because the Angels' lineup, which was 20th in the majors in runs scored, simply did not turn over as often as Toronto’s, which led baseball with 891 runs, 127 more than the second-place Yankees. Trout reached base 281 times via hit, walk, hit-by-pitch or error to Donaldson’s 267 times, but his teammates brought him around to score 33 fewer times than Donaldson. Even if you factor in the fact that Trout made more outs on the bases than Donaldson (13 to a remarkable three), there were still 268 times that he reached base and did not make an out to Donaldson’s 264.

As for Donaldson’s major league-leading RBI total: Donaldson hit with 417 runners on base this season compared to just 341 for Trout. Both hitters drove in runners from the corners with identical frequency (from first base: 7.7% for Donaldson, 7.6% for Trout; from third base: 38.4% for Donaldson, 38.3% for Trout), but with runners on second base, Donaldson was pitched to and Trout was pitched around. As dangerous as he was at the plate this season, Donaldson was not intentionally walked all year because, in most cases, he had Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion hitting behind him. Trout had Albert Pujols behind him for most of the season, but he was still intentionally walked 14 times.

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In 55 plate appearances with a man on second base and first base open this season, Trout was walked 14 times (nine intentionally) and hit by a pitch, giving him an on-base percentage of .491. In other words: 27% of the time that there was a runner on second and first base was open, Trout was put on base by the opposing pitcher. Donaldson was put on base in just 21% of those situations. He also came to the plate in that situation 20 more times than Trout did on the season. In part because of the way they were pitched, Trout drove in just 17.7% of runners from second base to Donaldson’s 26.8%, but the discrepancy in their opportunities and the manner in which they were pitched in those situations undermines any attempt to use RBI totals to argue for Donaldson’s superiority.

I am a firm believer that team performance should be irrelevant to individual awards, and the criteria laid out to voters on the actual MVP ballot supports this view. Those instructions explicitly state that “the MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier,” then list the first criteria for the award as the “actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.” There is no mention of contributions to winning, only “strength of offense and defense.” (The other listed criteria are “number of games played” and “character, disposition, loyalty and effort.”) All of that said: For anyone who believes that Donaldson should win this award because the Blue Jays made the playoffs and the Angels didn’t, allow me to offer a contradictory narrative.

The Angels were not eliminated from the postseason until the final day of the season and were far more dependent on Trout than the Blue Jays were on Donaldson. The Wins Above Replacement totals for both players, per, round off to 9.0. Take those nine wins away from the Blue Jays and they were an 84-win team, just two games worse than the Astros; Toronto very well could have snuck into the playoffs without Donaldson. Without Trout’s nine wins, however, Los Angeles would have been a 76-win team, two games worse than the Red Sox, who finished last in the Blue Jays’ division. I don’t believe any of that should factor into this evaluation, but for those tempted to make team-based arguments in favor of Donaldson, be aware that such an argument works even better for Trout.

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To my eye, the only potentially viable argument for Donaldson to win this award over Trout is that Donaldson’s fielding and base running were enough to overcome the gap between the two players at the plate. I don’t believe that was the case. I’ve already mentioned that Donaldson ran into just three outs on the bases all year compared to Trout’s 13. Donaldson was a perfect 6-for-6 in stolen base attempts and took the extra base (advancing two bases on a single, three bases on a double or advancing at all on a fly out, wild pitch, passed ball, balk or defensive indifference) 57 times. By comparison, Trout was caught on seven of his 18 steal attempts and took the extra base just 50 times. But Trout took the extra base on a hit in 65% of his opportunities to do so compared to just 38% for Donaldson. Again, the opportunities provided by their teammates masked Trout’s superiority.

That brings us to fielding. As seen in the stat lines above, Donaldson saved six more runs in the field than Trout according to Defensive Runs Saved. That’s 2/3rds of a win—not enough to close the gap on Trout (those defensive values are already factored into the bWAR totals listed above). Ultimate Zone Rating gives Donaldson a full-win advantage in the field (nine runs saved exactly), but Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) has Trout as the more valuable fielder this year, saving 11.1 runs to Donaldson’s 4.4. Great as Donaldson is at third base, Trout is excellent in his own right at an arguably more important defensive position.

I just can’t find a legitimate way to argue for Donaldson over Trout. I’m resigned to the fact that Donaldson is going to win this award and have difficulty begrudging him for it given what a tremendous all-around player he has been over the last 3 1/2 seasons and what a fantastic year he just had. This will mark the third time in four years, however, that Trout has been the most valuable player in the AL, but not the AL's Most Valuable Player.

Before I move on to the NL award, I just want to remind everyone reading this that Trout just turned 24 in August, has played just four full seasons in the major leagues and has been the best player in his league in every single one of them.

Who Will Win: Donaldson

Who Should Win: Trout

Nick Wass/AP

National League Finalists

Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks
.321/.435/.570, 170 OPS+, 33 HR, 110 RBIs, 103 R, 323 TB, 21 SB (81%), 18 DRS, 8.8 bWAR

Bryce Harper, RF, Nationals
.330/.460/.649, 195 OPS+, 42 HR, 99 RBIs, 118 R, 338 TB, 6 SB (60%), 6 DRS, 9.9 bWAR

Joey Votto, 1B, Reds
.314/.459/.541, 174 OPS+, 29 HR, 80 RBIs, 95 R, 295 TB, 11 SB (79%), 6 DRS, 7.6 bWAR

Harper should—and I expect will—win this award unanimously, so I can go into greater detail on his season in my reaction to the voting this evening. But I wanted to take a moment here to emphasize what incredible seasons Votto and especially Goldschmidt had this year.

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​Goldschmidt arguably had a better season that Donaldson, who will take home the AL trophy, and you could certainly make a stronger argument for Goldschmidt in comparison to Trout than for Donaldson. Not only did Goldschmidt set career-highs in all three slash stats, OPS (1.005), OPS+ and bWAR, but he also stole 21 bases at an excellent 81% success rate and took the extra base on a hit in 44% of his opportunities (compared to a major league average of 39%). He was also by far the best defensive first baseman in the major leagues, saving a full two wins with his glove per DRS and compiling 13.0 FRAA, which stood as the third-best total of any infielder in the majors this season behind third base wizards Nolan Arenado and Machado (20.6 and 20.3, respectively).

As for Votto: Harper’s major league-leading .460 on-base percentage was the highest in the majors since 2008, and Votto was just one point behind him in that category. His .459 OBP was due in part to his major league-best 143 walks, which were the most by any player since Barry Bonds’s final season in 2004. In fact, Bonds and Votto are the only players this century to draw more than 135 walks in a season. When he wasn’t taking ball four, Votto was besting his career batting average and slugging percentage, as well as playing excellent defense and stealing a few bases of his own, but it all pales in comparison to what Harper did this season.

Who Will Win: Harper

Who Should Win: Harper

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