I had my pitchfork sharpened. My mob was angry. As a sabermetrically-inclined BBWAA member—one without a vote in any awards election this year—I was braced for the worst: another snub of Angels star Mike Trout in the AL MVP voting. But lo and behold, enough voters recognized his greatness that he won handily, beating out fellow outfielder Mookie Betts of the Red Sox by picking up 19 of the 30 first-place votes and 356 points overall, compared to seven and 311 for Betts, respectively.
For the fifth straight year, Trout was the most valuable player in the majors, according to the Wins Above Replacement metrics calculated by both baseball-reference.com and FanGraphs. But until Thursday, Trout had won the AL MVP award only once, in 2014, the lone year during his outstanding career that Los Angeles has made it to the postseason. With the Angels limping to 74 wins this year, their lowest total since 1999, and history showing that only five winners had ever come from losing teams, it seemed likely that he would be denied the honor again despite putting together his best season since his 2012 rookie campaign.
The 25-year-old Trout overcame those disadvantages thanks to a .315 batting average, a .441 on-base percentage and a .550 slugging percentage, along with 29 home runs and 30 stolen bases. His OBP, driven by a league-high 116 walks, led the AL, as did his 174 OPS+. His defense in centerfield was six runs above average, according to Defensive Runs saved, for 10.6 bWAR, just 0.2 below his eye-opening 2012 season. That made him just the sixth player with multiple 10-win seasons since World War II, after Willie Mays (six times), Barry Bonds and Mickey Mantle (three times apiece) and Cal Ripken and Carl Yastrzemski (two each).
Betts, who turned 24 on Oct. 7, enjoyed a breakout season with the Red Sox, batting .318/.363/.534 with 31 homers, 26 stolen bases and a 131 OPS+ as the sparkplug atop the league’s most potent offense. He led the league in total bases (359), finished second in batting average and hits (214), sixth in steals and eighth in slugging percentage. According to DRS, he was 32 runs above average—the highest single-season total for a rightfielder since the metric was introduced in 2003—and finished with 9.6 WAR.
Via FanGraphs' system, which uses Ultimate Zone Rating for its defensive component, Trout was merely average (-0.3 runs) and Betts was outstanding but not an outlier (+17.8 runs), so the gap between the two was even wider, with Trout finishing with 9.4 WAR and Betts 7.8. The differences serve to remind that particularly when a single season of data is involved, measuring defense is far less precise than measuring offense. Taken together, the two metrics strongly suggest that Trout was the more valuable of the two, who were both head-and-shoulders above third-place finisher Jose Altuve of the Astros (7.7 bWAR, 6.7 fWAR). Here are the full voting results:
Trout joins these men in winning the award despite playing for a losing team: Ernie Banks in 1958 and '59 and Andre Dawson in '87 for the Cubs; Cal Ripken in '91 for the Orioles; and Alex Rodriguez in 2003 for the Rangers. Many voters prefer to recognize players from playoff-bound teams or at least contenders, though the voting instructions state that it's not necessary qualification:
There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.
The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:
1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.
2. Number of games played.
3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.
4. Former winners are eligible.
5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.
You are also urged to give serious consideration to all your selections, from 1 to 10. A 10th-place vote can influence the outcome of an election. You must fill in all 10 places on your ballot. Only regular-season performances are to be taken into consideration.
Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters.
Even with those instructions and the growing acceptance of WAR, there still exists a gulf between measuring value and rewarding it. Often, a narrative takes precedence, such as in 2012, when Miguel Cabrera not only led the Tigers to the playoffs but also became the first player since 1967 to win the Triple Crown by leading his league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in. With slightly subpar defense at third base (-4 DRS), Cabrera finished with 7.2 WAR, 3.4 less than Trout, but even given the wide consensus that batting average is hardly the best measure of offensive prowess and that RBIs are a function of having teammates who get on base, the pull of that story was irresistible to voters, who gave him 22 first-place votes to Trout's six.
Cabrera won the next year as well despite trailing Trout in WAR, 9.3 to 7.3, largely because the Tigers went to the playoffs and the Angels didn't. Last year, Trout lost out to Josh Donaldson of the playoff-bound Blue Jays, but that result was tougher to quibble with; Donaldson is an outstanding third baseman, and both versions of WAR had him close to Trout (0.6 behind via B-Ref, 0.3 behind via FanGraphs).
Even with NL WAR leader Kris Bryant winning handily as well on Thursday—he took 29 out of 30 first-place votes, with Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy picking up the other—it's probably an overstatement to suggest that advanced metrics are finally carrying the day in awards arguments. In any given year, an award’s voters represent just one sampling of the membership, and don't forget that just a day earlier, the AL Cy Young Award controversially went to Boston's Rick Porcello at least in part because his MLB-best 22 wins were six more than those of runner-up Justin Verlander, who outdistanced Porcello in several advanced-stat categories, including WAR (6.6 to 5.0).
Still, it's worth appreciating that, according to the research of SI senior editor Ted Keith, this is just the third time in the past decade that both bWAR leaders have brought home the hardware; it happened in 2008 (Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols in the NL, Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia in the AL) and 2014 (Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw in the NL, Trout in the AL).
It also happened in 2003 (Barry Bonds and A-Rod) and '05 (Pujols and A-Rod) as well, but those came before WAR had been introduced by either site. Those players were putting up eye-popping numbers during a time when baseball's offensive numbers were soaring, though at least DRS and UZR were in circulation by that point. From 1986 to 2002, there was no season in which the (retroactively-calculated) WAR leader won both leagues' MVP honors; individually, it happened just three times (Bonds in the NL in 1990, Ripken in the AL in '91 and the Rockies' Larry Walker in the NL in '97) in that span compared to 16 times from 2001 to '15. Prior to that, one has to go all the way back to 1949 when both leagues' WAR leaders—Ted Williams in the AL and Jackie Robinson in the NL—prevailed.
Some may lament the fading importance of the narrative element in the MVP voting, but from here, a result that’s more in line with the value metrics is a great improvement. After all, the vote is supposed to recognize “strength of offense and defense” and we have the tools to do exactly that. Those numbers should carry the day, instead of concocting stories buttressed with cherry-picked statistical justifications to recognize players who led their teams to the postseason. Mike Trout is the game’s best player, and he deserves the game’s top honor while not being penalized for the decrepitude of the team around him. Well done, voters.