The Angels have 24 games remaining in the 2017 season, and assuming Mike Trout is in the lineup in every game for the remainder of the year, he will finish the year with 115 games played. The last hitter to win MVP while playing fewer than 130 games in a non-strike-shortened season was Mickey Mantle in 1962, when he triple-slashed .321/.486/.605 over 123 games, and nearly paced the American League in rWAR despite playing 35+ fewer games than most of the other MVP contenders. Before Mantle only two other players had accomplished the feat of taking home MVP honors while playing in fewer than 130 games: Roy Campanella in 1955 in the NL (123 games), and only Gabby Hartnett in 1935 in the NL (116 games). So when Trout deservedly takes home his hardware this offseason, he will also have the honor of having played the fewest games in a season of any MVP in baseball history. He’s just been that good.
I’ve sang Trout’s praises before, because I believe he is far and away the best player in baseball right now, and he has been since entering the league. This season is no exception; of all hitters with at least 400 plate appearances, Mike Trout has provided the most offensive value by nearly 30% (Trout’s wRC+ is 194, and the next highest wRC+ belongs to Joey Votto, who sits at 165). For reference, wRC+ uses 100 as a baseline, meaning that for each point above 100, you are producing on offense at a clip 1% better than league average. That would put Trout at 94% better than a league average player. That’s nearly double.
The gap in wRC+ between Trout and Votto is equal to the gap between Joey Votto and Eric Hosmer, who is tied for 28th in wRC+ at 136. And the most astonishing part of the stat is that Trout is not even qualified for the batting title. In order to be qualified for the batting title, a player must have 3.1 plate appearances per team game played, so in order for Trout to qualify, he must have 428 PA. He only has 412, and he’s still been the most valuable player in baseball on offense. And even if you throw an 0/16 into his batting line this year to qualify him (I doubt he would go 0 for the hypothetical 16, but just for the sake of argument), his triple-slash goes from a league-leading .329/.464/.662 to a league-leading .312/.446/.627. Seriously. If you make Trout go hitless in his next 16 ABs, he would still lead the league in OPS, and not a single player in baseball would best him in each of the three legs of their triple-slash. Trout wouldn’t lead baseball in any of the three triple-slash categories, but nobody would have a better mark in all three categories, which speaks volumes to how productive he has been this season.
As his line stands, though, Trout actually leads the league in both OBP and SLG. Giancarlo Stanton, who has hit 27 HR in the second half of the season and 53 HR overall, has a SLG lower than Mike Trout (Stanton’s is .657 to Trout’s .662). Trout has a higher OBP than Joey Votto, who leads all of baseball in walks, by nearly 20 points. Trout also leads baseball in walk percentage, and has the fourth-highest BB/K ratio of all hitters with at least 400 PA (Votto, Justin Turner, and Buster Posey are the only ones ahead of him, and neither Turner nor Posey has a walk rate over 12%.) And keep in mind, all those guys are in the NL, so Trout has the highest BB/K among AL players, which is who we should be comparing him to because he doesn’t have to beat out NL players for the AL MVP. But Trout hasn’t only been the best player in his league, he’s been the best player in baseball in around 45 fewer games than everyone else.
Obviously Trout’s ratio stats will be good because he’s a phenomenal hitter, so when he’s on the diamond he’s going to be spectacular. The one area that might actually hurt him in his MVP candidacy are counting stats such as WAR, HR, RBI, and the like. I don’t think it should really be an issue, because stats like RBI and R are not as indicative of a player’s true ability as HR, SB, and wRC+, but if you want to compare Trout’s RBI and R, Trout sits tied for 16th in the AL in runs (79) and tied for 53rd in RBI (61) among AL players with at least 400 PAs. Obviously the RBI leave a lot to be desired, but that’s mostly a product of the fact that Trout has missed 47 games this season, and when he has been on the field, the Angels haven’t really had consistent guys to get on base for him to drive in. Regardless, the fact that he is knocking on the door for top-10 in the AL in runs is nothing to sneeze at considering how many games he’s missed.
Looking at homers and stolen bases, which I think are more indicative of a player’s true talent level because they do not have to rely on anyone else to get on base in front of them or drive them in, Trout is still in the elite. His 27 HR put him tied for 19th among AL hitters with 400+ PA, but there is not a single player in baseball who has more HR and SB (18) than Trout. Only two other players, Jose Altuve and Keon Broxton (who plays for the Brewers in the National League), have even twenty HR and as many stolen bases as Trout. Trout has 27.
The only other guy I can realistically see threatening Trout for the MVP title is Jose Altuve. Aaron Judge will probably get a handful of votes as well, but I think that his second half has caused a lot of writers to sour on him as MVP. Altuve has been no slouch himself; he paces the AL in fWAR (6.5), BA (.354), steals (31), total bases (290), and hits (183), and he’s third in the AL in runs (behind Judge and George Springer). He’s triple-slashing a very respectable .354/.415/.561, which is good for a .976 OPS. If Altuve were to hold his batting average mark through the end of the season, it would be the fifth-highest BA in the past ten years. Altuve is having a hell of a season, the only problem is that Trout’s having a better year. Trout’s BA wouldn’t be as high comparatively as Altuve’s over the past ten seasons, but he is currently posting the highest OPS (1.125) in a single season since some guy named Barry Bonds posted a 1.422 OPS in 2004.
There is something to be said for guys that play the entire season, and, assuming Altuve doesn’t get any days off between now and the end of the year, he will have missed only five games this year, which is quite good. He also plays for the American League leading Astros, and the writers tend to give a bump to players who lead their team to a playoff berth, especially when that team is the best in their league. These are really the only reasons I could see someone using to justify Altuve over Trout (has played more games and been nearly as good, plus he plays for a division winner), and I do not think either is more compelling than any of the arguments to be made for Trout. And while yes, Altuve has played more games, and thus has more WAR (WAR is a counting stat), he has made outs more frequently than Trout. Trout has made an out in only 55.8% of his plate appearances this year, whereas Altuve has made an out in 62.9% of his plate apperances this season. Altuve his frequently praised for his ability to put the ball in play, but Trout has actually made an out less frequently at the plate despite his more free-swinging tendencies.
Everything that I’ve mentioned so far has neglected defense, but defense wouldn’t be a huge factor in the Altuve-Trout debate; Altuve has been worth 5 more Rdrs (defensive runs saved) than Trout, but Trout also plays the far more difficult position, and his bat has been valuable enough to where it more than makes up the defensive discrepancy between the two. I don’t think Trout will lead the AL in WAR simply because he missed so many games, but I fully expect him to capture the MVP award for a second consecutive season and the third time in his first six seasons. For the record, he would be the only player to capture three MVP awards in his first six seasons, and, if he manages to lead the AL in WAR, would be the only player to lead his league in WAR in the first six seasons of his career as well. There’s still a decent chunk of the season left, and a lot can happen in a month, but I see no reason why Trout can’t keep up his pace and capture yet another MVP award.
(Image credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)
*All stats are correct as of publishing Tuesday, September 5th.