The hometown sweep of baseball’s Most Valuable Player awards Thursday officially anoints Los Angeles as the center of the baseball universe!
No, actually, that would be Washington.
The American League MVP victory by the Angels’ Mike Trout and the National League MVP win by the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger validates Los Angeles as baseball’s city of stars!
Yeah, in a sky that goes black in October.
Despite the overwhelming temptation to declare the Trout and Bellinger triumphs as a win for Los Angeles, the truth is that it actually feels like a loss.
We have two MVPs during a season in which our teams combined to win two playoff games? How does that happen?
We have both MVPs for the second time in six years and yet our teams still have combined to win one World Series championship in the last 31 years? How does that keep happening?
The individual honors are wonderful, but they also highlight the failures of the teams to capitalize on them. The stark truth contained in Thursday’s singular successes is centered on their franchise’s stumbles.
An MVP is a terrible thing to waste.
Make no mistake, both players were deserving of the hardware, and Southland fans were blessed to serve as their witnesses.
Trout, who won his third MVP award in a nine-year career that should have featured eight MVP awards, is the best player in baseball and it isn’t even close. This season, even though he missed the final three weeks because of foot surgery, he took his game to an even loftier level with a career-high 45 home runs while leading the league in on-base and slugging percentage. And he once again led everyone in FanGraphs WAR — wins above replacement —that he has dominated like few others in baseball history.
Throughout the summer he was more than just a great player, he became a great leader, serving as the strong public face for a team in mourning over the death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs. He was a meteor on the diamond, a rock in the clubhouse, a baseball player with NBA gravitas, one of those rare athletes who alone is worth the price of a ticket.
Yet those tickets were once again not printed for the postseason. The Angels missed the playoffs for the eighth time in Trout’s nine seasons. He would have delayed the surgery for a chance at October, but it once again wasn’t necessary. For his career, Trout has played in three postseason games, collecting one postseason hit, and the shame of his annual October absence grows ever deeper.
The Angels need to view this latest MVP award not as a celebration, but as a sobering mandate to build a team around this guy who can allow his brilliance to shine on baseball’s biggest stage. Yes, he signed a 12-year contract last spring for a richest-in-North-American-sports $426.5 million, but that doesn’t guarantee his patience with an organization that has continually wasted his talents.
The recent hiring of manager Joe Maddon will help. The effort to sign a couple of top starting pitchers is vital. The Angels need to figure out something, somehow, and pretty soon. MVP awards are nice, but Trout’s legacy during his prime years demands a serious chase for a bigger trophy.
Bellinger plays for a team that has had much more postseason success but is in a similar situation. The Dodgers have the league’s most valuable player and yet remain mired in one of baseball’s longest championship droughts.
Bellinger, like Trout, was clearly the MVP. He finished with 47 homers and 115 RBIs. He earned a Gold Glove in right field while putting on a Gold Glove performance at center field and first base. He was the best player on the league’s best regular-season team, and that was enough.
Much of his success came early, as he batted .431 with 14 home runs before May 1 and set a franchise record with 30 homers before the All-Star break. He batted just .264 in the second half with 44 RBIs, but, still, he was a constant on a team with 106 wins.
Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers had the league’s best offensive season, but he missed the final 18 games while the Brewers were winning 13 of those games and charging to a playoff berth, and that doesn’t spell MVP.
Bellinger earned it. But then October came and, once again, both he and the Dodgers blew it.
In the division series loss to the Washington Nationals, Bellinger batted .211 with one extra base hit and no homers. In 36 playoff games over three seasons, he has a batting average of .178 with 52 strikeouts and 10 walks in 135 at-bats.
For Bellinger to take the next step, he needs to carry those three letters forward to the postseason. This is a city that embraces its stars but only with the understanding that those stars will lead the team to greatness.
Around here, not all MVPs are created equal.
Shaquille O’Neal was named MVP during the 1999-2000 season in which his team won a championship, and no Lakers fan will ever forget it. Yet even some Angel fans will be hard-pressed to remember that the American League MVP in 2004 was won by their Vladimir Guerrero, who batted .167 while his team was being swept out of the playoffs by the Boston Red Sox.
Kirk Gibson was the MVP during a Dodgers’ 1988 title season in which he had the biggest postseason hit in franchise history. Compare his legend to that of Clayton Kershaw, who won the MVP for a 2014 regular season after which he racked up a 7.82 ERA while the Dodgers were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the St. Louis Cardinals.
It should be no surprise that the first questioner on Bellinger’s MVP conference call wondered if winning a World Series was preferable.
“Absolutely, man … honestly, that’s number one priority,” Bellinger said. “And that’s not just me, that’s everyone in our whole organization. And we preach that from spring training on. So myself included, we’re going to have to find a way to get through.”
Trout was asked a similar question, and offered a similar response.
“Obviously people will say you need to make the playoffs,” Trout said, later adding, “The reason I signed here is I have confidence in the guys [in the front office] that can bring guys in and make a run to get to the playoffs.”
Trout noted it was special for two locals to bring the award to Los Angeles, saying, “It’s pretty cool to be able to bring both these trophies back to Southern California.”
True. But the cooler story will be the day one of those trophies is accompanied by a bigger one.