On the third day of August, the email hit my inbox. It was from one of those online betting sites, sharing the latest odds, running through a list of players that might lead the league in this or win an award for that.
Except, that is, for the American League most valuable player award.
Mike Trout was the favorite, followed by “any other player.” It was Trout against the field, with two months to go. It was Trout, in a rout.
It’s a two-man race now. Josh Donaldson has risen from the field, just as his Toronto Blue Jays have risen above the Angels and the rest of that stubbornly bulging pack of .500-ish teams in the AL.
Donaldson and Trout each have 33 home runs. Donaldson leads the league in runs — Trout has led three years running — and in runs batted in. Trout has hit just as well as Donaldson with runners in scoring position, just not as often.
Trout has been on base more than any player in the league. Donaldson has the most extra-base hits. By wins above replacement value, Trout and Donaldson rank 1-2.
This is what got us from a rout to a race: Trout is batting .183 in August, with one home run and a .607 OPS. Donaldson is batting .303, with eight home runs and a 1.127 OPS.
This too: The Blue Jays are 14-4 in August.
“If you remove one guy from one team, which team suffers the most?” Angels closer Huston Street said. “We wouldn’t be where we are without Mike Trout, plain and simple.”
The Blue Jays would say the same about Donaldson, right?
“They would,” Street said. “But look at their success, their surge as of late. They added David Price. They added Troy Tulowitzki. They added [Ben] Revere. They added a lot of other pieces. It wasn’t until those pieces got there that they really started winning. It doesn’t take anything away from Josh’s performance whatsoever.”
Trout might be baseball’s alpha star, but Donaldson is no passing fad.
He finished fourth in MVP voting two years ago, in his first season as an everyday player, behind Miguel Cabrera, Trout and Chris Davis. In 2014, Trout won the MVP, with Donaldson eighth, after which the Oakland Athletics tried to accelerate yet another reinvention by trading him at the height of his value, four years before free agency.
“We were shocked to get him,” Toronto Manager John Gibbons said.
In May, Donaldson got into a shouting match with, well, with much of the Angels dugout.
“He’s got an edge about him,” Gibbons said. “That can irritate some people. I saw it from the other side.
“He’s been an uniter in our clubhouse. He’s a happy-go-lucky guy. He has fun with his teammates. It was really something this team needed after the last couple of years, and he and Russell Martin brought that.”
In the MVP race, the stretch run started Friday, when the contenders faced off in Anaheim. Donaldson doubled twice and drove in three runs, and the Blue Jays pummeled the Angels, 9-2. Trout went hitless.
“The best player in the game doesn’t always have the best numbers,” Price said. “Mike Trout is unbelievable, but what Josh Donaldson has done this year has been a little bit better.”
Donaldson shrugs at the debate over whether he can unseat the mighty Trout as MVP.
“I take it with a grain of salt,” he said. “I hope to help my team win. If I get recognized with awards at the end of the season, that’s nice.”
This is a good place to issue the annual reminder that the letter that accompanies the MVP ballot begins thusly: “Dear Voter: There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide.”
Trout might well shake off that sore wrist and turn the race back into a rout. Or Donaldson might lead the Blue Jays to their first postseason appearance since 1993, as a city and country fall back in love with baseball.
What defines value? This year, it might just be September.
“You’re playing your most meaningful games at the end of the year,” Donaldson said. “They’re probably going to be the most emotional games for your team. It’s nice to be able to help your team win those games. If you perform well at that time, then you probably bring more value.”
As the innings rolled Friday night, there were MVP chants heard in Anaheim. The rout was on, and the Angels fans were headed home. The chants were coming from a diaspora of Toronto fans dressed in jerseys bearing the names Donaldson and Bautista, even Alomar and Stottlemyre.
On this late night, the MVP chants in the House of Trout were directed at Donaldson.
In the wake of the San Diego Padres’ frenzied off-season, Matt Kemp tagged rookie General Manager A.J. Preller as the “rock star GM.” It was a great nickname. It even spawned T-shirts, with postmodern depictions of Preller’s head.
What we learned last week was that the real rock star GM is Dave Dombrowski, so coveted that teams without an opening were willing to create one for him. The Boston Red Sox hired him as president of baseball operations, then invited GM Ben Cherington to stay. The Sox would not strip him of his title, but they would strip him of his power. Cherington, quite properly, said no.
But we wanted to offer a few kind words for Ruben Amaro, who might as well be tagged the “pincushion GM.” Amaro has presided over the decline and fall of the Philadelphia Phillies, from a franchise-record 102 victories in 2011 to a projected 64 this year, on pace for the team’s poorest record since 1972. He sacrificed prospects and lavished contracts on veterans in an effort to keep the good times going, and because of it he soon could lose his job.
Once Amaro acknowledged the need to rebuild, he endured widespread industry criticism for holding onto his veterans too long, and for asking too much in trade. He gambled that his prime trade chip, Cole Hamels, would stay healthy.
Amaro won. He held onto Hamels until the Texas Rangers agreed to send three of their top five prospects plus pitcher Jerad Eickhoff, who made his major league debut Friday and threw six scoreless innings.
After the Dodgers sent two minor league players to Philadelphia for Chase Utley last week, we asked Baseball America editor John Manuel for an updated list of the Phillies’ top 20 prospects. Amaro acquired 10 via trade for Hamels, Utley, Revere, Marlon Byrd, Jonathan Papelbon and Jimmy Rollins.
All of a sudden, the Phillies’ farm has gone from barren to bountiful. Add those prospects to the Phillies’ young core of third baseman Mikael Franco, shortstop J.P. Crawford and pitcher Aaron Nola, and to what could be the first overall pick in next year’s draft, and Amaro could leave the next GM in position to emerge as a rock star.