In this election season, Mike Trout has a simple platform.
“I try to be the best player in the league every year,” he said.
He has succeeded this year, again. Now comes the vote for most valuable player, and the annual debate over whether “best” and “most valuable” are the same thing.
If enough voters decide they are not, Trout loses.
In his first four full seasons in the major leagues, the Angels’ center fielder has finished first or second in the American League MVP race every time. No one has finished in the top two in the AL race for five consecutive years, and Trout could do it in his first five years.
He is 25, and he is already great, historically great. No argument from any corner on that.
The Angels are on pace to finish with the most losses in Mike Scioscia’s 17-year tenure. They are lousy, historically lousy. No argument there either.
The ballot sent to MVP voters begins this way: “There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter.”
The players do not vote. They certainly are entitled to an opinion, particularly the ones who can speak to the pressure inherent in winning. That, after all, is the point of the game, and the San Francisco Giants have won the World Series three times this decade.
“As a player, you see both sides of it,” said catcher Buster Posey, the 2012 NL MVP.
“You understand how hard it is to grind all the way through the season and be that consistent and put up big numbers like Trout has done. But you also understand the mental wear and tear of being in the hunt and trying to get to where we all aspire to be.”
“The guy who has been the best is the most valuable player in the league, in my eyes,” Giants pitcher Jake Peavy said. “I’m just going to look at the body of work and make my decision off that, certainly not off which team is going to the playoffs.”
Giants first baseman Brandon Belt: “If Trout is the best player in the league, I would go with him.”
Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford: “I think, if his numbers are far and above everybody else’s, then how do you fault the guy for not having anybody around him?
“If there was somebody that had similar numbers, and their team is in it, I think I’d probably take that.”
And, really, therein lies the rub. Are Trout’s numbers far and above the numbers put up by MVP candidates on contending teams?
In the blizzard of analytics, yes. The various versions of WAR, which purport to distill a player’s all-around contribution into a single number, favor Trout in a runaway. So do wRC+ and OPS+, two measures of offensive contribution.
Trout leads the league in on-base percentage. But Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, perhaps the dominant player on an AL contender, entered the weekend with more home runs, doubles, hits, runs scored, runs batted in and total bases than Trout, and a higher batting average. Betts had a better stolen-base percentage than Trout, and Betts is considered the superior defensive player.
Dodgers outfielder Josh Reddick, who played most of the season in the AL with the Oakland Athletics, said his vote would go to the guy from Boston.
“It’s hard to go against a guy like David, for what he’s doing in his last year, at his age,” Reddick said. “I find it hard to believe he’s not the guy.”
David, as in Ortiz. Not Betts. And not Trout.
“At some point, you’re only as good as your teammates around you,” Reddick said. “That’s taking nothing away from Mike. Words can’t describe how good a player he is – and will be for the next 15 years.”
Ortiz leads the league in OPS, and in slugging percentage. He has a better on-base percentage than Betts, and he has more doubles, home runs and runs batted in – despite more than 100 fewer at-bats. However, he is a designated hitter, so he can help his team only on one side of the ball.
If leading a team down the stretch and into the playoffs is your criterion, Betts’ September OPS is not within the top 50 in the AL. He ranks fourth on the Red Sox, behind Hanley Ramirez, Ortiz and Jackie Bradley Jr.
There is no calling the MVP race now, even with the season headed into its final week. It could be Betts, or Ortiz, or a split vote among the two Red Sox could doom the candidacies of both. It could be Josh Donaldson of the Toronto Blue Jays or Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros or Manny Machado of the Baltimore Orioles, each of whom play for a team on the postseason bubble.
Or it could be Trout, who lets the numbers speak for themselves.
“You know what the crazy thing is?” Posey said. “I play in California, and I don’t know what Trout’s numbers are. You just don’t seem to hear about him, I guess because their team isn’t in the race to make the playoffs.”
That makes the blood boil among the more orthodox segments of the analytical crowd, where a vote for anyone besides Trout is considered flat wrong, period.
The Baseball Writers Assn. of America, which conducts the voting for the award, has broadened its membership in recent years, in part to embrace websites with an analytical bent. Perhaps one of the new members will propose scrapping the “most valuable” from the MVP award, defining it instead as a player of the year, or best player. That would be quite a debate.
Under the current rules, however, there is no injustice if Trout loses. It is a difference of opinion, in this case about how to define value. (The Times does not allow its writers to vote.)
Trout shrugged off the notion that he might be robbed.
“I just go out there and play,” he said. “I don’t read anything. I can’t control what people vote on. I’ll let you guys decide.”
Whatever the decision, there will be no stain upon Trout, or upon the writers. Trout still will be bound for Cooperstown, still with one MVP award even if he does not get a second this year.
Ken Griffey Jr. won one MVP award. He also won election to the Hall of Fame by the greatest margin in history. His legacy did not depend upon an MVP vote or two, and neither does Trout’s.