In what’s quickly becoming an annual rite of summer, Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels once again led the American League in wins above replacement (WAR), the single-number metric of choice for most sabermetricians when it comes to measuring a player’s all-around value. But this season, Trout’s WAR crown came attached to a more conventionally recognized accolade: The AL MVP award. Trout, 23, was announced Thursday as the unanimous choice for the honor, becoming the youngest to ever achieve the distinction.
Trout’s quest for the MVP had become something of a cause célèbre for statheads after two seasons of fiercely battling Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera for the award. As a rookie, Trout bested Cabrera by a landslide in WAR (10.8 to 7.2) but finished as MVP runner-up because Cabrera won the triple crown (leading the league in batting average, home runs and RBIs — a somewhat arbitrary feat derided by new-school writers as an out-of-touch relic of the pre-sabermetrics era). The following year, Trout once again out-WARed Cabrera (8.9 to 7.5) and finished second in the voting.
By that time, Trout vs. Cabrera had become what NBC Sports’ Craig Calcaterra called a “proxy battle in a larger cold war” — namely, the religious conflict between baseball’s traditionalists and a still relatively new breed of number crunchers who came of age reading Bill James. You could tell a lot about a fan’s viewpoint on the game from which player they decided to back in the AL’s MVP derby.
This year, though, Trout had no such opposition. Once again, a Tiger was his closest competitor — designated hitter Victor Martinez finished second in the voting — but Trout easily topped Martinez (and everyone else in the AL), according to WAR. As for Cabrera, his numbers were down across the board this season, limiting his ability to contend for a three-peat.
The irony of Trout finally winning the MVP, of course, is that his 7.9 WAR in 2014 represents the worst full season of his career to date. The WAR edge he had over the AL’s No. 2, Josh Donaldson (who trailed Trout by 0.5 WAR), was lower than the margin by which Trout defeated runners-up Robinson Cano in 2012 (2.4) and Donaldson in 2013 (0.9 WAR). Now that the floodgates have opened, Trout — who has more WAR through age 22 than anyone in baseball history — will probably rake in more MVPs as his career goes on, even though he may have already peaked.