No sport loves parsing out the “best player” vs. “most valuable” argument in MVP debates more than baseball. Sure, the NBA hasn’t given its MVP to a player on a nonplayoff team since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1976. But the best basketball players exert so much more influence on the game than their baseball counterparts that it’s difficult to have individual success without the team coming along for the ride. For MLB players, however, we frequently see good — and even historically great — seasons on bad teams. That creates a perfect recipe for all those endless debates about what “value” really means.
Will it happen again this year? Some of the ingredients are there in the American League. AL wins above replacement1 leader Mike Trout is tracking for 9.7 WAR (prorated to 162 team games), which would once again rank among the top 100 individual campaigns by a batter since 1901. (He’s already had three of those in his eight full MLB seasons, and he came extraordinarily close to a fourth in 2013.) But his Los Angeles Angels are, once again, lousy. Our predictions think they’ll finish 20 games out of the playoff race, with a lowly 74-88 record.
But before we dig in for one more round of online MVP bickering, another factor should come into play: This year’s AL MVP landscape is weird. There’s so much else going on, Trout could very well avoid too much friction along his path to putting a third Kenesaw Mountain Landis Award on his mantle.
First, how big is Trout’s edge in individual value? The gap between his WAR and that of Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, who ranks second in the AL, is 1.9 wins if prorated over 162 games. (That’s basically an entire season’s worth of value from an average player!) Limiting to cases in which the top two in WAR were both position players, the only league leader since 2002 with a wider gap came in the 2012 AL, when Trout himself was 2.5 wins ahead of No. 2 Robinson Cano. (Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera famously took home the MVP instead after winning the Triple Crown.) About three-quarters of WAR leaders in the modern MVP award era2 lead the league by a smaller margin than Trout is on pace to beat Bregman by.
Historically speaking, though, Trout’s MVP case would be better served if he were on a team with a slightly better record, even if his personal stats were worse. To examine this, I built a model3 predicting a league WAR leader’s chances of winning the MVP based on his differentials (relative to the No. 2 player) in both WAR and team winning percentage.4 According to the model, Trout would have better MVP odds than he currently does — with a 1.9-WAR lead on a .461 winning-percentage team — if his WAR lead got trimmed to a half-win but his team won just three or four more ballgames:
(It’s worth noting that this effect is more descriptive than causal — we don’t know how Trout, or any other player, would play on a different team alongside better teammates. But for the purposes of illustration, it’s clear that MVP voters are traditionally very responsive to players on better teams, even if they have a much smaller WAR lead than Trout currently has over Bregman.)
In general, MVP voters have long tended to smile more on players with solid stats on winning teams than players with dominant numbers amidst a string of defeats. Only seven modern-era MVP winners were on teams with a losing record: Giancarlo Stanton (2017), Trout (2016), Alex Rodriguez (2003), Cal Ripken Jr. (1991), Andre Dawson (1987) and Ernie Banks (1958 and 1959). And among those, only three played for a team whose record was as bad as the current Angels’ is: Trout in 2016, Rodriguez in 2003 and Ripken in 1991. Similar to his MVP bid in 2016, another Trout win would be a rare victory for great players on bad teams — and another sign that voters are redefining the way they make that distinction between the “most valuable” and “best” players.
But Trout might also get some help from just how scattershot the competition is in this year’s AL MVP race. Aside from Bregman and fellow Astros Justin Verlander and George Springer, Oakland’s Matt Chapman and Marcus Semien are the only other members of the AL’s top 10 in WAR on a team with any kind of playoff odds whatsoever.
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Many of the other elite performers on this list are matching the mold Trout has fit all too often: great player, not-so-great team. Texas’s Mike Minor and Lance Lynn have each had unexpectedly outstanding seasons, but the Rangers are below .500 — and again, pitchers are usually undervalued in MVP voting anyway. Boston has two top-line candidates in defending MVP right fielder Mookie Betts and shortstop Xander Bogaerts (plus a third if you count third baseman Rafael Devers, who ranks 12th in AL WAR), but the champs have almost no chance of making the postseason. The best of the A’s duo, Chapman, is on pace to run nearly 3 full WAR behind Trout by year’s end. And Houston has hoarded enough elite individual performances to potentially dilute each player’s MVP case, leaving Bregman as just one of many Astros who could claim credit for the team’s blistering 104-win pace this season.
Perhaps all of this is why Trout is such an overwhelming favorite in the betting odds for the award. As of Sept. 2, the money line on Trout winning MVP was -1000, which implies a 90.9 percent chance of taking home the hardware.5 (Running second in the odds, with a 12.5 percent implied probability, was actually DJ LeMahieu of the Yankees, who ranks only 14th in the league in WAR, followed by Bregman at 9.1 percent.)
Seldom in the entire history of baseball would voters consider the best player on a 74-win team — even a player as great as Trout — worthy of the game’s top individual honor. But in a season when so many other top players are either also toiling on bad teams or facing vote-splitting amongst star teammates, Trout appears to be the choice regardless of whether you prefer the “best” or “most valuable” player as your MVP.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.