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Mike Trout is the best MVP choice, but . . .

Aug 29, 2014, 4:17 PM EDT

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KANSAS CITY — Let’s start with this: Wins Above Replacement – that famous WAR statistic that has inspired so much war in the baseball community – has been manna for Mike Trout fans the last two years. It utterly confirmed what they (me among them) knew about Trout.

1. He was the greatest player in baseball.

2. He was one of the greatest young players in baseball history.

3. He absolutely, entirely and thoroughly deserved to win the MVP award over MIguel Cabrera, despite their differences in the three boring statistics that had been the lifeblood of baseball for too long: Batting average; home runs; RBIs.

WAR so perfectly illustrated what many of us believed about him and the game – that his all-around game simply overpowered Cabrera’s Triple Crown brilliance. They both hit for high averages, Cabrera some points higher. They both hit for power, Cabrera slugged more. But we felt sure that when you added in Trout’s huge advantages in defense and base running and the extra walks he drew and the double plays he did not hit into and the extra runs he scored, well, he was comfortably ahead as a player.

WAR confirmed this for us even if the MVP voting went the other way.

2012 WAR

Trout: 10.8 (Baseball Reference); 10.1 (Fangraphs)

Cabrera: 7.2 (refwar); 6.9 (fanwar)

2013 WAR

Trout 8.9 (refwar) 10.5 (fanwar)

Cabrera: 7.5 (refwar); 7.6 (fanwar)

So plain to see, right? WAR confirmed what we knew to be true – that a complete game like Trout’s was simply more valuable than a brilliant but incomplete game like Cabrera’s. Sure it was just one statistic — and I still remember future GM Farhan Zaidi telling me that the Oakland system actually rated Cabrera’s seasons ahead of Trout. But WAR just so vividly expressed those things about the game that we just knew had to be true, and most Trout fans used WAR liberally.

Fast forward to yesterday … and a little post I threw together about Alex Gordon as MVP candidate. My point in it was not to make Gordon’s MVP case (I’ll do a bit more of that here) but to point out WHY people in Kansas City want to view him as one. I thought that point was fairly clear, but I got a lot of response from, well, yeah, Mike Trout fans. The response was generally along the lines of:

– Come on, Alex Gordon’s a nice little player and all but he’s not HALF the player Mike Trout is.

and

– Really? You’re seriously comparing Alex Gordon with Mike Trout?

and

– Kansas City fans are delusional if they think Alex Gordon is an MVP candidate in a league with Mike Trout.

And so on. Now, let me start by saying: I think at this moment Mike Trout IS the MVP of the American League. I’d vote for him. I think he’s the best player in baseball by a pretty fair margin and have written that many times.

That said, the Trout fan responses sound exactly like, yep, the responses I would get from Miguel Cabrera fans whenever I made  the case that Trout deserved to be MVP. I mean, these responses are almost word-for-word like the Cabrera arguments in that for the most part they are not arguments at all. They are simple statements of opinion dressed up with certainty and incredulity to appear like facts. As I’ve written before, it’s like when people put the word “Period” at the end of their thoughts to punctuate just how right they must be.

“The Empire Strikes Back is the best movie in the Star Wars series.”

“The Empire Strikes Back is the best movie in the Star Wars series. Period.”

The second, I guess, is supposed to be more persuasive.

So, “Alex Gordon is no Mike Trout. Period.” seems to be the Trout argument these days, and the only real trouble with that is those stubborn folks at Baseball Reference and Fangraphs are still figuring that pesky WAR statistic. And that pesky WAR statistic suggests that Alex Gordon, in fact, IS playing almost as well as Mike Trout. It suggests that Oakland’s Josh Donaldson IS playing about as well as Mike Trout. And it demands a closer look.

What made Trout so absurdly wonderful his first two full seasons was, as mentioned, the variety of his contributions. That 2012 season, holy cow, the guy did EVERYTHING. He hit, he hit with power, he ran, he threw, he played breathtaking defense, he walked, he stole bases, he scored runs, he drove in runs, he was incredible in ways that that exploded the imagination. WAR reflected those things and his 10.8 refwar was Willie Mays like. In 2013, Trout was better in some areas, not quite as good in others, but again he was a bouillabaisse of wonderful, and again WAR reflected those things.

So what’s happening this year? Trout’s still amazing. Utterly amazing. But let’s just be blunt about it: He’s amazing in fewer ways. It’s impossible not to see if you look. In 2012 he stole 49 bases. This year he has 13. In 2013 his on-base percentage was .432. This year, it’s almost 60 points less. The last two years, he struck out 137 or so times. This year, he’s on pace to strike out 175. He’s not as effective a base runner – he’s going first to third on singles less, he’s scoring from second on singles less, he’s scoring from first on doubles less.

And defense … it’s different. In 2012, all the defensive numbers celebrated him … he saved 23 runs with his defense according to the John Dewan system where reserachers study video of every play. Every defensive stat showed more or less the same excellence. Last year, his defensive numbers were a lot more inconsistent. Dewan’s system actually showed Trout’s defense COSTING his team runs. By Fangraphs WAR his defensive contribution went down some, by Baseball Reference’s method it went down a lot.

And this year, all the defensive numbers I see say the same thing – Trout is, at best, an average outfielder and he’s trending as being at least slightly below average.

So what happened? Are the defensive stats wrong? Is the baserunning decline simply a rounding error? You decide but for me Trout seems to be morphing into a somewhat different player. He’s hitting more home runs. He’s driving in my runs. He is becoming more like, well, yeah, the great Miguel Cabrera.

Now, you look at Gordon and Donaldson. Are either of those guys the slugger that Trout is? No, absolutely not.

Trout:. .291/.376/.561 with 30 homers, 91 runs, 94 RBIs.

Gordon: .282/.356/..457 with 17 homers, 71 runs, 61 RBIs.

Donaldson: .255/.346/.470 with 26 homers, 81 runs, 88 RBIs.

Clear advantages across the board for Trout. So why does Donaldson have a higher Baseball Reference WAR than Trout? Well, WAR judges their baserunning to be about even, their tendency to avoid the double play to be about even, and Donaldson has a huge, huge advantage in defense. Donaldson is a marvelous defense, but you can see Trout fans arguing that even if Donaldson contributes more on defense it can’t possibly be THAT much more. And I would say that’s exactly what all the Cabrera fans said when WAR gave Trout such a huge edge on defense in 2012. Same system. Same methods of determining the completeness of a ballplayer. And right now, Baseball Reference has Donaldson ahead in WAR 7.1 to 6.5

Gordon’s advantages over Trout are more varied – both versions of WAR have him as the better base runner, better at avoiding the double play, markedly more valuable as a defender.  Trout still leads Gordon in refwar (0.9) and he leads by an almost insignificant margin in fanwar (0.3 wins). But it’s close. And Gordon has been playing better than Trout of late.

A little bit more about Gordon’a defense: The Dewan system has Gordon saving 21 runs this year with his defense, Trout costing his team six runs with his defense. This is judged against the average player, by the way. You can doubt this, but from what I can see – purely by seeing – this DOES match the eye test. Gordon makes utterly fantastic catches pretty much every day. He is a superb thrower, so superb that few challenge him any more. When he is playing alongside Jarrod Dyson or Lorenzo Cain, the left-center gap is vanishingly small. Meanwhile, I don’t watch Trout every day, but I watch him a lot and to my eye his defense does seem somewhat bland. He doesn’t seem to run down as many balls as I would expect from a player with his amazing athletic ability.

Now, let me repeat this in case anyone missed it: I still think Mike Trout is the best player in baseball, and I still think he’s a worthy MVP. But blanket statements about him being so much better than Gordon or Donaldson are sounding pretty flat to me. Trout is not having as good a year as he did his first two. He’s not, at the moment, as dynamic a player as he was those first two. The Trout-Cabrera arguments for me were never about the two players – both so sensational – but about this idea of myth and reality, about the question of what the eyes see and what the eyes miss. Now, I’m feeling the same way about the Trout-Gordon-Donaldson arguments. WAR giveth. WAR also taketh away.

READ MORE JOE POSNANSKI PIECES ON HBT

  1. kazi05 - Aug 30, 2014 at 7:20 PM

    I’m simply stating that by nearly every offensive statistical measure wrc+ included mike trout has declined versus the previous two seasons. Could it be more teams are figuring out his weakness? I didn’t say that every team has figured him out. As previously stated we are only looking at a small sample size of three years. I too think Trout is a very good ball player but only time will tell how good he really is. If flawed individual stats that are essentially the make up of a larger more complete stat then that stat is ultimately flawed as well. Finally yes I was reiterating the point of the article that people are hypocritical thank you for the chance to state it in terms that everyone can understand :)

  2. seeznak - Aug 31, 2014 at 10:54 PM

    I think this year’s Trout-for-MVP push is like the third Lord of the Rings movie winning Best Picture… it wasn’t the greatest of the trilogy (Two Towers should have won but didn’t, Fellowship could have won but didn’t), but the third installment won because of the overall package for the past three years. For Trout, while his overall numbers are down, he’s still the poster boy for WAR and it would be great to see his individual contributions finally recognized.

  3. warisflawed1 - Sep 13, 2014 at 7:37 PM

    Why WAR is flawed:
    1. Since fielding is so absolutely vital in accumulating WAR, then why is it that Strike Outs are not critiqued negatively when a player such as Trout is unable to place the ball in fair play ? Since the opponents are lesser skilled fielders then why shouldn’t WAR negate points for not players who do not force opponents to make plays ?
    2. All situations are equal ? BULL, M. Rivera wasn’t brought in during the 6th inning for relief, Why do all managers have statistics of pitchers who many do great the first time around the order and each additional time are hit easier or those who are hit in the first 2 innings and then become stronger ? Why do managers have statistical situations for hitters with RISP and with RISP W/2 outs or runners on base W/2 outs.
    3. WAR doesn’t believe in CLUTCH HITTING ! OK, then I will call it CRITICAL OPPORTUNITIES. Check why a Hitter like Trout, Kinsler, R. Davis are fantastic hitters with Runners in scoring position with less than 2 outs but STINK when the situation is 2 out hitting with runner or runners in scoring position ! Trout is a great player but by striking out 40% with 2 outs with runner in scoring position, Horrible. 2 out w/risp occurs roughly 1 in 3 games so it is VITAL !
    4. When Miguel Cabrera hit that ball in the playoff that C. Crisp dropped that brought in 2 runs, go ahead run was scored as well, Miguel had the same WAR as if he had STRIKED OUT ! So far this season Miguel has reached base safely 7 times without creating a out due to forcing the defense to make a play and his WAR would be the same as a Strike OUT.
    5. WAR is based on a single being worth X amount of points as well as a double and a triple and a home run are all different in value but 2 singles are worth more than a home run. Please show me how the person who invented WAR can equate how a single can be worth x amount of points to equate winning, while a double and triple and single can all be worth x amount to winning ?
    6. In the previous 3 seasons 2011-2013 St. L. and Detroit have played the most post season games but are the 2 worst teams in Stolen Bases: Detroit Worst then St. Louis 2nd worst ! Double Plays: St. Louis has been the Worst team and then Detroit. In Fielding Detroit and ST. Louis were near the bottom in coverage. So why does WAR give so much value to areas of the game that do not lead to success ?
    7. The stat that leads to teams making the Post season over the last 3 seasons is Clutch Situational Hitting: Runners in scoring Position W/2outs ! Does WAR take any of this into consideration, NO.
    8. Mike Trout is the Best Skilled player in baseball as is Cam Newton in Football ! Does this make them the best players ? Possibly. Then why are Tom Brady and Peyton Manning overwhelming favorites to win as is Miguel Cabrera in baseball when each of the players do not bring half the Skills that players like Trout and Newton have! LEADERSHIP and CLUTCH abilities make them the top of their game. What is the toughest skill in all sports ? Hitting a baseball, and over the past 4 seasons including this year Miggy RULES as the BEST HITTER ! When Trout and Newton can show they can consistantly carry their teams in situations that are critical to create Victories then they will go from Best Skilled to Most Valuable. There is a difference !

  4. warisflawed1 - Sep 14, 2014 at 3:02 PM

    Why Trout supporters LOVE WAR,, it’s based on accumulating numbers to create value. Why Miggy fans hate WAR ! Miggy’s VALUE is based on CLUTCH HITTING errr forgot, there isn’t such a thing for sabermetricians. Ok, Miggy is by far the BEST hitter When CRITICAL OPPORTUNITIES arrive. WAR is all about accumulating opportunities to score but don’t award value to the toughest situation for a hitter, bringing the base runner home with 2 outs. The average for a hitter with 2/outs W/RISP over the last 4 years is roughly .230. Miggy over the last 4 seasons is nearly .400 with massive Power. Mike Trout has batted over the average with Estrogen like power, WEAK! Trout is a rally killer with 2 outs. What is the difference in average runs scored by taking the top and bottom teams out, roughly a run.

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