Why Mike Trout Deserves the MVP Over Josh Donaldson

Posted: 09/26/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

I feel like this is a weirdly exciting year for award voting. In only one of the four major award races (both MVP races and both Cy Young’s) is the victor already clearly decided. Bryce Harper has a clear lead in the NL MVP race, and given his combination of geek-stats, traditional stats, and name cache, he’s not going to relinquish that lead. But the Cy Young race is a three-horse race, with Zack Greinke (18-3, 1.65 ERA, 5.5 Fangraphs WAR), Jake Arrieta (20-6, 1.88 ERA, 6.7 fWAR), and Clayton Kershaw (15-7, 2.25 ERA, 7.9 WAR) all boasting different strengths. And over in the AL, I think David Price is the likely winner, but nobody has been dominant. But today I’m going to write about the other race in the American League, the two-horse one between the established Mike Trout and the upstart (kind of?) Josh Donaldson.

It’s kind of weird to call a 24-year old the established guy in an MVP race, but that’s where we are with Trout. For the fourth consecutive year, he’s going to finish first or second in the MVP race. In that time, he has posted 37 WAR; Andrew McCutchen is second at 27.9. He’s most similar to Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, and Ken Griffey at the same age, and he’s been better than all of them. But this post isn’t about tooting Trout’s horn; we all know how great he is. This is about showing why he, and not Donaldson, the player with just the slightest bit more WAR, deserves the award this year. It starts with the fact that Trout has totally and completely carried a very flawed Angels team to relevance, to the point that they are within a game of a playoff spot as we enter the final week-and-change of the season. The Angels are ranked 20th in overall offensive value added per Fangraphs, but they’d be at least five spots lower without Trout. This is a team that, in the most important part of the season, is starting players like C.J. Cron, Carlos Perez, and Taylor Featherston. The player who was supposed to give Trout the most support is Albert “$240 million” Pujols, and Pujols has only been three runs above average. He has 37 homers, but he’s also hitting just .239 and has a .302 OBP. In September, when the Angels have needed him the most, Pujols is hitting .173 with a .590 OPS. And it’s not like anyone else has really stepped up. Besides Trout, no other Angel who has at least 50 plate appearances (there are 19 in total) has an OBP above .321. And you wonder why Trout has only driven in 88 runs, while Donaldson’s at 121.

So Trout has been given an enormous burden, thanks to the ineptitude of the front office to put a good team around him. How has he dealt with the pressure/focus? Well, after a swoon from the middle of August to the middle of September that saw him hit .235 and post “just” a 118 wRC+ (100 being average), Trout has slashed .354/.439/.813 in the last 13 games as he’s moved from second to third in the lineup. As a result, the Angels are 8-5 in that span, putting them in a position to snatch a playoff spot in the final week. Overall, it’s easy to say that Trout’s been disappointing compared to his 10 WAR seasons in 2012 and 2013, but if you just look at his stats in a vacuum, you can see his clear MVP case. He’s hitting .297/.398/.589 and with a good final nine games could reach the .300/.400/.600 marks that look so impressive. He leads the AL with a 171 wRC+, is fifth with a 13.2% walk rate, and he’s added value both on the bases and defensively. His 14 intentional walks are sixth in baseball, and Donaldson hasn’t even been IBB’d once. And that’s really the point: while Trout is hitting in front of Albert Pujols and David Murphy, Donaldson is hitting ahead of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. If he was knocked out of the lineup, the Blue Jays might still have the best offense in baseball. That’s not to say that Donaldson hasn’t had a tremendous year. He’s actually been more well-rounded than Trout, playing tremendous defense at third base and adding some runs on the bases too. Donaldson’s also hitting .301 and has 40 homers to go along with baseball’s most runs scored (118) and batted in (121), so there’s that. He’s also playing for the (likely) surprise AL East champions, which gives him another leg up over Trout, who plays for a team that is struggling to get into the playoffs. But his stats have been boosted by the fact that he plays in a superior hitters’ park and a much better lineup. If you put Trout in that lineup, what would his numbers look like?

I think Donaldson is probably going to win the MVP, because he has the better counting stats, plays for a better team, and is new enough to be an exciting player to vote for but established enough to be well known by all voters. But Trout, the superstar who is setting himself up to be one of the five best players of all-time, is again having the more valuable season. While playing on a far worse team, Trout has managed to continue to hit extremely well while dragging his flawed team to September relevancy and playing a far more demanding position. The Blue Jays have been the better team, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Trout has been the more valuable player.

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