With less than one month to go, the American League MVP race is very close. While usually nothing is set on stone in early September, during the last few years the AL MVP has been a two-man race (Mike Trout with either Josh Donaldson or Miguel Cabrera). This year, however, features five remarkable candidates: Mookie Betts, David Ortiz, Jose Altuve, Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson. Yes, I expect a few other to grab a few top-5 votes (e.g. Cano, Cabrera, Lindor and Machado) but I don't anticipate the award to fall outside those 5 players.
Let's look at the classic, old-school numbers first, which not only are sometimes referenced in casual conversations at local bars and pubs but also frequently (and occasionally unfortunately) followed by voters. I've plotted R, RBI, HR, OBP, SLG and SB as percentiles of the entire population. Let's take a quick look.
If you like well-rounded players, probably this year you're excited with Altuve, Trout and Betts, who dominate across the board. In an era where stolen bases keep declining, 20+ SB will get you to the 90 percentile. On the other hand, if you're into true sluggers, then the show Ortiz has put this season should be one to remember. However, then again, these metrics paint only part of the picture - they don't take into account when or where each event happened nor they include defense or base running on its most complete form.
Let's take a deeper look at WAR and a quick indicator for each batting, fielding and base running performance.
Obviously when we move away from batting, David Ortiz loses ground - he only contributes on one aspect of the game, and while he has been outstanding in the batters box, likely it will not be enough for him to win. When we adjust by park and league, we realize the Trout - Betts race for the best OF is not as close as I initially thought. Trout has quietly put a(nother) great season in an awful team (again)- he's already at 8.1WAR and a 175 wRC+ both easily leads the league. His defense is slightly below average at the best but he compensates by running extremely well. Altuve and Donaldson have had similar seasons offensively. However, Altuve having a down season in both defense and base running (remarkably low on Ultimate Base Running (UBR), which measures how frequently and effectively a runner takes an extra base via running). Betts drives his value largely from his defense, where he's settled in nicely as one of the best OF this year.
One the metrics I tend to assess when I look at awards is how performance was spread the entire season. I want an MVP to be someone that I rely throughout the year, not only during a hot stretch. Additionally, having a big month can really uplift the numbers and build up a misleading argument in favor of someone. Let's understand how wRC+ is split by month.
This picture to me is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, part of the argument on Betts' candidacy is that he's getting better, and delivering when it matters the most - in the middle of a pennant race. After a below average Mar/Apr, Betts has been a beast since July, when Ortiz cooled off a bit. Now, then again, Mike Trout has also followed an upward trending curve -peaking at 206 in August- and his lowest point is at 144, which is the highest of all lowest points in the sample. From my perspective, if everything else is equal, I'd rather have a Trout-esque curve than Donaldson's one, who has the highest single month wRC+ (213 in June) but also with the largest swing (118 difference between May and June). And then you have remarkably constant Altuve - with the narrowest gap between highest and lowest points throughout the season and at least 140wRC+ in any given month.
Now, most of what we have shown up to now is context-neutral. An argument could be made that every single game is worth the same, regardless of whether it's in April or July - what's really important is to deliver in key, high-leverage situations. There is where true MVPs show their full potential to influence a team and define its fate. As they say, a home run against a non-contender team when you are losing by 5 runs is not as valuable as a game-winning double against our wild-card rival's closer in the 9th inning. I'll admit neither OPS in high leverage situation or Win Probability Added (WPA) is the perfect metric to evaluate this, but they provide a very good proxy to how well they have fared in tough, game-changing situations. If you are not familiar with WPA, please click here.
Again we see the usual suspect - Mike 'King' Trout - leading not only this graph but the MLB with his 5.66WPA, closely followed by Josh Donaldson, and the only two player from this sample to have a higher OPS in high-leverage situations than in low-leverage ones. Interestingly, Boston's Betts and Ortiz OPS goes down to 9% and 15% respectively when the stakes are high. I definitely don't want to say that Altuve's 0.841 OPS in high leverage is bad, but I certainly want to recognize Donaldson's and Trout's clutcher performance.
Another way of looking at the MVP is to ask yourself: Where would that team be if that player wouldn't have been part of it? While in essence it is impossible to know for sure the answer, a nice proxy is to measure what percentage of WAR is that player responsible for i.e. what percentage share does this player represent.
Well, this is another way to see Mike Trout leadership on the field. Almost half of the Angels WAR have his Trout's name attached to it, which it's amazing. (For reference, the leaders on this table are Kris Davis and Marcus Semien with 122% (2.2 WAR each out of 1.6 Athletics total WAR). Now, Donaldson and Altuve have, too, a remarkably 33% and 35% of their total, but probably Betts falls short again with his 23%.
At the end, when all is said and done, it looks numbers indicate it should go down to Donaldson vs Trout race, just as it was in 2015. Ortiz has had an amazing season but his baserunning and defense (or lack thereof) limits his overall impact on his team. Betts' is definitely an exciting, 5-tool player but his performance hasn't been as good as Donaldson's or as consistent as Trout's. Additionally, Boston talent-loaded team reduces his value (Is this the opposite of Trout-Angels argument - how valuable can you be when your team would perform well, even if you're not there?) His future is extremely bright though. Finally you have Altuve, which may have a legitimate case but falls (a bit) short on overall performance to Donaldson and Trout. Houston has underperformed and arguably that's a worse outcome than Trout's, because we knew the Angels were going to be bad, but we thought the Astros would be better.
Last year, Donaldson built his case with a magnificent August, when he posted a 1.132 OPS and Toronto got to first place in the AL East. This year it was Trout who had a torrid August, but the Angels are not in the Wild card race. It surely seems to me as if we are measuring the MVP as a team award. Though I understand the rationale of having an MVP in a winning team, there is more to it. If I had a vote, and with still a few games away from the end of the season, I'd support Trout on his quest for his second MVP (as of today), but it looks momentum and narrative is gaining traction around Donaldson - who has posted much better numbers than his MVP season, Altuve - who brings new blood to the MVP discussion and might get an extra push if Houston makes it to the playoff, and Betts - who is clearly the face of Boston's extremely talented young generation. They, though, despite a great September, will post worse numbers than Trout. Yes, the Angels are a bad team - but to what extend is that Trout's fault? What else could he have done? When did 'valuable' translate into 'winning by himself beyond reasonable expectations'? When did we change this award to 'best player in the best team'? In 2012 it was Cabrera's Triple Crown and in 2015 it was Donaldson's 'ability' to get Toronto to the postseason for the first in many years. In 2016, Trout has been comprehensively better, avoid any deep slumps during the season, performed very well under pressure and shown that you can put counting stats in a bad team. We are running out of excuses this year.
By Oswaldo Gonzalez
Statistics are sourced from Fangraphs as of September 4th 2016 for qualifies hitters only