Despite playing just 48 games and only just recently qualifying for the FanGraphs leaderboards under standard search filters, Mike Trout has been one of the most valuable players in all of baseball. And at his current pace, his +3.5 wins above replacement will soon supplant Josh Hamilton (+3.6 WAR) as the American League leader in this department.
Hamilton’s production has been more in the mold of a traditional MVP. He is a power hitter with a high batting average who gets plenty of RBI and plays on a playoff team. Trout, on the hand, is providing value in a more sabermetrically pleasing way, accompanying very good offense with elite defense and baserunning.
Since the BBWA is not solely comprised of sabermatricians, Trout eclipsing the field in wins above replacement likely will not be enough to win him the MVP. He almost certainly will have to dominate the field to gather enough attention from the “dinosaur” voters to win the award.
In 2011, Justin Verlander received 280 total voting points, edging Jacoby Ellsbury by 38 points despite earning just 7.0 wins (according to FanGraphs) to Ellsbury’s 9.4. While wins above replacement is not an infallible stat, it is a good starting point to use when beginning to look at value of performance. Verlander’s win total of 24 caused the less statistically based voters to deviate away from the WAR stat by over 2.4 wins.
Perhaps the epic collapse of the Red Sox in September had some influence on voters as well, but since Ellsbury and Trout will produce in similar ways—not that Trout is likely to hit 32 home runs—it may take a 2.0-WAR gap between Trout and his nearest competitor for him to actually win the AL MVP.
The one factor that Trout does have that may help to glean some undeserved favor is narrative. Whereas Ellsbury was hurt by the Red Sox’ collapse, Trout can only benefit from his team’s performance since his call-up. In the first 20 games of the season, the Angels struggled to a 6-14 record. Since Trout’s call-up, the Angels have gone 32-18 and now sit just one game out of a playoff spot and look to be a solid bet to make the postseason given their current position and talent level.
If they do make the playoffs, the narrative will read something along the lines of, “Mike Trout saved the Angels’ season.” Narrative is never a fair reason to swing MVP votes, but since it is a fair expectation that a non-negligible amount of Trout’s value will be ignored by many voters, an overblown and undue narrative in his favor seems a fitting counterbalance.
Of course, this MVP scenario is contingent on Trout actually continuing his production. He currently is hitting .338/.397/.528. His walk rate (8.7 percent) and isolated power (.190) are both reasonable, so his ability to maintain his batting average will be the crucial variable in his value at the plate going forward. It is easy to point to his .397 BABIP and conclude that it will plummet, but as good of a pure hitter as he is and as fast as he is, Trout’s true-talent BABIP is going to be significantly higher than that of an average player—league-average BABIP in 2012 is .295.
There have been 22 players with at least 1000 plate appearances since 2006 with a BABIP higher than .340, with Austin Jackson’s .371 being the highest over that span. It seems reasonable to assume that, given Trout’s hitting pedigree and speed, he could maintain a baseline BABIP in the .340-.370 range. It will take far more plate appearances to make a sound conclusion about his ultimate ability to turn balls in play into hits, but imagining a world where Trout joins this group doesn’t seem out of line.
Some BABIP decline does seem inevitable, but Trout’s improving contact rate could offer a silver lining that would help to mitigate the damage.
Trout’s strikeout percentage by month:
May: 23.0 percent; 122 plate appearances
June: 14.1 percent; 85 plate appearances
Strikeout rate is one of the quicker stats to become reliable, taking roughly 150 plate appearances to stabilize. While Trout’s 85 trips to the plate thus far in June aren’t all that close to 150, it does look like he may have made some sort of adjustment that is allowing him to make more contact.
So, let’s say Trout maintains his current level of power, regresses to a .350 BABIP and cuts his strikeout rate to 17.0 percent. That still gives him an average of around .310 from this point forward. That should provide enough value at the plate to allow him a shot to lead the AL in WAR come season’s end, provided his defense and baserunning remain elite.
Defense is where Trout has made up the most ground on the field. According to UZR, Trout has been worth 7.3 runs on defense, which puts him on a 150-game pace of over 20 runs saved. A single full season’s worth of UZR data can still be inconclusive, however, and allowing for a +/- of five runs is probably a better way to look at a player’s single-season defensive value. That said, 20-plus runs saved is not unprecedented, and with Trout’s profile as a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, the value he is providing with his glove may not be overstated.
Lastly, since baserunning is dependent on speed and instincts, Trout should have no problem maintaining his value on the basepaths, which could be worth close to a full win by the end of the season. In total, Trout’s defense and baserunning could add up to 3.5-4.0 wins of value over the balance of the season. Unfortunately, this is something that most voters will undervalue.
In approximately 15-20 fewer games played than the rest of the league’s best in 2012, Trout has arguably been the AL MVP thus far. He is on a 162-game pace for 11.8 WAR—that’s Barry Bonds territory—and he has the capability of maintaining some semblance of his early-season performance going forward. Even without deviating from what his true-talent level looks to be right now, Trout could put himself in the MVP conversation. And with a prolonged continuation of his current performance level, he’ll put up numbers that would be hard for voters to overlook.
If Trout did win the MVP, he would surpass Vida Blue, who won the AL MVP in 1971, as the youngest MVP in baseball history. Such an accolade would be impressive, but awards are not exactly an objective measurement of a player’s performance. In terms of wins above replacement, Trout already ranks tied for tenth among 20-year-old rookies since 1950 and should supplant Frank Robinson (6.4 WAR) for that moniker by season’s end.
While it will be very tough for Trout to win the AL MVP, even with the aid of the “saved the Angels’ season” narrative, what he is doing as a 20-year-old rookie is pretty special. We are currently seeing a player with less than one year of major league experience perform like a Hall of Fame-caliber player in his prime, all at an age when most prospects are still in the low minors. The remainder of the 2012 season may not bring the same success for Trout that the first 48 games have, but it sure will be fun to watch.
References & Resources
Stats courtesy of FanGraphs