Mike Trout and the AL MVP

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

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  1. JR said...

    Nice article. I’ve been following him closely too and also was happy to see he’d reached enough PA the other day to qualify for the Fangraphs leaderboards by default. I’ve also been closely monitoring his K% and have liked the June improvement, but like you I think around 17% is about the best case scenario for him. I think his best chance at the MVP is to lead the league in steals and average, and while the first one may be possible, the second one will be tough. But he is fun to watch.

  2. philosofool said...

    I think his strike out rate is due for a rise, actually.

    Not to take anything away from what has been a stellar performance, but the league really hasn’t tried to adjust to him yet: they just keep pumping him fastballs at at 67% clip, third highest among qualified hitters. His discipline is no doubt partially responsible for this, but the steady diet of fastballs isn’t succeeding and eventually people are going to see if they can get him out with off-speed pitches.

    When that happens, we should see him get more balls, more called strikes and more swinging strike—all coming at the expense of balls in play. (Essentially, he’ll get deep into counts and see more breaking pitches in those counts.) For these reasons, both his walk and strike out rates will climb. Like many disciplined hitters, I think he’s going to sit on off speed stuff, especially early in the count, but sometimes that’s going to cause him to fall behind, and he will have a higher swinging strike rate on the breaking stuff (because everyone does.)  The net effect will probably be positive for him because the up tick in walks will compensate for increased Ks.

  3. Saxon said...

    Actually, in regards Philso above, Trout in the past two weeks has seen a significant rise in sinkers which he has somewhat struggled with.

    From his call up to June 8th he saw a total of 28 sinkers. In the following six games after that, he saw 25! Clearly, there are a number of factors that come into play and it is a small sample size. Nevertheless, I think pitchers have already begun adjusting.

    I think his ABs against Cahill the other day are a good indication of what we should expect from a lot of pitchers moving forward. In his first 2 ABs, Cahill threw him a single fastball and Trout went 0 for 3 against Cahill for the game.

  4. D-Moe said...

    There is a great measure of truth to what everyone has been saying about Trout but the single most important reason for his success has to do with the speed with which he adjusts to what the pitchers are throwing. For instance, Howie Kendrick will go on a 2 week bender where the low and away slider will cause him to swing and miss on a consistent basis before he finally adjust and lays off the pitch or goes with it to right field. Peter Bourjous will swing and miss at the high fastball for weeks at a time before he lays off it. Trout consistenly makes in-game adjustments. If you get him low and away on the 1st 2 at bats, you can be sure if a pitcher tries it again, the ball will be smacked into right. And forget about anything offspeed with this kid because he will crush it! His swing is so quick and compact through the zone that he can track the pitch and wait till he recognizes what it before he starts his swing. Even with a steady diet of sinkers, he will adjust and then either find a hole or beat out a hard hit ball to the left side of the field. To have this athletic ability combined with the baseball smarts at this early of an age…You can see why Angel fans like myself are ecstatic about this year and the years to come!

  5. Jesse Sakstrup said...

    In terms of how Trout has performed so far this season in terms of wins above replacement, which is influenced by a number of things that might not be entirely accurate, especially in a 48 game sample, he is on a 162 game pace of 11.8 wins. Since 2000, the only player to post a season higher than that is Barry Bonds. Lets not misconstrue what I am saying, I am simply saying that the way Trout has played so far has been amazing, and using the WAR metric, his numbers compare to what Barry Bonds was doing in his prime. It was just mentioned for performance context, not a projection/prediction going forward.

    If Trout is truly playing gold glove caliber defense in center and producing value on the bases the way he is, that could amount to nearly 4 wins of value over what Bonds typically did in those two areas. And lets remember that the standard for offense was much higher when Bonds played; the league average wOBA in 2000 was .341 and in 2012 it is .315. Bonds also didn’t play in 162 games and WAR is a cumulative stat, so perhaps comparing them on a 162 game scale is overly complimentary to Trout. Either way, Trout’s 150 game pace would still put him 4th in WAR since 2000.

    You are certainly free to disagree with what the WAR metric is saying, but I think it is exciting that objective measurements are suggesting that Trout is providing value at a rate that is rarely seen in the game.

  6. Jesse Sakstrup said...

    @J. Money:
    Ah…Yikes! Haha. That does look ridiculously bad. Thanks for pointing that out. Now Fixed.

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