The gambling odds, the WAR figures, and the overall perception come together to agree on one thing: Mike Trout is a prohibitive favorite to win the AL MVP. There is Trout, and then there is a big group of everyone else. The reality is that these factors lead to the only logical conclusion, and it is likely that Trout will take home the hardware. However, just as we saw with Miguel Cabrera winning over Trout in past seasons, the most deserving candidate does not have to win. In fact, there is a very reasonable path for Josh Donaldson to take home the 2015 AL MVP Award. There are three major areas that a player must succeed in to accumulate the necessary votes: run creation, run prevention, and narrative.
Trout has been the best offensive player in baseball through the All-Star break. He leads all AL players in WAR by over one full win, and most of his value comes from his offense. Trout is leading the league in runs, slugging, home runs, OPS+, and total bases. He’s second on OBP and OPS, behind only Miguel Cabrera. If you wanted to profile the best possible first half from a hitter, you wouldn’t have to do much imagining if you just took Trout’s.
Donaldson really isn’t far behind. He has only eleven fewer total bases, and he’s been among the most durable players in baseball. He doesn’t walk as much as Trout – but frankly that isn’t usually rewarded as much as it should by awards’ voters. In terms of winning over old school baseball voters, one of Donaldson’s best attributes is his team and ballpark. Donaldson has 60 RBI, just two behind the AL leader. Toronto is a historically good offensive team, and that feeds into Donaldson’s success in back-of-baseball-card statistics.
Donaldson’s best hope to catching Trout in pure offensive cumulative value is with volume. Donaldson leads in at bats, and he has braved the Toronto turf quite well. If he can play in nearly every game the rest of the way, he could pass Trout in many counting stats if Trout were to miss 10-15 games. If the Angels do not improve their lineup at the trade deadline – which is a distinct possibility – then Donaldson could enjoy a relative advantage in runs scored and runs batted in.
This is a difficult one to assess, as I’m not sure how much voters know or care. Trout’s defensive perception has lagged behind reality. In his early seasons, voters did not sufficiently value his elite defense. However, since the Angels moved on from Peter Bourjos, Trout has been forced back into center field. From 2013 to now, Trout has been a solid negative in defensive value. I imagine that the public perception is still that he is a strong defender, but he has been far from that in center field.
Donaldson, on the other hand, has been a very strong defender at third base for his entire career. I believe that the public does appreciate his defensive prowess, and his highlight level plays have helped to ameliorate the perception. Donaldson ranks in the top-10 in defensive WAR among AL players thus far. While defensive metrics tend to be very unreliable in small samples, Donaldson’s success does match with his career numbers. If you assume that many ahead of him are pumped up by simply small sample size noise, one could imagine that Donaldson deserves to be even higher.
As we grow closer to the end of the season, I do believe that the skepticism around Trout’s defense will start to reach the public. The metrics speak for themselves, and the eye test really is not far behind. So much of Trout’s value was tied to defense and speed. The defense has regressed and the stolen base totals – only 9 steals in 13 attempts – are entirely average. Donaldson benefits from the “Web Gem Phenomenon,” where people start to assign highlight plays as indicators of defensive ability. While this is generally entirely flawed logic, it happens to actually work in this scenario.
Narratives surrounding team success and recency bias – meaning second half performance – are two crucial factors in attempting to predict the inconsistent voting around these awards. Both teams are in tight races atop their respective divisions. The Blue Jays seemed poised to add a starting pitcher or two, as they could afford to greatly enhance their run prevention efforts. They seem to have the payroll flexibility and assets to make a move, and the race could hinge on a Johnny Cueto acquisition. Tampa Bay is unlikely to improve dramatically, and the Blue Jays could thrust themselves to the top of the AL East.
The Angels currently lead the AL West, but frankly that could work against them. They might make a small move to improve the lineup, but it is the Astros and Mariners that are much more likely to attack glaring weaknesses. The Astros are considered contenders and possibly front-runners to acquire any one of the best starting pitchers on the market, and that could potentially make them the favorites to win the division. If the AL East teams continue to push, there is a scenario where the runner-up in the AL West misses the playoffs entirely. If the Angels miss the playoffs again and the Blue Jays win the division, that narrative would be a massive boost for Donaldson.
The reality is that Donaldson likely won’t win this award. He’s a great player, but he’s simply stuck in a rare stretch where a +9 WAR player is unlikely to lead the league. Toronto looks very smart to have acquired Donaldson as cheaply as they did, though it’s unclear if his durability will linger past his early years. He’s due for a massive payday in a few years if the production and health continue, and he might be wise to take his body away from Toronto’s difficult turf.
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