Despite injury, Trout still has path to win MVP

Angels star has career highs in both on-base and slugging percentage

August 23rd, 2017

The case for to win the American League Most Valuable Player Award should be as simple as the fact that he's the best player in baseball, having the best season in baseball and that his career is off to a start so historic that it will almost be an upset if the name "Trout" isn't mentioned in the same breath as "Ruth" or "Mays" or "Musial" someday.

It's not going to be that simple, of course. Trout's competitors are putting up some pretty fantastic seasons of their own, and he missed nearly seven weeks with a left thumb injury, limiting the numbers he can compile. Plus, rather than collapsing in his absence, the surprising Angels played nearly .500 ball while he was out, which will hurt his case for being "valuable" in the eyes of some voters.

So no, it won't be easy convincing voters to choose a player who missed more than a month of play. But there's definitely a path to the AL MVP Award for Trout, if he keeps performing the way he's has. He might even have a case to repeat as "Best Player" in the MLB Awards, which include fan voting and don't separate by league.

How is that possible? Here's how.

Because he's having the best season of a great career

If there's anything Trout is known for aside from simple greatness, it's consistency. In his previous four seasons, his games played totals were 157, 157, 159 and 159. Trout's wRC+ (a park-adjusted batting metric that sets 100 as league average, similar to OPS+) over his five full seasons was 167, 176, 167, 172 and 171. He hasn't always gotten there in the same way -- some years it's more power, some years it's better on-base skills -- but there's not been ups and downs. There's just been reliable and consistent elite production.

If Trout had never done anything else than repeat that season every year, he'd be one of the best players ever. But this year … this year is something else. He is hitting .333/.457/.677 headed into Wednesday's game. The OBP and slugging are both career highs, and they're both leading the Majors, among those with 300 plate appearances. Put that together, and you get a 197 wRC+, a mark that's been hit fewer than 40 times in modern baseball history -- and half of those were by Ted Williams, Barry Bonds or Babe Ruth.

If Trout keeps up that pace, it won't just be a good season. It will quite literally be one of the most dominant offensive years ever. 

Put another way, even after taking nearly two months off, Trout is still just about caught up to his main competitors, and , in FanGraphs' version of Wins Above Replacement.

Because there's precedent for winning in a shortened season

After beating the Rangers, 10-1, on Tuesday night, the Angels have 36 games remaining. If Trout, who has played 81 games this year, gets into all of them, he'll end up with 117 games played, or just over 72 percent of the team's schedule. This, by far, will be the strongest case against him. He just didn't play enough games.

Perhaps so. But don't let anyone tell you that it can't happen because it's never happened, since that's not true. Since the schedule expanded to 162 games back in 1961, four position players have won an MVP Award in a non-strike season playing 130 or fewer games -- Mickey Mantle in 1962 (123 games), Willie Stargell in '79 (126 games), George Brett in '80 (117 games) and Bonds in 2003 (130 games). It's not about the games played, it's about the value added.

If there is one thing working against Trout, however, it's not games played. It's appearing on the leaderboard, and currently, he doesn't. (You may remember how much this hurt in the All-Star balloting.) Other than Stargell (480 plate appearances), each of our limited playing time winners above made appeared on the leaderboard -- and kept themselves in the minds of voters -- and even Stargell had to settle for a first-place tie with Keith Hernandez.

With 363 plate appearances, Trout needs 139 times up to bat to make the leaderboards. That's 3.8 plate appearances per game, and he's averaged 4.5 so far this year, so it's definitely possible. Just thank Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who has moved Trout up from third in the order to second since his return. Each batting order spot nearer the top gets about 18 more plate appearances over the course of a season.

Because he's been the best when it matters the most

If there's an argument we always get into when it comes to "valuable," it's whether a player on a non-playoff team can add value. It's how we get into situations like Trout losing the 2012 AL MVP Award to in part because the Tigers won their division while the Angels didn't -- even though the 89-73 Angels had a better record than the 88-74 Tigers.

While we reject the argument that team record matters, it can be interesting to look at who has contributed to the most actual wins. A good way to do that is to look at Win Probability Added, which accounts for game context. That is, a grand slam in a game that's already 10-0 will look nice in the box score, but it won't actually help the team win as much as a solo homer in a 1-1 tie in the eighth inning.

For example, when Trout hit a game-tying homer in the bottom of the 10th with the Angels down, 1-0, on April 25, he added +44.3 percent (or .443) Win Probability, since home teams down 1-0 in the 10th come back to win only 18.5 percent of the time. Home teams tied in the 10th, meanwhile, win 62.5 percent of the time. Trout's homer boosted the Angels' chances of winning by 44.3 percentage points, so that's what he's credited with.

Easy enough, right? So when you add up all the good things (like that +.443) and the bad things (like the -.139 he got for grounding out with two men on, down 4-2 in the ninth on July 18) you can get a context-dependent measurement of who is adding the most win value. It's a counting stat, so it's easier to rack up with more playing time.

Guess what: Trout leads that, too. His seasonal WPA is +5.48, well ahead of (+4.60) or Joey Votto (+4.17). Since his first full season in 2012, Trout (+35.01) is miles ahead of second place (+26.26). No one contributes to more wins than baseball's best player. Obviously.

Because his competition doesn't have airtight cases, either

There's pretty clearly three other names in the mix for the AL MVP Award, right now: Altuve, Judge and Boston's Chris Sale. They're all great players. They're all deserving.

But you can make cases for or against any as easily as you can for Trout, too. Judge's second-half slide (.176/.346/.360) has been well-chronicled, and there's a strong recency bias in these votes. Altuve is probably the front-runner right now, yet if the sliding Astros (16-20 in the second half) lose the No. 1 seed to the Red Sox while Trout pushes the Angels into the AL Wild Card Game, that narrative writes itself, as does the case that a team with greats like , and would have won the AL West with or without Altuve.

While Sale's historic season may be the most impressive of all, it's traditionally been difficult for pitchers to win the MVP Award. The two recent pitchers to do it, in 2011 and in '14, each swept first-place votes in the Cy Young Award balloting on their way to being winning the MVP Award -- but Sale may have a surging coming to make that a competition.

Trout may have missed too much time for some. Whether or not the Angels make the AL Wild Card Game may matter for others. But there's a case here, a strong one. After all, Trout is baseball's best player -- just like he always is.