The main reason we started the Hall of Miller and Eric is that we think the Hall of Fame has gotten it wrong. And the first line of defense at the Hall, if you will, is the Baseball Writers Association of America. Just a day after upsetting national treasure Kate Upton by preferring wins (Rick Porcello) to excellence (her Justin Verlander), they named Mike Trout the American League Most Valuable player over Mookie Betts of the AL East champ Boston Red Sox.
Normally we don’t tout a player as coming from the AL East champs because that “title” is about as significant as WWE European Champion. For you non-WWE fans, that means it’s pretty much insignificant, except in the voting history of the BBWAA.
What makes a player “Most Valuable”? Well, it depends on who you ask. Some just think it’s the best player. Others think it’s the best non-pitcher since the Cy Young Award covers the game’s hurlers. But most, it seems, think it means some squishy combination of being really good and playing for a really good team.
People reading posts like this across the blogosphere seem most often in the last category. And I have to argue that supporting such a position makes absolutely no sense to me. Okay, not no sense, but very little. I understand the argument that if a team wins 65 games, they could certainly win 55 without a particular player. And they’d still play for a team that has no hope of October baseball. But let’s dig just one layer deeper to see why this line of thought is so odd.
Do you really, really think someone is more valuable because he plays on a team with greater players? Is a hitter more valuable because he plays on a team with three or four stud pitchers? Of course not! Yet, that’s the way so many of us would vote. And that’s the way so many members of the BBWAA do vote.
I have to admit, I thought Mookie Betts would be named MVP yesterday. But he wasn’t. The BBWAA got it right. Here’s why I’m so surprised.
Mike Trout was the best player in the league, posting a pretty incredible 10.8 WAR. Unfortunately for him, his teammates stunk, and the Angels only finished third in the AL East. Miguel Cabrera, an inferior player that year with 7.2 WAR, played for the AL Central winning Tigers. Granted, Cabrera did win the triple crown, the first time any player had since 1967, but he didn’t do anything other than hit. He was a mediocre base runner, he couldn’t field, and he hit into a huge number of double plays. Still, the non-Cabrera Tigers were better than the non-Trout Angels, and Cabrera won the MVP.
A year after the triple crown, Miguel Cabrera had an even better year at the plate, upping his OPS+ from 164 to 190 and winning the statistically more important triple slash triple crown at .348/.442/.636. Of course, he was a below average runner, below average at hitting into double plays, and an atrocious fielder. Sure, we should give him some credit for his willingness to play 3B so the Tigers could accommodate the bat of Prince Fielder, but we probably shouldn’t give him so much that it overcomes a gap of 2 WAR, from his 7.3 to Trout’s 9.3. If you’re wondering about the confounding factor, the thing that gave Babrera his back-to-back MVPs, it’s the other guys on their team. The non-Cabrera Tigers were good enough to get Detroit to first place in the AL Central, while the non-Trout Angels could only manage to bring Trout to third place out west. Another runner-up finish for Trout.
The pattern continued in a way the following season, the worst of Trout’s career at 7.9 WAR. At 7.3 WAR, Josh Donaldson was excellent, but his A’s only finished second. Donaldson was 8th in the MVP race. Adrian Beltre was also pretty impressive at 7.2 WAR, but his Rangers finished fifth. Beltre was just 15th in the MVP voting. The AL MVP in 2014 was Mike Trout, even though he had the worst year of his career. Know why? The non-Trout Angels were excellent in 2014. Three other Angel regulars posted OPS+ numbers of 120 or more. Garrett Richards was impressive, and the pen was outstanding. They won the AL East. To be fair to the writers, Trout did lead the AL in WAR for his third straight season. Still, I think it was the non-Trout Angels who won Trout his first MVP.
Ho hum, another season of greatness for Trout, and another second place finish in MVP voting. Let’s be fair though. Of the five best non-pitchers in the AL in 2015, four were in the top-4 in MVP voting. Kevin Kiermaier finished 17th, but I’m not sure we trust his defensive numbers completely. The writers generally did very well in 2015, though they messed up the top of the ballot in a close WAR race. Mike Trout was the AL’s best player for the fourth consecutive campaign at 9.4 WAR. Josh Donaldson improved on his 2014 campaign with 8.8 WAR. What really improved for Donaldson, though, were his teammates. He was shipped to Toronto the previous off-season, and his Blue Jays won the AL East. See a pattern here? The non-Trout Angels took LA to another third place finish and another MVP runner-up.
I thought it was going to happen again. It had all of the makings. Mike Trout was again the league’s best player with 10.6 WAR. But Mookie Betts had the best non-Trout season since Alex Rodriguez of 2000 by putting up 9.6 WAR. The Red Sox finished first. The Angels finished fourth. The writers were surely going to give the AL’s best player for five years running his fourth second place finish. Except they didn’t. Sure, two knuckleheads voted for Trout at 5th and 7th. Perhaps they’re the guys who gave first place votes to Adrian Beltre and David Ortiz. I don’t know. But the writers got it right. They got it right!
What This Means
In the big scheme of things, sadly, this doesn’t mean a lot. Only 30 members of the BBWAA vote for MVP. And 11 of those folks got it wrong. If we take the 19 who voted for Trout, that’s only 63.3%. And as we all know, it takes 75% of the vote to be elected into the Hall of Fame. So even in my excitement at the writers giving Trout what he earned, not enough of this small sub-section of electors got it right to make a any real argument that they’re going to get the Hall vote right. But they are improving. They really are. For those who are okay with slow progress, yesterday’s vote was a positive sign.
Now we just have to hope some of that momentum leads Tim Raines’ way. We’ll find out in a couple of months.