Over the last couple months, there has been quite a flurry of discussion about Houston’s Jose Altuve and him being the front-runner for the American League MVP award with the magnificent season he is having. Boston’s Mookie Betts has also moved himself into the conversation, posting amazing numbers in his age 23 season. Both players have been producing at an elite level this year and it could be a battle down to the wire for the MVP award. Only issue is that there should be a third member in this discussion, someone who has been here before and has also posted stellar numbers this year. His name shouldn’t be a shock; it’s Mike Trout.
The numbers for all three are worthy of the American League’s biggest prize. Altuve is hitting .363/.425/.575 with 20 home runs, 83 RBI’s and an OPS+ of 173. Altuve is leading the league in batting average, hits and OPS+. Betts numbers are a bit lower, but comparable: .313/.353/.555 with 28 home runs, 89 RBI’s and an OPS+of 133. Betts leads the league in at bats, runs and total bases. Trout’s numbers? .309/.427/.543 with 23 home runs, 77 RBI’s and OPS+ of 167. Trout is leading the league in walks and on base percentage. Just perusing these numbers it would appear Altuve probably has the best overall statistics, but a case could be made for both Betts and Trout. In fact, Trout’s numbers, while slightly below Altuve’s, match up quite well with Jose’s so far this year. It would only make sense for us to take a deeper look at the numbers to see just how close Trout, Betts and Altuve really compare.
No conversation is fully complete without a deeper, sabermetric slant to it. Looking at fWAR, Trout has a very slight edge over Altuve, 6.9 to 6.8. Betts is fourth in the American League with 5.9, with Toronto third baseman Josh Donaldson sitting in third place at 6.4. Trout has the highest walk % and strike out % of the three, while Betts has the higher ISO(isolated power). Looking at their hard hit rate, Trout is second in the league with 41.2%, Betts at 35.2% and Altuve is sitting at 34.4%. Not a big surprise, considering Altuve is leading the league in singles(119) and those are normally of the softer hit variety. I decided to delve a bit deeper, since I wanted to see just what type of category each of these hitters fit into. Altuve had the highest O-Contact %(percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with when swinging outside the strike zone) with 78.3%, 5th best in the league. Trout was at 71.1% and Betts clocked in at 69.2%. When it comes to Z-Contact %(percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with when swinging inside the strike zone), Betts is 2nd in the league with 95.3%, Altuve at 91.4% and Trout at 85.9%. To me, this made total sense; Altuve has long been known as a hitter who likes to swing at pitches outside the strike zone and is infamous for dunking a single to the opposite field by slapping a pitch outside the strike zone away from defenders. Betts has the highest contact rate of the three (86.9%) and is actually fifth in the league when it comes to making contact. His numbers tell me that once he sees a pitch within the strike zone, he is swinging and making contact. He also has the lowest walk % of the three, walking only 6% of the time. It also made sense that Trout would be making the least amount of contact, as he has the highest strike out rate of the three, plus the highest walk rate. That tells me he is the most patient of the three and that can lead to both walks and strike outs. These numbers all tell an interesting story, but there is one more stat that needs special attention.
A statistic that has been making a lot of noise is WPA, or Win Probability Added. The case has been made the last few weeks for Zach Britton of Baltimore, one of the best relievers in the game, to win the Cy Young Award and much of the case hinges on his league leading WPA of 4.29. To get a better idea of what this means, here is the definition given on Fangraphs:
Win Probability Added (WPA) captures the change in Win Expectancy from one plate appearance to the next and credits or debits the player based on how much their action increased their team’s odds of winning. Most sabermetric statistics are context neutral — they do not consider the situation of a particular event or how some plays are more crucial to a win than others.
Alright, so how you feel about this stat depends on how much weight you want to put into a single play, from inning to inning. I lean toward it having stock, but there are so many variables to it and is purely a context driven statistic that it wouldn’t ever be my “end all, be all”. That being said, it does determine importance, so it does help in this argument on the importance of each player in their team’s success. No shock to me, Trout is tops in the American League at 5.03. The Angels have struggled throughout 2016 and any success they do have in many ways can be attributed to the “Best Player in the Game”. Altuve is 5th in the league, with a WPA of 2.91, while Betts is 14th with 2.24. Hey, all three are in the top 15 of the league, so it is quite easy to see their value. But Trout thumps the competition in this category, 2.12 higher than the runner-up Altuve.
So after this, who is your front-runner for AL MVP? Altuve is going to be the popular vote at this point and the numbers show someone who is worthy. Like everyone else, I love watching him play and as a short guy myself, I can’t help but root for him. That being said, I think there is an argument for Mike Trout, and in fact I might lean a bit more toward him. Just because he is playing on a losing team doesn’t mean he is unworthy of being the league’s MVP. In some ways, one has to wonder just where the Angels would be without Trout. There is over a month before votes have to be turned in, and as I learned a couple years ago, making a pick weeks in advance is a silly mistake. This race could go right down to the wire and very well could be a pier six brawl for the MVP trophy. Much like in 2012 when both Trout and Miguel Cabrera were worthy winners, this year looks to be much the same. There might not be a wrong choice, but more than likely there will be a better choice. Right now, it looks to be Mike Trout.