In early August, it looked as though Mike Trout, once again, would produce an off-chart season for a team whose chart indicated the need for a visit to the ICU post haste. And I observed the Angels were far better at promoting the living daylights out of Trout than building him a team that knows as much as he does about how to play the game to win.
Now Trout can add two-time American League MVP to his resume. And he earned it. This year’s MVP voters finally got the a-ha! and quit blaming the league’s most genuinely valuable player for his team’s weakness. But this isn’t just another case of Trout’s wins above a replacement level player yelling in those voters’ faces, even though the WAR argument has been applied to him in the past.
It’s not that he turned up deficient in WAR this year. He led the league for the fifth consecutive season, the kind of streak formerly accomplished by a couple of guys named Ruth (1926-31) and Johnson (Walter, that is: 1912-16). His 10.6 is the second time he’s earned 10.0+ WAR in a season; his average for the five seasons is 9.6.
But Trout was actually better than his WAR this year. Before you have my commitment papers drawn, signed, and notarised, do take a few to ponder:
* Trout reached base using up far fewer outs to get there than anyone else in the league, his .441 on-base percentage led the league, and it’s the first time a guy whose career OBP is .405 has led the league in that category.
* He led the league in runs scored with 123. Exactly how you lead your league in runs scored when your teammates can’t drive you home in a car is mind boggling, though concurrently leading the league with 116 walks probably has something to do with it. Marry the runs scored to his runs batted in and he produced 223 runs in 2016. (The Angels did have a team .322 OBP, but they weren’t very good at cashing them in, obviously.)
* He led the league in runs created for the fourth straight season, and his 148 runs created was two above his career average. Ty Cobb also has a four-season runs-created-leadership streak; Joe DiMaggio never lead his league in the stat; neither did Jackie Robinson.
To put it into further perspective, Babe Ruth never led his league in runs created in four consecutive seasons; neither did Hank Aaron, George Brett, Roberto Clemente, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Nap Lajoie, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, Al Simmons.
Barry Bonds, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, and Ted Williams each had a six-season streak leading their league; Trouts near-contemporary Miguel Cabrera is tied with him at one four-season leadership streak, and the two shared the league leadership twice. Teammate Albert Pujols’s best streak is three. So is Rogers Hornsby’s.
Are you getting the idea of the company in which Trout travels now?
* What really pushed Trout to his second MVP was also his win probability added rates. He didn’t just lead the American League in offensive winning percentage, he led in win probability added, situational win probability added, and base-outs wins added. (That third stat measures how many wins Trout was worth according to what he did once he reached base.) Meaning this guy gave his team more chances to win than any other player in the league, and maybe in the Show.
Once upon a time, Branch Rickey—then running the Pirates—told Ralph Kiner during a contentious salary negotiation, “We finished last with you, and we can finish last without you.” It was no more Kiner’s fault that the Pirates were a basket case in 1952 than it’s been Trout’s fault the Angels were a basket case in 2016. Well, some people think Rolls Royce engines should power Toyota Yarises, too.
Some still argue Trout had little to no business winning the MVP with his team finishing way out of the postseason race. Second-place finisher Mookie Betts, playing for the worst-to-first Red Sox, did hit more home runs and drive in more runs than Trout—but not by much, despite obviously more opportunities to drive in runs, and Betts created fewer runs with considerably lower win probabilities than Trout.
Without Trout in the league Betts probably would have won the award. Betts was the only player beside Trout to win 300+ total American League MVP votes. There are far worse things to be known as other than second best in the league to Mike Trout.
As constructed now the Angels probably don’t deserve Trout. Much the way the Giants of 1955-61 almost didn’t deserve Willie Mays; much the way the Braves of 1961-68 almost didn’t deserve Henry Aaron. Trout has now won as many Most Valuable Player awards as Mays and one more than Aaron won, and:
a) There were plenty of seasons in which those players deserved the award someone else won, just as there were at least two others in which Trout deserved the MVP another guy won.
b) Trout’s first five full seasons have been better than anyone else’s five-year run at any point in their careers in the history of the game—except Mays and Barry Bonds.
The Angels failed to build a team worthy of the best player in baseball, who plays the game in just about a league of his own. And baseball itself seems to have no idea how to exploit this glandularly talented, genuinely likeable young man into marketability outside his home playing turf.
The sport is enjoying boffo popularity these days and it can’t find a way to market the best all-around player in the game? Whatever’s wrong with that picture is only slightly less wrong than whatever’s wrong with the Angels that they can’t give Trout a better team for whom to play.
Albert Pujols still hits for power but time and injuries have reduced him to Mark Trumbo.
The best of the Angels’ youngish regulars (Trout at 24 is still the youngest Angel) averaged 2.0 WAR in 2016—barely. Their best young pitcher (Cam Bedrosian) looks to be their bullpen anchor of the future, but the rest of the pitching staff needs an overhaul, especially if Garrett Richards’ return from Tommy John surgery should feature a few speed bumps.
Their manager still manages like it’s 2002. Even if he has only three players (Trout, Pujols as a DH, and Bedrosian) who really could have played on that World Series winner. Mike Scioscia was a genuinely great manager for long enough but he’s no longer the sharp tactician and clubhouse shepherd he once was.
Even his post-2002 allergy to catchers who could hit so long as they could handle pitching staffs is betraying him. The Angels’ staff ERA in 2016 was 4.28. How good do you have to be behind the plate to handle that kind of pitching? The Angels would be better off erecting a tall wide plank behind the plate with eyelets through which an umpire could see to call balls and strikes.
Until now the most foolish argument on earth was that the Angels should think about dealing Trout, even to bring back the kind of prospect haul around which they can rebuild their organisation completely. Can’t trade your number one gate attraction without taking a big box office hit, right?
Some think the hit they’d take without Trout is nothing compared to the hit they’ll take if they can’t build a true competitor to play with him. Entertain offers for top prospects; entertain offers for top young major league-ready players at the aforesaid positions; entertain offers for a mix of both.
It’ll hurt worse than an unanesthetised open heart surgical procedure. But Trout remains under contract until his first free agency eligibility in 2021. Any of a few teams with prospects and/or young major league-ready players to deal for better than a measly rental would find it too delicious to resist making a play for an available Trout.
If Angel fans want to see their team return to real pennant competitiveness, as much as it’ll hurt they’ll be ready to thank the greatest Angel ever to wear their uniform for the memories and wish him well for the future he still has. At age 24, Trout has more future ahead of him than some teams have a past.
You could even thank him further for being the kind of player who helped the Angels rebuild whole with the haul he’s sure to bring in. Which assumes the Angels’ brass doesn’t just fall prey to the temptations of handing big new contracts to veterans with handsome past performance papers and upside beginning to erode thanks to time, injuries, or both. They’ve been there, done that. And paid through the nose for it.