Few sports debates inspire more disagreement than MVP races. By taking objective outcomes like home runs and outs and running them through a million subjective filters, we’re left with raging arguments over which player is truly the best. And even more arguments over whether “best” and “most valuable” are even the same thing.
This year’s American League Most Valuable Player race could boost these debates to sky-high levels. Going by raw numbers alone, we have a fierce battle with at least three or four excellent candidates. Insert various narratives into the mix, and the list of candidates grows even more.
With all of that in mind, let’s break down the top candidates for AL MVP, both by the numbers and by the potential proclivities of story-seeking writers with votes.
Mike Trout , OF, Los Angeles Angels
Wins Above Replacement is a complicated stat. There are things that WAR does well, such as evaluate players’ offensive output without considering team-dependent stats like runs scored and runs batted in, and adjust for park factors so that everyone’s on a level playing field. There are other things that Wins Above Replacement does less well, such as rely on defensive statistics that aren’t necessarily state-of-the-art. Still, it’s a catch-all stat that uses consistent criteria to add up a player’s offensive, defensive, and baserunning contributions, to produce one number that’s expressed in an easy-to-understand currency: wins.
By that standard, Trout was the best player in the American League in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. With one month to go in the 2016 season, he leads the league for the fifth straight year. There’s nothing subtle about what Trout is doing this season. With a batting line of .319/.436/.562 in a ballpark that perennially favors pitchers, Trout has been the best hitter in the AL this year. With 21 stolen bases in 25 attempts and a strong overall success rate when it comes to take extra bases once he gets on, he’s also tied for second in the AL in baserunning runs. Different defensive metrics give Trout different levels of credit for his play in center fielder, to the point where one version of Wins Above Replacement probably underrates him a bit.
There’s also little chance Trout finishes better than third in the voting. As great as Trout’s been for the past half-decade, the Angels are about to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in those past five seasons — with 2016 on pace to be their worst season this century.
Logically, this shouldn’t make any difference in the MVP race. Trout has no control over the team’s catcher hitting like a pitcher, or the lack of a competent left fielder all year long, or the starting rotation being terrible, injury-prone, and terribly injury-prone. He only gets to bat once every nine spots, and only gets to catch the balls hit in his direction. Even superstar baseball players can’t do much to make their teammates better, the way a star NBA ball-handler or NFL quarterback can.
This likely won’t matter to voters. Many of the writers assigned to choose award winners are big fans of both narratives and wordplay. They’ll likely pick another player for MVP, either because that player’s team is headed to the playoffs, because he’s doing something statistically rare (even if some of those stats are outdated and misleading), or for some other reason that elides picking the player who by objective standards has actually been the best. If the Angels can finish many games below .500 with Trout, they’ll say, surely they can do so without him. The seminars defining the word “value” will be glorious to behold.
There’s a shred of good news to report, though. Even though Trout almost certainly won’t win AL MVP this year, at least two other candidates offer compelling cases, even if neither has been quite as good as the Halos star.
Josh Donaldson , 3B, Toronto Blue Jays
Strip out team records and context-dependent stats like RBI, and Trout probably deserved the 2015 AL MVP by a hair over Donaldson … though Donaldson was certainly a defensible choice. This is exactly where we’re at again in 2016.
Donaldson is tied for second in the AL in park-adjusted offense, plays elite defense at a premium position, and is one of the most durable players in baseball, on pace to finish with 150-plus games played, following three straight seasons appearing in exactly 158 games. That four-year stretch has been magnificent, with Donaldson on track to pass Mike Schmidt for the second-best run by any third baseman in MLB history from age 27 to 30, leaving him just short of Hall of Fame hitting machine Wade Boggs.
He’s a noted hat collector, gives phenomenal hitting advice, and he’s peaking at a great time for the first-place Blue Jays, putting up video-game numbers over the past two weeks … or even if you cover his past eighty games.
With that kind of statistical resume, leading the charge for a Jays team with a good shot at its second straight AL East title, Donaldson probably beats Trout in the balloting for the second straight season.
Jose Altuve , 2B, Houston Astros
Altuve is 5-foot-5. He’s probably going to win the batting title by about 30 points. He’s going to score and drive in more than 100 runs and bag something like 220 hits, and he’s probably going to top 30 steals for the fifth straight season. His newfound power surge has (justifiably!) sent baseball hearts aflutter. And unlike Donaldson, he won’t engender feelings of ballot fatigue from a voting body that historically has loved to find reasons to back new blood. Ladies and gentlemen, here’s your 2016 AL MVP favorite.
The little guy wouldn’t be a bad pick by any stretch. He’s batting a terrific .351/.411/.567 (tied for second with Donaldson and David Ortiz in park-adjusted offense), while playing in all but one of Houston’s games. Despite his speed and agility, advanced defensive metrics have never loved him, though 160 games of league-average glovework at a premium defensive position still counts for plenty.
Altuve’s candidacy may now depend with how his teammates perform. If the Astros run down Baltimore and Detroit for the second wild-card spot, we’ll have all the pieces in place for hardware: an underdog player putting up fancy numbers in traditional statistical categories, while leading a playoff team. Even if Houston falls a little short of the postseason, though, a strong September could be enough to seal the deal.
Mookie Betts , OF, Boston Red Sox
Like Altuve, Betts could get some underdog votes. At 5-foot-9 and a wiry 180 pounds, Betts has emerged as one of the most potent power hitters in the league, cranking 30 homers and posting the fourth-highest slugging average in the league. He’s tied with Trout for second in the league in baserunning runs, swiping 21 bags in 24 tries and frequently nabbing extra bases once he gets on. A strong Gold Glove candidate, Betts has saved 22 more runs than the average right fielder, according to Baseball Info Solutions, using a combination of excellent range, keen instincts, and a strong throwing arm.
He’s also probably just the fourth-best candidate in the league on merit, with offensive numbers that are impressive but still trail Trout, Donaldson, and Altuve by a comfortable margin. And in much the same way the September numbers put up Edwin Encarnacion or Dallas Keuchel might decide his rivals’ MVP chances, Betts will probably need Drew Pomeranz and David Price and David Ortiz and other Red Sox to play well and push his team to a division title if he wants to improve his own odds of winning the award.
Which makes zero sense, but them’s the breaks with an award ballot that’s left purposely vague and open to interpretation, the way the MVP award (and for that matter Hall of Fame voting) is.
Zach Britton , RP, Baltimore Orioles
Wild card! When awards voters get presented with too many viable choices, they will sometimes wig out and look for an outside-the-box candidate. That player might do one thing extraordinarily well. He might be so dominant at the one thing he does extraordinarily well that he’ll excel at one particular stat on a near-historic level. In a split field with a limited number of voters, a few votes for that darkhorse can occasionally be enough to produce a surprise victor.
This is what happened in 2003, when swashbuckling, Welcome to the Jungle-blaring, 55-for-55 closer Eric Gagne so electrified the baseball world, he beat out two excellent pitchers with nearly three times as many innings pitched (Jason Schmidt and Mark Prior ) to win the NL Cy Young award, and finished sixth in MVP balloting.
This also might be where we are with in 2016, with Orioles closer Zach Britton. The best one-pitch pitcher since Mariano Rivera , Britton has parlayed a 97-mph sinker into virtual invincibility. He’s a perfect 39-for-39 in save opportunities this year, with a 0.81 ERA and just one earned run allowed since April. With the Orioles poised to possibly squeak into the playoffs on the strength of power hitting, Britton and his comrades in the bullpen, and a starting rotation that’s ranged from kind of lousy to apocalyptically bad, some voters figure to get excited about Charm City’s southpaw fireman.
The smart money is on Britton beating out Corey Kluber , Aaron Sanchez , Rick Porcello , Jose Quintana , Justin Verlander , Chris Sale , J.A. Happ , Masahiro Tanaka , and everyone else to win the Cy Young award, because Britton’s been so dominant in relief and because no one starting pitcher has gone 1999 Pedro Martinez on the league. But when it comes to MVP, Britton’s a much bigger long shot, with only two other relievers ever winning the award, and a stacked list of five-tool position players having big seasons on this year’s ballot.
Other candidates to watch: Manny Machado , 3B, Baltimore Orioles; David Ortiz, DH, Boston Red Sox, Francisco Lindor , SS, Cleveland Indians ; Edwin Encarnacion, DH/1B, Toronto Blue Jays; a bunch of other good players having very good but not quite MVP-caliber seasons about whom I’ll get yelled at for omitting.
Source: CBS Sports / The five players who can make AL MVP cases in this year’s wide-open race