Does Mike Trout’s MVP win answer who’s most valuable?

In 2010, after years of rewarding the pitcher with the most wins, Cy Young voters gave the award to Felix Hernandez. The Mariners ace had gone 13-12, and the vote was celebrated by many as a victory not just for the King but for the voting process in general. The tyranny of wins was dead. The Baseball Writers’ Association of America, whose members vote on the award, had leapt into the modern ways of evaluating players. Our November tradition of tearing apart the down-ballot selections of baseball writers was, mercifully, over.

And then the next six American League Cy Youngs went to the league leader in pitcher wins, including Rick Porcello this week. Just goes to show you … something.

On Thursday, Mike Trout won his second AL MVP award. This is the outcome I had hoped for: The best player won the award that most closely corresponds to the question, “Who was the best player?” It’s the outcome that the BBWAA had avoided in three of the previous four seasons, when Trout was (by Wins Above Replacement, and in all three of the most prominent public models of it) the best player in baseball but the runner-up in MVP voting. The lone year he won — 2014 — has been the exception that proves the rule, as Trout led the league in RBIs and played on a division champion. He was the best player in baseball, too, but it didn’t feel like he won that one because he was Mike Trout, you fools.

In the same way that Felix Hernandez’s Cy Young was supposed to mean something, Mike Trout finally winning an MVP award without any of the usual crutches of default MVP voting will seem to mean something. Resist that conclusion. This is not about the voters, and it is not about us. It’s about Mike Trout, the greatest player you’ve ever seen, and his very good year, and a decision made by 30 men and women that is worth celebrating because it might not happen again.

Voters have been struggling with what an MVP is since just about the very beginning. The MVP award was launched in a series of fits and starts, under various aegises and rules, just over a century ago. By the mid-1920s, sports-section readers could already count on columnists making a case for some player and struggling with the ambiguity in the name of the award itself. In 1927, Bob Ray of the Los Angeles Times took a shot at defining it through the lens of one candidate:

Gehrig is a good guess, all right, but don’t entirely overlook Signor Antonio Lazzeri, who also cavorts on the Yankee infield. Lazzeri’s all-around play has been one of the features of the season and his ability to fill in at any of the infield berths is one reason why the Yankees are so far out in front.

The attributes that Ray laid out included: utility (Lazzeri played a bunch of positions after teammates went down); clutchness (“Lazzeri has rapped most of his four baggers when they meant the ball game, one of them coming with the bases full”); marketable Italianness (“Lazzeri packs in the Italian fans wherever the Yankees play”); and outstanding defense (“fielding has been so phenomenal that eastern critics are pronouncing him ‘Another Lajoie'”).

In 1932, Grantland Rice argued that the underheralded second baseman Charlie Gehringer deserved consideration:

One of the most self-effacing stars in baseball, Charlie Gehringer, is the punch in the Tigers’ attack and he’s being nominated as the most valuable player in the junior league. What has Gehringer got that permits him to be mentioned in the same breath with Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth of the Yanks, and Joe Cronin of the Senators, who have been rated the key men of the American League?

What, indeed. Rice mentions “the knack for timely hitting,” “caring less about winning the batting championship than hoisting the Detroit team into a preferred position,” “superbly graceful (play) around the keystone sack,” playing a demanding infield position and being smart in scouting opponents.

In 1928, the Times made the case for Burleigh Grimes, who was an underdog to Jim Bottomley of the front-running Cardinals:

There is no question that Burleigh’s presence on their team has inspired the Pirates. In the spring, when all the pitchers with the exception of Grimes were going bad, the team appeared listless and downhearted. There were games when they were worse than the hopeless Phillies. Now they look like one of the best teams in the league. They never would have threatened to climb out of the second division if Battling Burleigh hadn’t been plugging for them…. What a man!

From the beginning, there was an admirable effort put into understanding the entirety of the ballplayer’s contribution, and valuing those things that the ballplayers and ballclubs themselves valued. There was also, arguably, a tendency for writers to talk themselves into some terrible positions, such as “Tony Lazzeri for MVP”; hitting .373/.474/.765, as Gehrig did in 1927, or .364/.469/.749, as Jimmie Foxx did in 1932, might also help us define “value.” (Each won the MVP award.) But, presumably, Ray and Rice didn’t discount those gaudy slash lines. They just aimed to make the case that a successful ballplayer often does things that didn’t, as they say, show up in the box score.

What the award was never meant to be was a leaderboard sort. Indeed, it was the very opposite of a leaderboard sort: The first MVP award was designed to replace the batting crown, which had been turned into a farce on the final day of the 1910 season when Nap Lajoie was allowed to bunt his way past Ty Cobb thanks to, shall we say, an anti-Cobb bias among players. As The Bill James Historical Abstract puts it, “After this it was realized that it was not advisable to make such an award contingent directly on player statistics, a principle still recognized today. Instead, the Chalmers company decided to base its award — the automobile– upon a poll of sportswriters.”

The ambiguity about who should win the award, a concept so abstract that it would itself inspire a century of debate, is not, then, an accident. It’s part of what makes the award fun, part of what makes it memorable, part of why players care about winning it more than they care about leading the league in WAR or any other stat. We have a basic faith in the idea of a group of people coming together with their individual perspectives on the world and voting their consciences. We believe that this is how some large truth emerges that an algorithm or a scientist can’t engineer. By one way of considering the voting, there is no such thing as a bad vote that is submitted in good faith.

The cost of this faith, of course, is that we’ll hate the results much of the time — especially now that we have an actual leaderboard that attempts to measure value itself. And concluding that Mike Trout is the most valuable baseball player in the world should be one of the easiest decisions an MVP voter gets to make in his or her life.

It is certainly about time that Trout won a second award. There is no credible argument that would suggest Trout isn’t the best player in his league, or that he wasn’t this year.

Over his five-year career, he has led the AL in Wins Above Replacement five times. You go to a different site than I do for your Wins Above Replacement? No problem: He leads the AL in all five years regardless of whether you’re looking at Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs or Baseball Prospectus. His cumulative WAR, on Baseball-Reference, is nearly two full Mike Trout seasons better than the next best major leaguer in that time period, Robinson Cano. His cumulative WAR in those five years is greater than Manny Machado and Anthony Rizzo combined. It’s as great as Jose Altuve, Yoenis Cespedes and Eric Hosmer combined. It’s as great as Justin Upton, Chris Davis, Kendrys Morales and Mark Trumbo combined. Only two players in post-integration history — Willie Mays and Barry Bonds — have ever produced a better five-year run than Trout has produced in his first five-year run. He is, through age 24, the greatest player in baseball history. We’re not talking about a great player, a generational player, another in a line of establishment superstars. We’re talking about something that history has never seen, and it’s happening right now, in front of us, every day — and the continued runner-up finishes suggested we were missing it.

His 2016 season was as good as any of the previous four. He matched a career high for OPS, set new ones for walks and on-base percentage, remembered after two quiet baserunning seasons that he’s a top-tier base stealer, and by some advanced metrics had the best defensive season he has had since he was a rookie. His 10.6 WAR on Baseball-Reference is nearly equal to his best ever, and is a mark that only seven other human beings have accomplished since integration.

What will Mike Trout accomplish in his career? Very little is off the table. Through age 24, he has the seventh-most home runs ever, with exactly twice as many as Barry Bonds had and 28 more than Hank Aaron did at that age. He’s 13th in hits, with a 400-hit head start on Pete Rose. He’s seventh in runs, 15th in runs batted in, sixth in total bases, fifth in extra-base hits, fourth in times on base. He is building a career that might demolish records and define our memories of an entire generation of baseball.

You would like to think we’ll have no fuzz on those memories, but the truth is that these awards go a long way to how we define and remember a career. Big round numbers do, too, but those numbers are affected by so many things that are hard to account for in our heads a half-century later: the run-scoring environment of the era, the ballpark he played in, for instance, but more than that. In 50 years, who even knows which stats we’ll look at, or what we’ll value in a player. There’s a pretty good chance we’ll be measuring “modern” players in the future using data that don’t even exist yet for Trout, and that we can’t go back to collect retroactively. What we will have, what will be permanent, are these annual assessments by the BBWAA. And in a just world, Mike Trout, just a couple months past his 25th birthday, would already have five MVP awards. You would care to see that.

Two, at least, is better than one. It’s a victory worth celebrating.

But I’m skeptical it’s a victory any broader than that. Late last month, the players voted on Sporting News MLB Player of the Year. Their winner was Jose Altuve. Mookie Betts finished second, followed by David Ortiz, Kris Bryant, Daniel Murphy and finally Mike Trout. Five players on contending teams, who all helped their team win or stay close to a division crown, ahead of Trout, whose team played for nothing. That has been one of Trout’s challenges in winning the MVP award, before this year: He hasn’t been playing on postseason teams, and some years, for some players, some voters decide that’s important. But that’s the MVP award. Notice what’s missing in the Sporting News MLB Player of the Year Award name? The word value. The voters for this award decided five other major leaguers played better than Mike Trout because they just didn’t care enough to get it right.

This year’s MVP voters did care enough to get it right, or, at least, the definition they chose for “most valuable player” corresponded to my definition. Those voters, though, total 30. There are more than 700 active BBWAA members. In a sample of less than 5 percent of members, by an extremely thin margin, voters chose Mike Trout. It’s hardly a radical realignment of values. Scramble the members up, have them vote again, and it’s quite possible Trout would have finished second or third, again.

This is OK! Trout’s legacy is bolstered by the hardware, but it is not so fragile as to depend on these votes. Honus Wagner’s career almost entirely predated the MVP award, and he never won one. Babe Ruth played in an era when players were allowed to win it only once, and so he won it only once. Willie Mays led National League hitters in WAR 10 times but won only two awards. Are any of these careers underrecognized by history? Do you know anybody who doesn’t know what Babe Ruth represented? Can you find anybody who lived through Willie Mays’ career who would tell you that he was underappreciated even then?

Trout might deserve 15 of these in his career. He might win two, and he might win a dozen. When he wins one, we toast to the greatest player alive. When he loses one, we still toast to the greatest player alive.

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