Aaron Judge, Miguel Sano, and the 113 Game AL MVP
I’ve gradually become enthralled with the ramifications surrounding Mike Trout’s injury. A torn thumb UCL and successful surgery is what the last few weeks have brought us, yet despite the depressing smog that will linger around the “LAA” abbreviation in your MLB.tv interface as the Angels play without one of the greatest players of all time – yes, all time – the American League MVP race just got sucked into a tornado. What Trout’s DL stint has created the potential for is equally as interesting as Mike Trout himself.
Voting for a league’s MVP has become one of the more convoluted processes in the game due to its subjectivity and lack of guidelines detailing what the word ‘valuable’ actually means. Even when there are clear parameters – the Cy Young Award goes to the best pitcher – voters still have a tendency to go off the rails in terms of logic, most notably with the dying ‘pitcher win’ statistic. While convoluted sometimes carries a negative connotation, it’s really just a fancy word for complex. And baseball is notorious for being complex when subjectivity is brought into the equation. While I’ve been very critical in the past with writers who vote on beliefs that I disagree with, recent attempts to change my ways and understand their thought process in those decisions, has created more value than raising dead-end squabbles with individuals who have worked insanely hard for their credibility.
As the current American League MVP contenders approach the midway point of their third month, looking at projected end of season lines brings with it a storm of confusion, the likes of which will provide some profound insight on how writers value players within the game.
Trout played 47 games before hitting the DL, and with a sprinkle of optimism, projects to come back directly after the All-Star break on July 14th. With projection systems failing to adopt my optimism for recovery times, Fangraphs’ Steamer is giving him 66 games to add to his 2017 resume, pegging him for a return the week following the All-Star break (check this column for my optimistic games played scenario). Assuming no setbacks or other unforeseen absences, Trout’s total games played on the back of his 2017 baseball card will feature a total of 113 with a projected Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of 7.1.
Some perspective on how good that actually is; Trout’s 2014 MVP season, over 157 games, had a total WAR of 7.9. Trout is projected to play about 44 less games than 2014 and only land only slightly off his WAR total from that year (0.8 less). Below I broke out two contenders I consider to be the strongest projected cases to eclipse Trout in the AL MVP race through this point in the season. Utilizing a weighted average method for rate stats (AVG, OBP, etc), you’ll see their projected end of season lines using Steamers’ data.
It seems crazy, but using Fangraph’s WAR metric, Trout will play about 25 games less than Aaron Judge, and from a WAR standpoint, be more valuable than either the Bronx’s new bomber, or an equally powerful slugger from Minnesota, Miguel Sano. These projected lines create a situation where voters would have to intricately refine their belief on two heavily debated factors nestled within MVP voting.
#1 – How much do team wins matter?
#2 – How much does playing time matter?
#1 – Not much
#2 – Not much
So what does matter? The quality of player and all that he can control.
I’m perplexed by the frequency of headlines claiming there are new front-runners for the 2017 AL MVP, as following the player performance theory of voting would lead you to Trout conclusion regardless. Projected for 113 games would be the fewest a player has accumulated in an MVP season since Frank Thomas played only 113 games and won the award in 1994 . Removing the environmental factor of the labor strike in Thomas’ MVP year, you’d have to go all the way back to 1980, where George Brett played only 117 games and batted a cool .390 to find a similar case.
Trout deserving the MVP is an easy case to reach if you’re a proponent of the WAR metric. Even with his lost set of games, he still projects to be atop the leaderboard of the valuation statistic in the American League. A common thought a Trout voter might have revolves around baseball’s poor reflection, on a team level, of one individual player’s performance. A Trout voter may even disagree with that point of view, and circle back to beliefs that WAR is the best barometer for how valuable a player is, making the player with the highest WAR at the end of the season, the league’s most valuable player.
If individuals in the advanced analytics community start to veer away from voting for Trout, even if the end of season lines end up roughly around what I have displayed above, it would speak to a possible fault in the WAR metric. If, however, they abide by the metric’s roots, then Trout will take home his third MVP in the last four years. With 2017’s trophy making the bid for most impressive in my book.
#1 – A Lot
#2 – A Lot
It’s hard not to be amazed with what Judge has done to baseballs, particularly after setting the record for the hardest hit ball in the Statcast era, and the longest home run of the 2017 season thus far in the same weekend. Feats like those make it hard to believe in the cold water thrown on Judge with rest of the season projections. The conservative approach – as some may consider it – that Steamer is taking has Judge’s rest of season batting average 100 points lower than it currently is at .344, with a slugging percentage nearly 230 points lower than the insane .718 it currently hovers around. Even with all that taken into account, Judge’s projected body of work is extremely impressive, but doesn’t eclipse what Trout is projected to provide in less games.
It becomes easier to make a case for Judge if you consider the state of these competitors’ respective teams. Heading into Monday’s action, the Yankees are four wins better than the Angels, with one projection system giving the Yankees 92 wins over a full season and the Angels 79. Since losing Mike Trout on May 28th, the Angels are 7-6, almost as if their record suggests they didn’t lose the best player in baseball. Evidence some Judge voters might claim as viable, even with how flawed the argument is.
One can also punt to qualitative factors that a player provides if he is on the field for 33 more games than another player with production that isn’t substantially less than his competitor’s stat line. Judge’s presence in the Yankees lineup is something common thought would indicate as a reason to alter an opposing pitcher’s game plan around the rest of the Yankees’ order. In some cases, that can provide immense, intangible value in a team’s drive towards success.
#1 – Can we just count the first half?
#2 – A Lot
Now we come to the hardest case to make in this potential tornado of MVP voting, and one I should almost call an honorable mention. Miguel Sano is mashing almost as impressively as Aaron Judge, but in a Minnesota market that doesn’t buoy his persona as much as the New York media is bound to do with Judge. While that will inevitably hurt his vote total come balloting, Sano isn’t pacing too far off from what Judge has done (see above table). The issue is that some of the factors Sano voters may make to dismiss Trout’s MVP case also apply to those made in creating a Judge MVP case. Even more foreboding is the rest of season win total that Minnesota is projected for, pitting them as a worse team rest of season than Trout’s Angels.
Sano’s production will be underappreciated when ballots are submitted; a sad reality that I’d hope correct itself as much as possible. Even more shocking is that Sano’s defense relative to his position has been better than Carlos Correa’s, a player whom many have cited as a cog in the Astros success, when he hasn’t even been the best player on his own team according to Fangraph’s WAR (Jose Altuve 2.6 WAR, Correa 2.1 WAR). Sano, a player once dismissed as a third baseman entirely by his current organization, is putting together a case in all aspects of the game that touts his ability to perform at a well above average level. If Twins fans have one thing working for them, it’s their case of Sano outperforming Correa, and pacing to do so in a smattering of statistics when we reflect come season’s end.
Photo via the Flickr Creative Commons, thanks to AP3 for the photo.
Statistics via Fangraphs.com and BrooksBaseball.com unless otherwise cited.
wOBA – Measure of hitter’s offensive value; all hits are not created equal. More accurate representation of how a player contributes to a team’s run scoring. Combines all aspects of hitting, weighting each in proportion to their actual run value (.320 is average).
WRC+ – Refinement of WRC, which compares a hitter WRC to the league average after factoring in park effects. Bill James statistic used to quantify a player’s offensive value measured in runs (100 is average).
WAR – Summary of a player’s total contributions, relative to a what a replacement level player would contribute. Slightly different than Baseball Reference’s WAR statistic, utilizing a different method for estimating WAR’s components – offensive runs, baserunning runs, etc. (0.0 is replacement level).
DEF – Fielding Runs above average plus a positional adjustment. Defensive value relative to positional average and other positions (0.0 is average).