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2016 Fantasy Baseball: The AL MVP Race

The MVP award is the most controversial award in all of sports. It’s easy enough to pick out a Rookie of the Year or Cy Young Award winner. You simply pick the best player. Sure, sometimes there will be close races as the Cy Young races are this season. Sure, there are disagreements over how you judge pitchers, but fundamentally you are looking for the best pitcher. The MVP award means something different to almost everyone you talk to.

For some, the MVP is the player that was the most instrumental in his team’s regular season success. One of the misnomers about the award is that it includes October. It doesn’t. The votes are due on the last day of the season. For others, the award should go to the best player in the league. This distinction is important because the first view eliminates anyone that is on a losing team. This is the reason Mike Trout has won the award once in the American League despite leading the league in wins above replacement for the last five seasons.

Of course, that statistic alone is another bone of contention. In 2012, he led the league in WAR by a wide margin, but Miguel Cabrera won the mythical triple crown. This season, he is not leading the league in any of the five major fantasy categories, but he by far leading the league in WAR. So, either WAR is a better indication of production or it is a completely fabricated statistic that doesn’t add up. In essence, Trout has been living an uphill battle for five years running. His team has typically not been good (they do have one playoff appearance in five years) and his greatness is only partially visible.

What WAR does is that it captures everything a player does on a baseball field. In addition to being a terrific hitter, Trout is an above average defensive center fielder and he is a very good base runner. The combination is what makes him the best player in the game. Below we have a chronicling of the top five AL players in WAR. To demonstrate the effects of fielding, we are including offensive WAR (oWAR) and defensive WAR (dWAR) in addition to overall WAR (often referred to as fWAR in literature).

Mike Trout 9.0 1.0 9.6
Mookie Betts 5.5 2.6 8.5
Jose Altuve 7.7 0.4 7.7
Josh Donaldson 6.5 0.5 6.9
Brian Dozier 6.5 0.7 6.7

Brian Dozier immediately gets eliminated from the discussion for most folks because he plays on the worst team in the American League. I certainly can appreciate the argument that Dozier isn’t valuable because the Twins have played zero meaningful games this season. The problem is that those wins count just the same in the standings as for any other team. The general idea is that the Twins would have seven fewer wins with a AAA second baseman. In a qualitative sense that might not matter, but he has been the fifth best position player in the league this season. Heck, you could even give him bonus points for playing his best baseball in the second half of the season.

So, the biggest debate comes from the middle three names on the table above. All three players play on contending teams. Jose Altuve plays on a team that is likely on the outside looking in. Most experts think the Astros will have to finish 10-2 to have any shot. Furthermore, he has faded big time in September. Anything can happen in twelve games. If he finishes hitting .500 in that stretch and the team advances to the playoffs he could certainly be a factor for the “valuable” crowd, but chances are they are coming up short.

The other two are still in the hunt for the playoffs. Mookie Betts has been a revelation this season and he obviously brings a ton of defensive value to the table. However, he still trails Trout by more than a win. Of course, most of the baseball viewing public can be excused if they don’t know what that means. However, we can flip the value argument on its ear. If you took away Betts from the Red Sox they would still have a lineup that features David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts, and Jackie Bradley Jr.

This is where the WAR statistic comes into play. It gives us a fairly accurate look at what a player contributes to his team. It’s not perfect and if it is ever close you can forgive the voters for choosing someone else. However, over the last five years the race has rarely ever been close. During that time, Cabrera won his triple crown (and back to back MVPs) but Trout has been the better player each season. Below, you will see what Trout did and what the actual MVP did that season.

Trout MVP
2012 10.8 7.2
2013 9.3 7.3
2014 7.9
2015 9.4 7.7

Back in the good ol’ days, both leagues used to give out the Chalmer’s Award. One of the rules was that you could not repeat as the winner. The NBA certainly has that problem when there are only a handful of players capable of winning the award every year. You become fatigued at seeing the same name on the trophy every year. Yet, it is just a little more than ironic that Trout won his MVP in his worst season to date. In point of fact, this season has been the closest of his career. It would be easy to see them justify giving it to Mookie Betts or Jose Altuve, but Trout is still the best player in baseball and that hasn’t changed in five years.

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