My wonderful colleague Mr. Gorbachav5 penned a rather convincing take yesterday on why Angel fans should be OK with conceding this year's MVP title to Josh Donaldson. No doubt, Donaldson had a great season worthy of MVP consideration. He might even be a reasonable choice to win it. But he shouldn't. He comes close, but the player who provided the most value in the American League during the 2015 season was, for the fourth straight year, Mike Trout.
First, because it never gets old:
That alone should be enough to convince you Trout deserves the hardware. Even from an objective standpoint, that catch is what allowed the Angels to keep the game close enough to win on a David Freese walk-off home run in a late-September showdown with the Mariners. Minus that catch, the Angels fall hopelessly out of the playoff chase, making the last series of the year against Texas completely meaningless. Ultimately, it made no difference, as the Angels fell short of the wild card. Without Trout in the line-up and in the field, how far back would they have finished?
Of course, there is no silver medal in baseball. If you're going to finish second, you might as well finish last. But that line of thinking doesn't seem to apply to a team that was mathematically still in the race on the last day of the season. Take Trout out of the line-up and this is a last place team. Take Donaldson out of a line-up that included Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, they still likely win their division with Brett Lawrie and his 1.9 WAR manning third base. Just as we shouldn't punish Trout for missing the postseason due to his lousy teammates, we should not give Donaldson extra credit for "pushing" his talented team towards a division title. If voters want to define value based on how much a player helped his team towards the playoffs, Trout deserves every bit as much credit as Donaldson for leading his team, despite falling just short.
Looking at things from a context-neutral perspective, the case for Trout only becomes stronger. Even before adjusting for park factors, Trout edges out Donaldson in pretty much all raw statistical categories:
Even removing Trout's 14 IBB (Donaldson had none), he would still lead Donaldson in total walks, 78-72, so his higher OBP is no illusion. Whether or not you choose to buy into line-up "protection", it is clear Donaldson enjoyed more opportunities to swing the bat thanks to having Bautista standing in the on-deck circle. Keep in mind, the Angels had their own 40-HR hitter batting behind Trout all year in Albert Pujols, so it is not like it was an easy decision for opposing managers to simply put Trout on base. Even with line-up construction and park factors working against him, Trout edges out Donaldson in virtually every offensive category that is within the hitter's control.
So where does Donaldson's advantage come in? Good ol' RBI, of course. Donaldson led the league with 123. Trout managed 90. Donaldson accumulated 620 of his PA batting second, while Trout spent virtually equal amounts of time batting second or third. As a team, the Angels had an abysmal .280 OBP from the leadoff spot, while the Jays had a respectable .320 OBP from their leadoff hitters. As a result, Trout had 266 PA with runners on base and 126 PA with RISP. Donaldson enjoyed 303 PA with runners on, 176 times with them in scoring position. With both hitters having identical HR totals, it is easy to see why Donaldson would have the edge in RBI.
From the narrative perspective, Trout meant more to his own team in competing for a playoff spot than any other player in the AL. From the objective standpoint, Trout was the better hitter than Donaldson before making all those fancy adjustments for their respective ballparks, resulting in Trout leading the league in OPS+ at 176, with Donaldson finishing fourth at 155. Both players were excellent in high-leverage situations, with Trout at 1.125 OPS and Donaldson at 1.139 OPS. Trout had an edge in defensive ratings, though both are considered excellent defenders. With third base and center field assigned the same value on the defensive spectrum, I'm willing to take this year's stats with a grain of salt and call their glove work a wash.
Maybe we shouldn't actually riot if and when Donaldson is announced as league MVP. At the end of the day, he was the second best player in the AL in 2015 and was close enough to Trout that it would not be the travesty that we witnessed when Miguel Carbrera took it in Trout's first two seasons. That said, if his lofty RBI totals and reaching the playoffs are what ultimately gives him the crown, then we really haven't made that much progress, have we?