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When Does Most Outstanding Player Equal Most Valuable Player?

November 11, 2016
It's time to brace for baseball's annual debate over the merits of WAR, the game's relatively newly embraced statistical toy. In other words, welcome to post-postseason play, and get ready for an outcry if Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout isn't named the American League's Most Valuable Player.

Though few of even the most ardent fans fully understand it, most have now at least heard of WAR. For those late to the table, it stands for the number of wins above a replacement-level player for any given player -- and in the eyes of many, it has become the gold standard for individual rankings. The one thing we do know is that, by any measure, the WAR statistic has given us another way to judge -- in other words, another way to confirm that players we knew were good are, in fact, good.

There is a formula for determining WAR, but unlike traditional numbers such as batting average, on-base and slugging percentage and earned run averages -- the old time stats some have not-so-gently phased out of the discussion -- it is not easily defined. That is at least a significant part of the problem.

We're not trying to accurately describe WAR, at least partly because I'm not sure where to start or which numbers to deem most significant. To simplify it and cut right to the chase, the one thing we know about WAR is that Trout is its poster boy. He leads the American League every year and is so dominant there are those who are outraged anytime he isn't named MVP. In their eyes, he should win the MVP every year -- or else have a special award in his name.

Welcome to the world of MOP. It's the Mike Trout Award -- Most Outstanding Player.

Now, can we move on to the MVP award? Trout is one of the three finalists, along with Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts and Astros second baseman Jose Altuve. My hunch is Trout will finish second for the third time (he's also won once) with Betts the winner. The fact that Trout's WAR (10.6) is one game higher than Betts (9.6) will generate the conversation among those who want to debate the definition of "value." 

The floor is open for discussion. … Jump in anytime you'd like.

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Here's where I have a problem with going to WAR as a strict guide for ranking players: Orioles outfielder Mark Trumbo led all of baseball with 47 home runs last season. He is one of the marquee members of what is generally considered a "blah" free-agent class, but is ranked no better than 18th on the free-agent WAR value list. One of those ranked ahead of Trumbo, and you'll need to brace for this, is Orioles fixture Steve Pearce, a utility-type player with marginal numbers. 

And just in case you think that is a fluke, Pearce's WAR rating in 2014 was the highest on Baltimore. Based upon that theory, as the Orioles won the AL East title, he was team MVP, when anyone paying attention knew that wasn't remotely close to accurate.

Given the information seen in the previous two paragraphs, you might not be surprised to learn, this past year, with a WAR rating of 1.6, Trumbo was deemed no better than the Orioles' 11th best player (one notch above center fielder Adam Jones, if you can believe that). Now, we all understand the Orioles, as a team, do not project to any statistical norm. But those previously disclosed WAR numbers are enough to suggest strongly that, while this system may have some merit, it is in serious need of a reconstructive effort.

 Somehow, the eye test has to come into play.

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From an economic -- and logical -- standpoint, I understand why the Orioles didn't give catcher Matt Wieters a qualifying offer, but that doesn't necessarily mean I agree. The Orioles are in serious need of some everyday players who are controllable at modest (by today's standards) salaries.

That is where teams like the Red Sox and Indians, in particular (and the Cubs in the National League), have a distinct advantage over the O's -- highly talented players making near-minimum salaries. The Orioles have determined the catcher position is one of those areas where they will be able to operate below cost throughout the next few years.

Still, I would have given Wieters the offer in order to get a draft choice when he leaves. In the unlikely event that he took it for a second straight year (Wieters' agent, Scott Boras, will have none of that), then the O's could have put a few million into a trade package for Wieters and made a deal for at least a mid-level prospect. It would've been a $3-4 million gamble but worth it.

As it is, the Orioles rewarded Wieters for being a good soldier by not making the qualifying offer and thereby increasing his market value (likely not to exceed three-years, $40-50 million). If that's why they did it, then I salute them, but knowing how the industry operates, I kind of doubt that was in the back of anybody's mind.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com