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With Influence Of Sabermetrics, BBWAA Needs To Rethink Value

November 22, 2016
Baseball has enough awards these days that there's hardly a need for another. But since there are so many already, and the American League could use an alternative, one more won't hurt -- and we've got just the name for it.

We could call it the Mike Trout Most Outstanding Player (MOP) Award. You know, the best player as opposed to the one who had the biggest impact on his team's overall performance, as a Most Valuable Player award seems to imply.

Since the Los Angeles Angels' dynamic outfielder has all but locked up "Player of the Decade" honors in just half the allotted calendar time and made a mockery of the league's top individual honor during the process, he should be in a class by himself. If nothing else, that would make the AL MVP an equal opportunity award.

There's no point in beating around the bases here -- Trout has been the best player in the American League, and probably in all of baseball, for the last five years. But that does not necessarily mean he's been the most valuable player to his team in any given season, especially the last one.

Last week, Trout was named AL MVP for the second time (he also got it in 2014, no complaints there), continuing a run that is unprecedented in the 86-year history of the award since the Baseball Writers Association of America were entrusted with the process in 1931. In the three years Trout didn't win (2012, 2013 and 2015) he finished second, giving him five straight No. 1 or 2 finishes, which has never happened before -- and that's not the only historical development from this year's race.

This also marked the first time the top four in voting finished in the exact order of their WAR ranking, with Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts (9.6), Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve (7.7) and Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson (7.4) falling short of Trout's MLB leading 10.6. If you're not familiar with WAR -- well, you've probably stumbled onto this site by accident.

WAR (wins above replacement) or WAA (wins above average), if you prefer, is the reason this debate pops up this time every year -- and also the reason Trout has been generally accepted as the best player in baseball during his five-year career. Whether he's the most valuable year-in and year-out is another matter, one that depends on how much "value" you place on a player's performance in relation to his team.

The WAR rating has become a driving force in player evaluation, even though it is as hard to explain as it is to understand. It even has its own Wikipedia page -- that doesn't cite an exact origin, but there's little doubt 2012 is the year it took hold. Not coincidentally that also is when Trout burst onto the scene with one of the greatest rookie years of all time. It's almost as if WAR was waiting for someone like Trout to draw attention away from what are now termed "old-school" statistics.

It's not that Trout doesn't excel in those old fashioned numbers, because he does. It's just that the formulas used (and yes, there are more than one) seem to fit him better than anybody on the baseball planet. The "incidental" statistics all figure into the equation -- but in today's sabermetrics world, a player is rated by his WAR number. And that number, more than any other, is how players are being ranked.

A 6.0-plus rating is considered MVP caliber (MOP would be a better fit); 5.0-6.0 is a superstar talent; 4.0-5.0 is an All-Star; 3.0-4.0 is an above average regular; 2.0-3.0 is a solid everyday starter; 1.0-2.0 is considered a role player; while sub-1.0 are the bench (utility) players who fill out the roster.

The problem here is that the final evaluations are left to a handful of statistical experts. The formulas are far too complicated for the WAR numbers to be readily apparent to the average fan. It's much easier to debate the merits of batting average and runs scored as opposed to home runs and runs batted in.

Like it or not, there's no denying the AL's MVP vote this year went strictly according to the WAR numbers. In that regard, Trout was a clear winner. But was he really the most valuable player in the league? I don't think so. In fact he might not have been the most valuable player in his own division, where the Angels finished fourth with a 74-88 record, and a case could be made that Altuve or Seattle Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano (7.3) had as much, or more, impact on teams that finished higher in the standings.

Betts had a WAR rate just one below Trout, but the difference would have been enough to theoretically drop the Red Sox, who finished first with a 93-69 record, to a tie for third place, while the absence of Donaldson would have dropped Toronto (89-73) from a second-place tie to fourth place.

Like beauty, value is in the eyes of the beholder. From this perspective, Trout was a clear winner of the newly minted but still mythical MOP award, created in his honor. But in this corner, he would have been no better than fifth on the equally mythical MVP ballot.

Even with new school metrics, there's still room for old-school values.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com