The Red Sox star narrowly missed out on his first career MVP award in 2016.
Mookie Betts hot start and recent three home run game brought memories to the surface that still leave me mystified. Are baseball writers sacrosanct? They have a responsibility in voting for player awards and my first notice of an incongruity was in my teen years. And I will avoid how Ted Williams lost out on an MVP over a bitter writer.
In 1958 and 1959 the great Chicago Cubs shortstop Ernie Banks became the National League Most Valuable Player. Banks is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame led the NL in RBI both seasons and was an offensive dynamo. The Cubs were not. They won 72 and 74 games over two seasons and finished fifth each season in an eight-team league. How did Banks get an MVP? Willie Mays, Eddie Mathews, and Hank Aaron contributed far more for winning clubs. Without Banks the Cubs were awful. With Banks there were still awful.
This, of course, brings us full circle to Betts and Mike Trout in 2016. Trout – if you sacrifice to the altar of WAR – was superior with a 9.6 fWAR to Betts 8.3 fWAR. But is it about the *best* player or the MVP? Trout’s team won only 74 games. With or without Trout they were a disappointing collection. At least when Trout picked up an MVP in 2014 the Angels were a success.
Are the metrics that important? I find the 2016 an example of where analytics took precedent over common sense. In fact, watching Betts all season and attempting to minimize my provincialism I still think the MVP ballot box was a crime scene. Break out the yellow tape. I was stunned by the outcome but could see the conflict of traditional verses metrics.
On traditional statistics, Betts and Trout were quite similar with Betts having a 31/113/.318 to Trout’s 29/100/.315. But those metrics! Trout had a clear and often significant advantage in wOBA, WPA, OPS+, wRC+, BABIP, and Branch Rickey’s old ISO. That, however, brings up defense that is part of WAR. Betts was first among all outfielders in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). Trout was not even close. Betts was and is a superior outfielder.
So, what is the solution? Do you punish a player simply because he plays for a lousy team? Quite possibly the most favorable approach is the old Sporting News approach of having a Player of the Year. That could run in conjunction with MVP and would allow voters the discretion of honoring a player for a great season without stripping a player who was statistically close and more instrumental in a team success.
Without Betts, the Red Sox would not have made the playoffs. Without Trout, LAA would still be on the outside looking in. If Trout’s team had even finished at .500 I might understand it. And for condolances Trout did lose in 2012 with much controversy attached.