KANSAS CITY -- Let's start with this: Wins Above Replacement – that famous WAR statistic that has inspired so much war in the baseball community – has been manna for Mike Trout fans the last two years. It utterly confirmed what they (me among them) knew about Trout.
1. He was the greatest player in baseball.
2. He was one of the greatest young players in baseball history.
3. He absolutely, entirely and thoroughly deserved to win the MVP award over MIguel Cabrera, despite their differences in the three boring statistics that had been the lifeblood of baseball for too long: Batting average; home runs; RBIs. WAR so perfectly illustrated what many of us believed about him and the game – that his all-around game simply overpowered Cabrera’s Triple Crown brilliance. They both hit for high averages, Cabrera some points higher. They both hit for power, Cabrera slugged more. But we felt sure that when you added in Trout’s huge advantages in defense and base running and the extra walks he drew and the double plays he did not hit into and the extra runs he scored, well, he was comfortably ahead as a player.
WAR confirmed this for us even if the MVP voting went the other way.
Trout: 10.8 (Baseball Reference); 10.1 (Fangraphs)
Cabrera: 7.2 (refwar); 6.9 (fanwar)
Trout 8.9 (refwar) 10.5 (fanwar)
Cabrera: 7.5 (refwar); 7.6 (fanwar)
So plain to see, right? WAR confirmed what we knew to be true – that a complete game like Trout’s was simply more valuable than a brilliant but incomplete game like Cabrera’s. Sure it was just one statistic -- and I still remember future GM Farhan Zaidi telling me that the Oakland system actually rated Cabrera's seasons ahead of Trout. But WAR just so vividly expressed those things about the game that we just knew had to be true, and most Trout fans used WAR liberally.
Fast forward to yesterday … and a little post I threw together about Alex Gordon as MVP candidate. My point in it was not to make Gordon’s MVP case (I’ll do a bit more of that here) but to point out WHY people in Kansas City want to view him as one. I thought that point was fairly clear, but I got a lot of response from, well, yeah, Mike Trout fans. The response was generally along the lines of:
-- Come on, Alex Gordon’s a nice little player and all but he’s not HALF the player Mike Trout is.
-- Really? You’re seriously comparing Alex Gordon with Mike Trout?
-- Kansas City fans are delusional if they think Alex Gordon is an MVP candidate in a league with Mike Trout.
And so on. Now, let me start by saying: I think at this moment Mike Trout IS the MVP of the American League. I’d vote for him. I think he’s the best player in baseball by a pretty fair margin and have written that many times.
That said, the Trout fan responses sound exactly like, yep, the responses I would get from Miguel Cabrera fans whenever I made the case that Trout deserved to be MVP. I mean, these responses are almost word-for-word like the Cabrera arguments in that for the most part they are not arguments at all. They are simple statements of opinion dressed up with certainty and incredulity to appear like facts. As I’ve written before, it’s like when people put the word “Period” at the end of their thoughts to punctuate just how right they must be.
“The Empire Strikes Back is the best movie in the Star Wars series.”
“The Empire Strikes Back is the best movie in the Star Wars series. Period.”
The second, I guess, is supposed to be more persuasive.
So, “Alex Gordon is no Mike Trout. Period.” seems to be the Trout argument these days, and the only real trouble with that is those stubborn folks at Baseball Reference and Fangraphs are still figuring that pesky WAR statistic. And that pesky WAR statistic suggests that Alex Gordon, in fact, IS playing almost as well as Mike Trout. It suggests that Oakland’s Josh Donaldson IS playing about as well as Mike Trout. And it demands a closer look.
What made Trout so absurdly wonderful his first two full seasons was, as mentioned, the variety of his contributions. That 2012 season, holy cow, the guy did EVERYTHING. He hit, he hit with power, he ran, he threw, he played breathtaking defense, he walked, he stole bases, he scored runs, he drove in runs, he was incredible in ways that that exploded the imagination. WAR reflected those things and his 10.8 refwar was Willie Mays like. In 2013, Trout was better in some areas, not quite as good in others, but again he was a bouillabaisse of wonderful, and again WAR reflected those things.
So what’s happening this year? Trout’s still amazing. Utterly amazing. But let’s just be blunt about it: He’s amazing in fewer ways. It’s impossible not to see if you look. In 2012 he stole 49 bases. This year he has 13. In 2013 his on-base percentage was .432. This year, it’s almost 60 points less. The last two years, he struck out 137 or so times. This year, he’s on pace to strike out 175. He’s not as effective a base runner – he’s going first to third on singles less, he’s scoring from second on singles less, he’s scoring from first on doubles less.
And defense … it’s different. In 2012, all the defensive numbers celebrated him … he saved 23 runs with his defense according to the John Dewan system where reserachers study video of every play. Every defensive stat showed more or less the same excellence. Last year, his defensive numbers were a lot more inconsistent. Dewan’s system actually showed Trout’s defense COSTING his team runs. By Fangraphs WAR his defensive contribution went down some, by Baseball Reference’s method it went down a lot.
And this year, all the defensive numbers I see say the same thing – Trout is, at best, an average outfielder and he’s trending as being at least slightly below average.
So what happened? Are the defensive stats wrong? Is the baserunning decline simply a rounding error? You decide but for me Trout seems to be morphing into a somewhat different player. He’s hitting more home runs. He’s driving in my runs. He is becoming more like, well, yeah, the great Miguel Cabrera.
Now, you look at Gordon and Donaldson. Are either of those guys the slugger that Trout is? No, absolutely not.
Trout:. .291/.376/.561 with 30 homers, 91 runs, 94 RBIs.
Gordon: .282/.356/..457 with 17 homers, 71 runs, 61 RBIs.
Donaldson: .255/.346/.470 with 26 homers, 81 runs, 88 RBIs.
Clear advantages across the board for Trout. So why does Donaldson have a higher Baseball Reference WAR than Trout? Well, WAR judges their baserunning to be about even, their tendency to avoid the double play to be about even, and Donaldson has a huge, huge advantage in defense. Donaldson is a marvelous defense, but you can see Trout fans arguing that even if Donaldson contributes more on defense it can't possibly be THAT much more. And I would say that's exactly what all the Cabrera fans said when WAR gave Trout such a huge edge on defense in 2012. Same system. Same methods of determining the completeness of a ballplayer. And right now, Baseball Reference has Donaldson ahead in WAR 7.1 to 6.5
Gordon’s advantages over Trout are more varied – both versions of WAR have him as the better base runner, better at avoiding the double play, markedly more valuable as a defender. Trout still leads Gordon in refwar (0.9) and he leads by an almost insignificant margin in fanwar (0.3 wins). But it's close. And Gordon has been playing better than Trout of late.
A little bit more about Gordon’a defense: The Dewan system has Gordon saving 21 runs this year with his defense, Trout costing his team six runs with his defense. This is judged against the average player, by the way. You can doubt this, but from what I can see – purely by seeing – this DOES match the eye test. Gordon makes utterly fantastic catches pretty much every day. He is a superb thrower, so superb that few challenge him any more. When he is playing alongside Jarrod Dyson or Lorenzo Cain, the left-center gap is vanishingly small. Meanwhile, I don’t watch Trout every day, but I watch him a lot and to my eye his defense does seem somewhat bland. He doesn’t seem to run down as many balls as I would expect from a player with his amazing athletic ability.
Now, let me repeat this in case anyone missed it: I still think Mike Trout is the best player in baseball, and I still think he’s a worthy MVP. But blanket statements about him being so much better than Gordon or Donaldson are sounding pretty flat to me. Trout is not having as good a year as he did his first two. He’s not, at the moment, as dynamic a player as he was those first two. The Trout-Cabrera arguments for me were never about the two players – both so sensational – but about this idea of myth and reality, about the question of what the eyes see and what the eyes miss. Now, I’m feeling the same way about the Trout-Gordon-Donaldson arguments. WAR giveth. WAR also taketh away.