The current argument against Mike Trout, MVP

Mike Trout has been an All Star in each of his seven full MLB seasons. He led the American League in fWAR in five of those seven seasons (four of seven by bWAR; led AL hitters in WARP in three of seven). During that period, he finished in the top two in AL MVP voting every season save his injury-shortened 2017 and won the award twice.

So far, 2019 looks like another MVP year for Trout, who received his eighth-consecutive All Star nod and has a commanding (roughly two-win) advantage atop all AL WAR(P) leaderboards. That Trout will win the award feels like a foregone conclusion, and it has for some time. Early in his career, though, Trout’s MVP candidacy was a contentious flashpoint for the battle between the respective adherents of “new” performance-valuation metrics and “traditionalists.” That conflict came to a head in 2013, when Miguel Cabrera repeated as AL MVP and Trout again finished second. Cabrera’s .348/.442/.636 line led the majors and represented an across-the-board improvement over his line in 2012, when he became baseball’s first triple crown winner in over forty years. On the other hand, Trout’s WAR mark clearly bested Cabrera in 2013 (10.2 versus 8.6 fWAR; 9.0 versus 7.3 bWAR), just as it had in 2012 (10.1 versus 7.3 fWAR; 10.5 versus 7.1 bWAR).

Ironically, Baseball Prospectus, long a leading publisher of work by adherents to “new” performance-valuation metrics, recently reversed course on the 2012 and 2013 AL MVP races after it incorporated changes made to its batting metric into its WAR model (i.e., WARP), acknowledging now that Cabrera really was a more valuable player than Trout in ’12 and ’13. Of course, these days, the fight between “traditionalists” and “sabermetricians” is over. In 2019, no one is arguing that Michael Brantley or Rafel Devers, the current respective AL leaders in batting average and RBI, deserve the league’s MVP award, for example. Part of that comes from the broader appreciation of the usefulness of advanced metrics, and part of that is because Trout is leading many of the traditional categories– at the moment, homers (42), OBP (.435), and SLG (.649)– too. Even if the analytical environment around baseball hadn’t changed, old-fashioned voters would have a hard time denying Trout his due in 2019. Does that mean that Trout has every vote locked up this year?

Stated otherwise, the question is whether there’s a good reason why someone would not vote for Trout as this year’s AL MVP. WAR isn’t everything, of course, but the current difference, by fWAR, between Trout and second-place Alex Bregman is Tim Anderson, or Whit Merrifield, if you prefer, or Blake Snell, last year’s Cy Young winner, all of whom currently have 2.5 fWAR. And Trout’s leads in homers and OPS fortify his position, with his positive contributions on defense and the basepaths rounding out a seemingly unassailable case. What more could he do?

The traditional MVP consideration never was just about individual numbers like batting average and RBI; voters also seemed to care about team-level winning. After all, baseball is a team sport in which the goal is for teams to win games and championships, and there is a conceptual sensibility to the notion that a player deemed “most valuable” would be one who translated his individual value into some significant measure of team value. Recall for example that, in 2012 and 2013, Cabrera’s Tigers were division-winning playoff teams that made deep runs while Trout’s Angels missed the playoffs and waffled around a .500 win percentage. If all of Trout’s good isn’t really doing the Angels any good, is he really the type of player we think of as an MVP? We can appreciate a superstar toiling in competitive obscurity, but does it make complete sense to bestow upon him or her the game’s highest individual honor?

Consider how infrequently postseason MVP awards go to players from losing teams. When it comes to formulating an MVP-award rubric, one can both prefer reliance on metrics that better account for individual performances and believe that the rubric should account for both team-success and individual-statistical components. In other words, the sabermetric revolution need not change what we’re looking for in an MVP even if it has changed how we decide if a candidate meets our criteria.

The good news is that there is a sabermetrically sound method to building an MVP-award analysis that accounts for both individual and team aspects. Continue reading

Rapid reaction: Mike Trout’s reported contract extension

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Related
What Alex Rodriguez’s Contract Would Look Like Today

2018 Rapid Review

The year 2018 was a year. Here are some of our favorite things from the year that was 2018.

  • Atlanta United winning the MLS Cup, at home, in their second year of existence.
  • America’s women’s hockey team beating Canada to win gold at the winter Olympics.
  • Phish summer tour. My first time seeing them three nights in a row. That they never repeated a song during that stretch was notable but not terribly surprising. What was remarkable and never received the treatment at this site that it deserved was the overall quality of the performances, especially on Friday, August 3 but really consistently throughout the weekend, where a wide array of songs from across their thirty-five-year catalogue provided launching pads for fresh, collaborative jams time after time. It feels like the band has reached a new level.
  • Hamilton College’s Francis Baker, the American hockey goalie who stood up to Hitler. This was your most-read story posted on this site in 2018.
  • Steve McNair: Fall of a Titan. This, from Sports Illustrated, was my first foray into the true-crime podcast genre. The gist: what we were told was an open-and-shut case probably has a lot more to it than what the investigating police department allowed to meet the public eye. Story had some additional resonance for me because I had been living in Nashville at the time.
  • Maryland-Baltimore County beating Virginia to become the first-ever sixteen seed to beat a one seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
  • Justify‘s dominant Triple Crown achievement.
  • Baseball Hall of Fame adding Alan Trammell. Still no Cooperstown spot for teammate Lou Whitaker, though.
  • The Supreme Court clearing the way for states to authorize sports wagering.
  • J.R. Smith delivering the most memorable moment of LeBron James’ final series with Cleveland.
  • Shohei Ohtani making his major-league debut.
  • The Vegas Golden Knights reaching the Stanley Cup Final in their first year of existence.
  • Vanderbilt beat Tennessee in football again. The Commodores have won five of the last seven games in this series. (If you’d lost track of him, Derek Dooley’s currently working as the quarterbacks coach at Missouri.)
  • Baseball Prospectus revised its flagship bating metric and now concedes that Miguel Cabrera, not Mike Trout, deserved the 2012 and 2013 AL MVP awards.
  • Tiger Woods winning the PGA Tour Championship at East Lake.
  • In personal news, I published my first article at Baseball Prospectus, which took a look at whether MLB teams were colluding to depress player wages.
  • In memoriam:

Thank you for your readership this year. Look for more great content here in 2019.

Trout vs. Cabrera, and Aging with DRC+ (via Baseball Prospectus)

MLB: All Star GameIt was about as clear as these things get, and the writers got it wrong. In fact, they got it wrong twice. That was the consensus, in our sabermetric corner of the internet, when Miguel Cabrera stole consecutive MVP awards from Mike Trout in 2012 and 2013.

Cabrera was a lumbering first baseman, shoved across the diamond only because the Tigers decided to force-fit Prince Fielder onto their plodding roster. He was a great hitter, but he added no value beyond that hitting. Trout, at the tender ages of 20 and 21, lit up the field in ways Cabrera couldn’t. He robbed home runs in center field, stole bases both often and efficiently, was one of the most consistent hitters in baseball, and according to the best information we had at the time, he was also Cabrera’s equal (or very nearly so, or perhaps even his superior) at the plate.

Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs each had Trout about 3.0 WAR better than Cabrera in 2012, and about 1.5 WAR better than him in 2013. We had the gap slightly smaller in 2012, but slightly larger in 2013. When such a clear gap between the best player and the field exists, it’s rare that the award goes to the “wrong” one. In this case, though, more or less everyone with a stat-savvy bone in their body espoused the belief that it had happened.

We were, all of us, deceived. … Read More

(via Baseball Prospectus)

The 2018 All-Star Game was one for the age

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The American League continued its All-Star-Game winning streak last night, claiming an 8-6 victory in ten innings at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. The game included a record ten home runs, far more than the previous ASG record of six, which had been matched three times (1951, 1954, and 1971).

What’s both more remarkable and unsurprisingly typical is the fact that all but one of the fourteen runs scored last night came by way of the home run, the sole exception being Michael Brantley’s sacrifice fly that scored Jean Segura to extend the AL lead to 8-5 in the top of the tenth:

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While absurd in its extremity, this homer-laden affair merely serves to illustrate that, across the sport, a larger share of all runs scored come by the home run than ever before.

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Blame (or credit!) launch angles, player fitness, chicks, or the ball itself, but last night was a snapshot of the modern game’s offensive environment, as much as a single, top-tier exhibition game ever could be.

Whether you find this new reality fun and exciting or an inflationary bore, the trend seems likely to continue absent external intervention. Of all of the sport’s (seemingly) natural evolutionary developments, this is the only one for which I currently would consider the introduction of reforms with the goal of shifting gameplay away from consumption by the three true outcomes and toward a greater ball-in-play experience. It isn’t clear to me how to accomplish this, as most of the obvious changes likely wouldn’t work or raise other serious consequences, but I think this– not game time or designated hitters— is where the Commissioner should focus his energy with respect to on-field matters.

Saving Detroit: Tigers Notes, 8/8/17

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While trades– including a trade of Justin Verlander– technically remain a possibility at this point in the year, it looks like the Detroit Tigers will content themselves with playing out the final two months of this season with their current crew and an eye toward the future. For this site, that probably means that the pages of this season’s Tigers diary will be a little emptier than they might be if the team were more aggressive in the trade market or competing for a playoff berth. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t interesting items to track, though. Here are a few:

    • Justin Upton: As highlighted here last week, Upton’s been trimming his bugaboo strikeout rate, but he’s continuing to strike out in bad situations. Since that post, he’s appeared in six games and added four two-out strikeouts to his total, pushing him into a tie for eleventh on the MLB-wide list (minimum 100 two-out plate appearances) in 2017. With 3.6 fWAR, Upton continues to be the team’s best position player by a comfortable margin, as well as its best overall player. In that post last week, I speculated that Upton is unlikely to opt out of his contract this offseason due, in part, to a weak market for corner outfielders with his profile. Over at The Athletic’s new Detroit vertical, Neil Weinberg is more optimistic about Upton’s open-market prospects, calling the “odds that Upton opts out . . . quite high.”
    • Miguel Cabrera: I’ve been working up a full post on Cabrera’s tough season, which has a good chance to be the worst of his career. (For a forward-looking analysis, my career comparison between Cabrera and Albert Pujols is here.) Besides the obvious drop in production, one thing that jumps out is his batting average on balls in play, which, at .296, is below .300 for the first time ever (career .345 BABIP). Last month, Weinberg did the logical thing and dove into Cabrera’s swing profile and batted-ball data tabulated by StatCast. The problem, from our perspective, is that there isn’t a ton there. Cabrera continues to rank high (currently number one, minimum 200 at bats, by a large margin) on the xwOBA-wOBA chart, an indication that he’s making good contact despite poor results. From watching games this season, it seems like Cabrera turns away from inside (but not that inside) pitches more often than in years past, which makes me wonder if he simply isn’t seeing pitches as well. (Weinberg noticed that he’s swinging less often than usual at inside pitches.)
      When observing the decline of a great player, it can be fun to take a break from the dissection to remember his youth, which the remarkable achievements of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper gave us occasion to do today:

Continue reading

Is the next Mike Trout already in Detroit?

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He’s only twenty-five years old, but Mike Trout is the best player in baseball today and one of the best ever. There’s only one of him, though, and he’s under contract with the Angels through 2020, which means that your team can’t have him anytime soon, and, unless your team is the Yankees or Dodgers, it probably can’t afford him once he hits free agency either. If you don’t and won’t ever have Trout himself, your only option is to make like the post-Jordan NBA and find the next Trout. Everybody wants to be like Mike.

The Detroit Tigers, for example, really could use a guy like Trout. They haven’t done much this offseason, and they’re in need of a center fielder. Of course, they had a decent center fielder in 2016 in Cameron Maybin, but the team “traded” him to the Angels as soon as the season was over and, surprise, the Angels didn’t send Trout, who also plays center, to the Tigers in return.

While the hole in the middle of the outfield currently remains unaddressed (the team’s very recent acquisition of Mikie Mahtook notwithstanding), another anticipated outfield move that Detroit has not yet made is trading right fielder J.D. Martinez, who will be a free agent after this coming season. Martinez has been very good since the Tigers acquired him from Houston, and, assuming he returns to form following his elbow injury last season, he will earn a payday next offseason beyond what the Tigers likely will want to offer.

Before Martinez inevitably departs the Motor City, it’s worth taking another look at what exactly the Tigers have in their young right fielder, and, bold as it may seem, asking whether he’s the next Trout.

On one hand, the answer obviously is no. Martinez, in his best season, was, by whichever WAR metric you prefer, about half as valuable as Trout was in his best. There also is the matter of age: while we’d expect The Next Trout to be younger than Trout, J.D. is four years older than Mike.

On the other hand, anyone who’s followed Martinez’s career knows that he was reborn as a hitter after he left Houston for Detroit, creating a bit of deception in his developmental track (I’m sure he doesn’t spend much time thinking about those first three MLB seasons), even if the aging clock ticks on.

Imagining, for purposes of this strained and fabricated narrative, that this “young” Martinez was coming up behind the more experienced Trout, we might also notice that the two outfielders have similar batting profiles.

This afternoon, Baseball Savant creator Darren Wilman tweeted a link to a chart comparing hitters according to their batted ball exit velocity and slugging percentage:

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Right there next to each other at the top of the curve are Trout and Martinez. (Click below to see more precise indications of their positions.)

Everyone knows Trout and Martinez are power-hitting outfielders, but I still was surprised to see how close Martinez was to Trout on this graph. Martinez’s overall value suffers because he plays an easier position than Trout, and, although his defense showed marked improvement in 2015 (before the improvements evaporated in his broken-elbow season last year), plays it less well than Trout plays his. Still, if I’m Martinez’s agent, a chart showing that my client hits– in terms of exit velocity and extra bases– just like Trout is going to be on page one of the Boras Binder I’m distributing this offseason. And if I’m Tigers GM Al Avila, I’ll make sure every potential trade partner this summer catches a glimpse of it too.

Sure, some still want Detroit to make another all-in push in 2017, but the proverbial contention window is hanging as heavy and tenuously in its frame as it ever has for this crew, and it’s tough to imagine a world in which they can retain Martinez. In five years, after seeing him mash in pinstripes or Dodger blue, Tigers fans may look back and see Martinez’s delayed, Trout-esque offensive prime as one of the largest costs of their now-overleveraged roster.

Sports Law Roundup – 1/6/2017

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I used to write the sports technology roundup at TechGraphs, an internet website that died, and now I am writing the sports law roundup at ALDLAND, an internet website.

Here are the top sports-related legal stories from the first week of 2017:

  • Baseball stadium funding: The Arizona Diamondbacks, seeking the right to “explor[e] other stadium options,” have sued the Maricopa County Stadium District after the District refused to authorize funding for the $185 million needed for capital repairs and improvements to Chase Field, which opened in 1998, according to an assessment completed by the District.The team has expressed willingness to cover all of the District’s expenses, but the District apparently must give its permission to proceed and thus far has declined to do so.
  • Student-athlete classification: In a case we have been monitoring in this space (here and here), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has denied the request of a group of former Penn student-athletes for full-court (en banc) review of that court’s earlier rejection of their claim that they were employees entitled to minimum-wage compensation under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The denial of the request for further review leaves in place the court’s decision handed down last month. It is unclear whether the plaintiffs will request permission to appeal to the Supreme Court.
  • Daily Fantasy Sports: A DFS website argued that daily fantasy sports actually are illegal gambling in an attempt to avoid a $1.1 million lawsuit based on an advertising and sponsorship contract with the Minnesota Wild. I wrote more about this case here earlier this week. Meanwhile, a Maryland law authorizing the lawful, regulated conduct of DFS contests in that state, which is regarded as less restrictive than similar measures in other states, went into effect on Monday; a Florida legislator introduced a bill Wednesday that would declare DFS legal in that state; and FanDuel earned another win in a patent-infringement suit brought by two gambling technology companies in Nevada.
  • Preemptive free agency:  Nathaniel Grow has an interesting article on FanGraphs that illuminates a California employment law that could apply to allow even union employees like professional athletes to unilaterally opt out of long-term contracts after seven years of employment. This poses a potentially tantalizing, if legally unproven, opportunity for someone like Mike Trout, a generational talent not yet in his prime who likely could fetch an even more historically large contract were he to hit the open market now, at age twenty-five, rather than after the 2020 season, which is when his current contract ends.

Sports court is in recess.

Baseball Notes: The WAR on Robbie Ray

baseball notes

There are a few things we know with reasonable certainty about Robbie Ray. He was born on October 1, 1991 just south of Nashville in Brentwood, Tennessee. In 2010, the Washington Nationals drafted him in the twelfth round of the amateur draft. The Nationals traded him, along with two other players, to the Detroit Tigers in 2013 in exchange for Doug Fister. A year later, the Tigers traded him to the Arizona Diamondbacks as part of a three-team trade that netted the Tigers Shane Green and the New York Yankees Didi Gregorius. So far, Ray has seen major-league action as a starting pitcher with the Tigers and Diamondbacks. He showed promise in his first three appearances (two starts and an inning of relief), for Detroit. He showed less promise in his remaining six appearances– four starts and two relief innings– for that team. Things have ticked back up for Ray since his arrival in the desert, however.

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Most baseball fans likely have some familiarity with the player-valuation concept of wins above replacement player, usually labeled WAR. What many fans may not realize, however, is that there actually are three different versions of the WAR statistic. The goal of each version is the same: to determine a comprehensive valuation of an individual baseball player. Each takes slightly different paths to reach that comprehensive valuation, but they typically reach similar conclusions about a given player, such that it’s common to see or hear a player’s WAR cited without specific reference to the particular version utilized.

For example, the three versions– Baseball-Reference’s WAR (“rWAR”), FanGraphs’ WAR (“fWAR”), and Baseball Prospectus’ WARP (“WARP”)– all agree that Mike Trout had a great 2016. He finished the season with 10.6 rWAR, 9.4 fWAR, and 8.7 WARP, good for first, first, and second by each metric, respectively. For another example, they also agree about Trout’s former MVP nemesis, Miguel Cabrera: 4.9 rWAR, 4.9 fWAR, 3.9 WARP. (In my anecdotal experience, WARP tends to run a little lower than rWAR and fWAR for all players.)

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While the WAR varietals typically and generally concur, that isn’t always the case. Pitchers can be particularly susceptible to this variance, because the measurement of pitching performance is one of the areas in which the three metrics are most different. Continue reading