Mike Trout is probably the best athlete ever to be an underdog at the peak of his powers. That’s saying something, considering that through his age-24 season, he’s also probably the best athlete ever to play baseball. If we weren’t living in a world with Trout, we still might have imagined him. What we wouldn’t have imagined is a world in which Trout exists but doesn’t win every award.
On Thursday, Trout won his second MVP plaque, out of five for which he was realistically eligible. In some ways, the win was as satisfying as it was well deserved. Trout and NL winner Kris Bryant led their respective leagues in wins above replacement (which doesn’t happen often), and so for once, we had nothing to argue about: The people with access to clubhouses and the people with access to TVs and leaderboards perceived the same things.
Because Trout had finished second to someone whose team made the playoffs all three of the previous times he’d paced the majors in WAR but not appeared in the postseason, he looked like a long shot this season who’d be blocked by Boston’s Mookie Betts. Even giving Betts full credit for his outlier defensive stats — which are somewhat suspect in single seasons — he’d been worth 1–2 wins less than Trout. But he had been brilliant, and he had been the best player on a playoff team, while Trout’s team had finished further from contention than ever. From 1931 (the first year of the modern MVP award, voted on by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America) through 2015, the average winning percentage of an MVP’s team was .593 — a 96-win pace over a 162-game season. Trout’s 2016 Angels went 74–88. Based on precedent, that record should have doomed him.
Yet Trout won — not by a blowout, but by a big enough margin that Kate Upton wouldn’t have tweeted about it if she’d been dating Betts. Not only did the best players win the award designed, sort of, to recognize the best players (with plenty of leeway for maddening debates about how to define “value”), but from one perspective, both MVPs were inessential to their teams’ odds of making the playoffs: The Angels finished 15 games out of a tie for a playoff spot, while the Cubs finished in first by 17.5 games. In championship win probability added, a standings-sensitive measure of how much a player increased his team’s odds of winning the World Series, Bryant ranked eight spots behind little-known reliever Adam Liberatore.
So rather than conflict, a pleasant surprise: Trout wasn’t penalized for the failings of his teammates, front office, and owner. But that surprise would have meant more if Trout’s earlier losses hadn’t already come close to killing the core appeal of season-ending awards — the sense that some truly enviable honor was being bestowed. When Miguel Cabrera won back-to-back MVPs despite being several wins worse than Trout across those two seasons, it became clear that either the writers were voting illogically, or the award was measuring something different (and less interesting) than “being the best player.” Trout’s stats made him deserving, and the stats were the same before and after each vote was announced, regardless of the opinions of 30 non-infallible BBWAA members. Trout was big; it was the awards that got (or stayed) small.
That put us in a strange place in 2016, as Trout again wins an award that his previous losses devalued. Prematurely railing about a probable snub seemed performative — Trout’s supporters were obligated to object, but many were already resigned to the pattern repeating, and less enthused about rehashing old arguments and continuing to call out bad ballots. Meanwhile, we can’t celebrate Trout’s victory the way we would have in 2012; in the interim, we’ve digested (and regurgitated) too many takes that have tarnished our opinion of the honor. And we can, at best, be only mildly happy for Trout — he’d already won one, he’s healthy and wealthy, and he probably doesn’t derive his sense of self-worth from BBWAA vote totals. Nor can we convince ourselves that a second MVP award would make the nation sit up and take notice of Trout’s talent where the first one failed. Trout still works for a bad baseball team, and the appeal of his play far outstrips the appeal of his bland public persona.
So instead, we’re trying to talk ourselves into viewing this win as proof of progress by the hidebound BBWAA, which would make the achievement more meaningful. Does Trout’s victory mean that from now on, baseball’s awards process will work? I’m still skeptical. For one thing, this is the sixth time a player on a losing team has won the MVP award; none of the previous five results signaled a subsequent voting revolution. For another, Trout’s win came one day after Rick Porcello won the Cy Young Award, which seemed like a sign that the BBWAA might never get down with two decades ago and renounce outdated metrics (in Porcello’s case, pitcher wins). Throw in Trout’s fairly slim lead (356–311, albeit with 19 of the 30 first-place votes), the potential impact of vote-splitting between Betts and teammate David Ortiz (the sixth-place AL finisher), and the risk of the well-rounded Betts being underrated for the same reasons Trout was in comparison to the all-offense Cabrera, and this needn’t necessarily represent a permanent repudiation of the “MVPs play for playoff teams” position.
Moreover, it’s not as if the BBWAA’s several hundred members (of which I’m one) selected Trout en masse. Maybe the explanation is as simple as “small sample,” since the 30 MVP voters (who rotate from year to year) represent less than 5 percent of the BBWAA’s membership. Although the list of voters didn’t seem to skew especially young or online-oriented — no writers from Baseball Prospectus or FanGraphs, for instance, had AL MVP votes in 2016 — it still might have happened to be populated by a disproportionate number of pro-Trout people.
So let’s not make too much of this moment. Let’s take it for what it was: one instance in which the crowd was wise, which temporarily cured a Cleopas-esque inability to recognize greatness in our midst and removed a small but unsightly stain on our collective sports conscience. Doing away with the “What is ‘value’?” discussion would be something to celebrate, but Trout’s greatness is something to celebrate whether or not a small group of voters agrees. He always was the most valuable player, even when we couldn’t capitalize those three words.
With the exception of 2014 (Trout’s worst season, and also, thanks to the Angels’ AL West title, the first year in which he won MVP), Trout’s full seasons are all within 1 1/2 WAR of one another, which is either inside the margin of error or not far from it. Trout is such a human metronome, in terms of annual value, that by the time he retires, “favorite Trout season” might be one of baseball’s best debates. Each one looks a little different, and each one is wonderful.
I’m partial to 2012, Trout’s rookie season, when he came close to leading the majors in hitting, running, and fielding despite missing the first few weeks with an illness and also despite spawning countless derivative sentences (this one included) about how he was too young to buy beer. But this season was pretty great, too. Just when we thought Trout was turning into a slower, more powerful, and strikeout-prone slugger (who was still the best player in baseball), he stole 30 bases, posted his lowest strikeout rate yet relative to the league, and grew less likely to chase and more likely to walk, all while continuing to hit homers that look like optical illusions. He even has an arm now.
Future generations will look back and wonder what we were thinking about a lot of things in 2016. At least they won’t wonder what we were thinking about the best non-Bonds baseball player of the past 50 years.