Jim Henneman: In The Case Of Mike Trout — Or Anybody — WAR Doesn’t Equal MVP

Might as well get this out of the way in a hurry. If you’re a regular in this corner, you’ve read it before. Many of you might be screaming, “There he goes again with that MVP vs. WAR rant” — isn’t he ever going to get over it?

Well, the quick answers, in order, are “yes” there he goes again, and “no” he probably isn’t.

In the interest of full disclosure, let’s get this out of the way early — Mike Trout, by just about everybody’s account, is the best baseball player on the planet. It’s just that when it comes to MVP awards he tends to be overrated. At least that’s my take.

Again, that’s not a knock on his ability. If anything it’s a knock on the newfound formula (can’t call it a statistic, even though that’s what it’s based on) that has become the determining factor when it comes to Most Valuable Players. WAR (wins above replacement) has become the go-to standard and, at least from this point of view, it’s not an improvement.

The formula is even questionable when it comes to grading Trout himself, which you can determine for yourself — after taking a look at what triggered this latest rant. Richard Justice, a very qualified columnist for MLB.com (and a good friend) recently did one of those early MVP surveys that tend to show up about midseason every year.

Forget the fact, if you can, that it’s mid-September and we’re at the two-thirds mark of a pandemic-plagued season. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to stick to results from the American League, conducted from a poll of 30 writers who were asked to list their top five choices, with a 5-4-3-2-1 rating system.

It probably shouldn’t have shocked me that Trout was the leading candidate and had the most first-place votes (13). Well, it didn’t shock me — but it was kind of infuriating when there is a very strong case that Trout isn’t even the MVP of his own team, the Los Angeles Angels, the perennial under-achieving team of the American League.

Through play of Sept. 10, the Angels were an underwhelming 18-27, a .400 pace. In the games started by Dylan Bundy (you might remember him) they were 6-3, which translates to a .667 winning percentage. Bundy’s personal W-L record is 5-2 — all of which equated to a 2.1 WAR (wins above replacement), according to Baseball Reference. WAR has traditionally, and sometimes questionably, put Trout at the head of the class.

Not that those numbers automatically mean anything. For instance, Bundy’s 2.1 rating is lower than the 2.5 rating he posted last year for the Orioles, who finished with a 54-108, .333 record — but were only 9-21, .300 in the 30 games started by Bundy. If there is a rational explanation here, I missed it.

What I found most interesting in Justice’s American League MVP survey was the alignment of the four players behind Trout. All four play in the Central Division — Cleveland pitcher Shane Bieber, Minnesota designated hitter Nelson Cruz (you probably remember him too), and shortstop Tim Anderson and first baseman Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox.

All three of those teams are in contention to win the division, and all four of those players would be better MVP choices, IMHO. (When in doubt, take the shortstop.) There may also be some consolation in the fact those four players combined had 17 first-place votes, with Bieber leading the way with 11.

Even though he’s leading the world in home runs and would-be voters in an MVP election and is among league leaders in all vital offensive categories, Trout’s WAR was a mere 1.0 through Sept. 10. It should be noted that number was that low only because he was graded as a -1.1 defender, negating his 2.1 offensive performance. Those might be the most damning WAR numbers ever, suggesting his defensive deficiencies are more than equal to his net worth.

I’ve argued strenuously and often that Trout’s numbers suggest he is the game’s Most Outstanding Player more than its MVP. But never have I suggested his defensive ability was a determining factor. He may not have a Gold Glove, and maybe he never will, but that’s a speck on an elephant’s behind compared to what he brings to the table.

When it comes to picking a Most Valuable Player, contrary to the current trend, there is no simple equation. In other words, WAR doesn’t equal MVP.

It should be as simple as that.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com