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Mike Trout's historic shunning by the BBWAA

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The meaning of "MVP" is up in the air, but whatever you think the award is about, have pity on Mike Trout, who has been and will likely continue to be uniquely ignored by the voters.

Rude.
Rude.
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

All the MVP arguments that can possibly be made have already been made, at least twice, and I don't intend to make them here again. You probably have a sense for what you think "Valuable" means, and if you don't, you can certainly read about all the possible interpretations elsewhere. Instead of relitigating those arguments, I want to talk about Mike Trout. Not to make the case for him winning the 2016 MVP – BtBS managing editor Neil Weinberg did so quite capably yesterday over at FanGraphs – but to point out how ahistorical the combination of his run of league-wide dominance and lack of BBWAA recognition has been.

As Neil explains in that piece, Trout looks to be fairly comfortably in the lead with whatever WAR metric you choose, and in the lead with whatever other overall value metric you choose. If that remains true for the last month of the season, it will be his fifth consecutive year leading the AL in fWAR. And if Josh Donaldson or Mookie Betts or Jose Altuve wins the MVP instead of Trout, as seems likely, the Angels outfielder will have been recognized for his dominance only once in those five years. This is, succinctly, nuts.

It's nuts, first of all, because Mike Trout is incredibly good. We talk about this all the time, and it's still not nearly enough. Trout used to be heralded as the best young player since Mickey Mantle, but through their respective age-24 seasons, he leads Mantle by 5.5 fWAR, and he still has a month to open that gap up further. He's currently in second place, only .6 fWAR behind Ty Cobb for the most fWAR through 24 ever, a total basically every projection system expects him to surpass before October. Trout has surpassed every comp. This paragraph is of questionable relevance to the article, but whatever.

If you compare him to players of any age rather than only his youthful peers, Trout is merely in the highest tier of performance, rather than a class of his own. Since 1931, when the MVP award took its modern form, the only other batter to lead their league in fWAR for five years in a row is Mantle, from 1955 through 1959. The only players who led their league for four consecutive years were Willie Mays, from 1962 though 1965, and Barry Bonds, who somehow did it twice with seven years of separation in the middle, in 1990–93 and 2001–04. Those are Trout's reasonable comps.

So how did they do in MVP voting? Very well. In Mantle's five-year run, he won the MVP in years two and three (1956 and '57), his best years of the five. He did get egregiously shorted in 1955, when Yogi Berra took the award despite a 4.6-fWAR deficit, and in 1958, when Jackie Jensen got the nod with only 5.5 fWAR to Mantle's 8.8, but he led the league by less than half a win in 1959, so two wins over that span isn't bad. While Mays got denied in the first three years of his run, one of those losses was to Sandy Koufax, and the complications that pitchers add to the MVP calculus make calling it undeserved somewhat difficult. And Bonds? He absolutely dominated the vote in both of his stretches, winning in three of the first four years and all four of the second four.

If we loosen the requirements and look to players with many nonconsecutive years as their league's fWAR leader, there are more examples of well-deserved dominance of the MVP race. Ted Williams led the AL in 1946, 1947, 1949, and 1951; he won in '46 and '49. Albert Pujols led the NL in 2006, 2008, and 2009, winning in the latter two (as well as 2005). And, in perhaps the most compelling comparison, Alex Rodriguez sat atop the AL in fWAR for six of the ten years from 1998 through 2007, and while he didn't win the MVP in any of his first three years as leader, he did win it in each of the last three.

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The conclusion of all of this? The idiosyncrasies of the BBWAA voting process, and the deliberate vagueness of the instructions, make the outcome of the MVP race in any given year very difficult to predict. But when a player is at the top of the league for several years in a short span, they're nearly guaranteed to walk away with multiple wins. Unless that player is Mike Trout, apparently.

Why? I can think of two plausible explanations. The first is that MVP voting is weird, and in a given set of five years, someone was going to get denied like this at some point, in the same way that, if you keep flipping a coin, it's bound to come up heads five consecutive times at some point. This is possible, if unsatisfying, so I'm going to ignore it. The second is that Mike Trout has been unique among excellent players, in that his team has let him down. I wrote that article after 2015, another year in which the Angels didn't make the playoffs despite having the very best player in baseball, and 2016 is just adding to that tally and making the pattern even more ahistorical. Most of the players I mentioned saw their teams reach the playoffs numerous times in their stretches of dominance, since, y'know, they're great players. I think this is the most likely, disappointingly mundane reason why Trout has been so uniquely ignored by the BBWAA: The Angels have been crappy.

The MVP matters only because we say it matters, so it's not worth getting too much into knots over. Trout is outstanding, truly excellent in a literally unprecedented way, and that's true whether the BBWAA votes for him or not. If they don't, hopefully it helps people realize that the MVP isn't quite living up to its ideals and shouldn't really be taken seriously.

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Henry Druschel is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.