I wrote an article on Saturday that was my best attempt to capture the various storylines of this year’s AL MVP race. It wasn’t easy, mostly because there are a ton of legitimate candidates. I focused on who seem to me to be the top four: Aaron Judge, José Altuve, Mike Trout, and Chris Sale. But I got a good chunk of responses from folks who felt someone was conspicuously absent: Andrelton Simmons.
And it’s not a wild argument to make, since, as my colleague Ryan Schultz pointed out on Thursday, Simmons has turned in a legitimately great 2017. Much of Simmons’ value comes from his stellar defense — GRATUITOUS HIGHLIGHT BREAK —
and while the defensive metrics might not agree on precisely how outstanding he is, they all agree that he is, in fact, outstanding. For his career, UZR pegs him at 21 runs above an average shortstop per full season, FRAA puts him at 14, and DRS at a whopping 28. In other words, the estimates of Simmons’ defensive value range from elite to god-like, and the average comes out to something like slam-dunk Gold Glove winner.
It doesn’t take a lot of offensive prowess for a player with that kind of profile to add value — just ask Billy Hamilton, owner of a career wRC+ of 70 but averaging more than 3 WAR per full season — and that’s generally been Simmons’s approach. This year, however, as Ryan discussed, he’s added real offensive thump, with his increased power numbers and walk rate translating to a 122 wRC+, the best of his career by a huge margin.
Those defensive metrics differ on Simmons’s value in the field this season, too, ranging from 10 runs by UZR to an insane 23 runs by DRS. Based on which one you use, his WAR also fluctuates, from 4.6 to 6.1, the WAR totals of a downballot MVP candidate and of a slam-dunk MVP candidate.
But Simmons is still the second-best player on the Angels, thanks to one Mike Trout. After spending about a month and a half on the DL, which would knock any mortal player out of the MVP race, he’s back in the thick of it, thanks to a torrid August and really a torrid rest of the season too. As I write this, he has a 200 wRC+, indicating offensive value worth literally double that of a league-average hitter. Trout hasn’t qualified for the batting title, thanks to that DL stint, but if you drop the PA minimum to 300, that wRC+ leads the league by more than 30 points over second place. As with Simmons, the various WAR metrics disagree somewhat on his precise value, but the spread is much narrower, ranging from 5.1 WAR on the low end to 5.3 WAR on the high end.
The result is a team with two legitimate MVP candidates, players who are likely to finish the season with at least six or seven wins, and yet is still barely clinging to a playoff spot. Right now, the Angels are 62–59, barely above .500, and just a half-game ahead of the Royals for the second Wild Card slot (with a whole mess of other teams just behind KC). By the time this publishes, they could be tied, and in just days, they could be on the outside looking in. FanGraphs gives them just a 31.0 percent shot at winning the Wild Card; Baseball Prospectus, 22.8 percent. By either measure, it’s more likely than not that the Angels will not even make the single-game playoff that awaits the Wild Card recipients.
That seems crazy! Simmons and Trout are turning in a pair of outstanding seasons; despite that, the Angels are on the verge of missing the playoffs. But how crazy is it really? Almost two years ago, I wrote about how the Angels were wasting Trout’s superstardom; historically, teams with players as good as Trout has been, for as many years as he’s been that good, have almost never consistently missed the playoffs. I want to ask a similar question now: how many teams with two MVP candidates have there been, and how many of them have struggled as much as the Angels?
Let’s assume Trout and Simmons finish the year with more than 6 WAR each. That feels pretty conservative; combined, they have something like 10 to 11 WAR, so hitting October with 12 combined is almost guaranteed. Using the Baseball Reference Play Index, we see that there have been 839 six-win seasons since integration. These seasons have been spread across 673 teams, with 121 of those teams having the good luck to benefit from two of these excellent seasons. (Another 23 teams had three, but we’ll ignore them.)
These teams were, on the whole, very good. Their average win percentage was .565, the equivalent of a 91- or 92-win season. Only 16 of the 121 teams finished under .500, half the number of teams who finished over .600. It is rare to have great players and be bad; it is not uncommon to have great players and be very good. This shouldn’t be surprising!
What is surprising (at least at first blush) is that 73 of those teams failed to make the playoffs. But our window includes lots of seasons in which “the playoffs” consisted of just four teams, and a number in which the World Series was the only postseason baseball. If we narrow the scope to 1995-forward (when the Divisional Series were introduced), 17 of the 35 remaining teams failed to make the playoffs, with nine losing in a Divisional Series, five in a Championship Series, three in the World Series, and one winning it all.
Of course, we have very little data from the current playoff format, with two Wild Cards in each league. But it looks like having two great players is not a guarantee of playoff success, or even of making the playoffs at all.
Does that mean the Angels shouldn’t feel bad? Not exactly. As I mentioned, the vast majority of those teams were well above .500; the Angels are definitely worse than most double-MVP candidate teams. And it’s been almost two years since I wrote the article about the Angels wasting Trout’s career; since then, he’s added another 15ish WAR to his total, which I can’t imagine makes Arte Moreno & Co. look any better.
Plus, the Angels could still pull this thing out. There’s a lot of time left in the season, and they do have two extremely good players to slot into the lineup every day. But I’m not sure I’d feel much pride if I was in the Angels’ front office. It doesn’t take much to win when you’ve got two players like Trout and Simmons, and they aren’t doing much more than the bare minimum.