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Handicapping the American League and National League MVP fields

The metrics point to the Angels’ Mike Trout and the Brewers’ Christian Yelich, but it’s close call.

Angels superstar Mike Trout has led the American League in WAR six times since 2012 but has won only two MVP awards during that time.
Angels superstar Mike Trout has led the American League in WAR six times since 2012 but has won only two MVP awards during that time.
Jae C. Hong/AP

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America will hand out its Most Valuable Player awards Thursday, and history tells us it’s not necessarily enough to be the best player.

Voters long have given a boost to candidates whose teams reached the postseason. And if voters wanted to weigh which players added the most value in important situations, modern metrics provide methods.

Angels outfielder Mike Trout, in his accustomed spot as Major League Baseball’s WAR leader despite missing the last couple of weeks of the season with a foot injury, is one of three American League finalists for the award. The others are Astros third baseman Alex Bregman and Athletics shortstop Marcus Semien.

In the National League, the finalists are Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich, Dodgers outfielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger and Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon.

Taking the AL first, Trout slashed .291/.438/.645 with 45 home runs and 104 RBI. He added the most offensive value with 180 weighted runs created plus to 168 for Bregman (.296/.423/.592, 41, 112) and 137 for Semien (.285/.369/.522, 33, 92). Semien added the most on defense with 14.1 runs, as listed at Fangraphs, to 4.8 for Bregman and minus-0.3 for Trout.

By fWAR, Trout is at the top at 8.6 to Bregman’s 8.5 and Semien’s 7.6. That’s almost business as usual. The best player of his time, Trout has led the AL in WAR six times since 2012, leading MLB outright four times and tying for the top spot twice.

But Trout won MVPs only in 2014 and 2016, primarily because the Angels made the playoffs only in 2014 during his remarkable run. He faces an uphill battle again this year because Bregman and Semien played on postseason teams.

What if we looked at it another way, weighing who did best in important situations? Win probability added weighs how much difference each plate appearance made to a team’s chance of winning.

Trout’s and Bregman’s fWARs are virtually identical, but there’s a little more separation by WPA. Trout led the AL with a 5.62 WPA, Bregman’s 4.99 was second and Semien’s 2.92 was 15th.

There’s a certain amount of randomness that goes with WPA. Production in high-leverage situations varies enough from year to year that chance seems to be involved.

But Trout added more to the Angels’ chances of winning than Bregman did to the Astros’ chances of winning. Of course, the playoff factor still works in Bregman’s favor.

In the NL, Yelich (.329/.429/.671, 44 homers, 97 RBI), Bellinger (.305/.406/.629, 47, 115) and Rendon (.319/.412/.598, 34, 126) all played for postseason teams. Ballots were taken after the regular season, so Rendon won’t get a World Series boost.

Yelich and Bellinger tied at 7.8 fWAR, and Rendon was at 7.0. Yelich had a big year in high-leverage situations, leading the NL with a 7.86 WPA to 6.01 for Bellinger and 5.62 for Rendon.

Using WAR as a basic guide and WPA as an extra factor, the MVPs by the numbers were Trout and Yelich. But both leagues are close calls, and we’ve seen the postseason factor work against Trout repeatedly.