Much like the AL Cy Young battle that was really between just two pitchers, the AL MVP Award is a close call between two hitters. Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson each had terrific seasons and were much better than the third finalist, Lorenzo Cain, as well as another player who had similar value to Cain, Manny Machado.
The graphs below show the important statistics for the three finalists, along with other notable AL players in 2015. The three finalists are highlighted in blue.
Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson were easily the top two players in the American League this year. Trout led the American League in WAR regardless of which version of WAR you prefer. He had 9.4 bWAR and 9.0 fWAR. Josh Donaldson was second to Trout in both measures. Both players had tremendous numbers on offense and were above average on defense. Trout had better rate stats, with a better batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. Donaldson had better counting numbers, with more runs scored and RBI.
The counting stats are interesting to look at, though. Donaldson scored 122 runs for a team that scored a league-best 891 runs this season. That works out to 13.7% of the team’s runs scored being scored by Donaldson. Trout scored 104 of the Angels 661 runs, or 15.7%. Donaldson drove in 123 of the Blue Jays 891 runs, or 13.8%. Trout drove in 90 of the Angels’ 661 runs, or 13.6%. If you look at their run production within the context of the teams they played for, Donaldson’s advantage in runs and RBI disappears.
Another advantage for Trout is that he out-hit Donaldson even though his home park was a more difficult park for hitters than Donaldson’s home park. Angels Stadium was one of the most difficult parks in baseball, according to EPSN’s park effects numbers. In addition, Donaldson had an impressive group of hitters around him, like Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista, while Trout had the aging Albert Pujols and other lesser players in his lineup.
Josh Donaldson may have had the edge on defense but third base is an easier position to play than center field. Trout stole more bases, 11, but was also caught 7 times, which cut into his base running value. Donaldson was successful on all six of his steal attempts.
I believe Mike Trout had a better overall season. The voters may go with Donaldson, though, because of the narrative of the season. Trout’s Angels were expected to win the AL West by many experts, but they didn’t even make the playoffs. Donaldson’s Blue Jays were considered to be a potential wild card team but surprisingly won the AL East. In the past, MVP voters have shown a tendency to pick a player on a playoff team over a player on a non-playoff team. This gives Donaldson a considerable advantage. Another factor voters in the past have used is run production, where Donaldson has the edge again, in part because his team scored more runs than Trout’s team.
Who I think will win: I expect the voters to stick with their traditional method of giving the edge to a player on a playoff team over a player who’s team didn’t make the playoffs when the race is as close as this. That means Josh Donaldson will win the AL MVP Award for 2015.
Who I would vote for: I would go with the player who has a slight edge in both versions of WAR, Mike Trout. If Donaldson gets the award over Trout, this would not be the first time Trout lost to a player who was less valuable based on WAR.
In 2012, at the age of 20, Trout hit .326/.399/.564 with 129 runs scored, 30 home runs and 49 stolen bases. He was worth 10.6 WAR according to an average of bWAR and fWAR. He lost the MVP race to Miguel Cabrera, who was worth 6.8 WAR.
In 2013, Trout hit an amazing .323/.432/.557 with 27 homers and 33 steals. He was worth 9.9 WAR. He lost again to Miguel Cabrera, who had 7.4 WAR.
Trout had his worst full season in the major leagues in 2014 when he hit .287/.377/.561 with 36 homers and 111 RBI and was worth 8.0 WAR. He was again the best player in the league and finally won an MVP award. Now, once again, Trout is the best player in the American League and there’s a good chance he’ll finish second in the AL MVP race for the third time. Trout could (perhaps should) be winning his fourth AL MVP Award, but I expect Donaldson will get it.