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On The Astros: Inside The 2017 AL MVP Race

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It’s a two horse race. Or is it?

New York Yankees v Houston Astros
Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge are widely considered the two front runners for the American League MVP
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Being a decent but not great writer about the Astros while also being a decent but not elite baseball mind is a privilege, but can occasionally result in a conundrum. For instance, the American League MVP race this year. The staff at the Crawfish Boxes write about the Astros, and most here (this writer included) are Astros fans. The expectation among many fans is for the writers of this site (and other Astros-centric sites) to pump up the narrative for Jose Altuve’s candidacy, it seems, and while his winning the award would be a thrill for any Astros fan, it seems more valuable (and more in line with the high expectations of the readership here on the best Astros site on the web) to write an honest, in-depth piece that really dives in to the merits of each candidate. Perhaps that leads to an endorsement for Altuve, perhaps it doesn’t.

So, who are the candidates? That’s probably a good starting point.

The two main candidates, essentially no matter who you ask, are Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge. For good measure and for the sake of argument, let’s add Mike Trout to the list. You might ask why Trout, who only played 113 games on the season, but the truth is it’s because he was still the best player in baseball this season. More on that later. Omitted from our discussion here is Jose Ramirez, because he just isn’t as good this year as the other three players, and the two starting pitchers who have both had their names bandied about in these conversations periodically throughout the year: Corey Kluber and Chris Sale. As perfunctorily as possible, not only is this writer personally opposed to pitchers winning the MVP award (just a personal preference, this writer is also aware that it happens) but it also seems clear that a pitcher winning the MVP award just simply has to be head and shoulders better than their peers, and the fact that one could argue for either Sale or Kluber negates the seriousness of either’s case for the MVP award. The AL Cy Young award is definitely going to be an exciting debate, though.

So, Mike Trout joins Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge in the field of candidates, at least for the purposes of this article.

The “Dumb” Stats

No way around it - a lot of writers still weigh player performance the way a lot of fans do - with more traditional metrics. In an attempt to give a little better idea of how the race shakes out statistically by traditional mores, here’s a brief look. Stats are all courtesy of FanGraphs:

2017 AL MVP Candidates - “Dumb” Stats

Name Team G PA HR R RBI SB AVG OBP SLG OPS
Name Team G PA HR R RBI SB AVG OBP SLG OPS
Aaron Judge Yankees 155 678 52 128 114 9 .284 .422 .627 1.049
Jose Altuve Astros 152 660 24 112 81 32 .347 .411 .549 .960
Mike Trout Angels 113 505 33 92 72 22 .305 .442 .630 1.072
Stats Courtesy of FanGraphs

The “Smart” Stats

A large and growing contingent of writers are trending more towards SABR tenets and ideas these days, and WAR (of which there are many variations, and the two most common iterations - FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) and Baseball-Reference WAR (bWAR) - will be featured here) is definitely a large component of the average writer’s SABR knowledge base. So, in addition to providing both fWAR and bWAR below, this writer has taken the liberty of pro-rating each candidate’s WAR on a per-game basis and then multiplying the resulting small number by 100 just to make each number a little easier on the eyes, in an effort to illustrate a point about how valuable each player is per game. Of course, the award is for the season, it’s not awarded on a per-game basis. More on this below in the narrative sections. There are quite a few newer Statcast metrics as well, but it’s pretty well established that Aaron Judge leads in most things related to contact quality and exit velocity, so for the purposes of this article the lone Statcast stat featured below (from Baseball Savant) will be “Barrels per Plate Appearance”, or “Brls/PA”.

2017 AL MVP Candidates - “Smart” Stats

Name Team G PA BB% K% wOBA wRC+ BsR Off Def fWAR bWAR fWAR/game*100 bWAR/game*100 Brls/PA
Name Team G PA BB% K% wOBA wRC+ BsR Off Def fWAR bWAR fWAR/game*100 bWAR/game*100 Brls/PA
Aaron Judge Yankees 155 678 18.7% 30.7% .430 172 0 60.5 -1.1 8.2 8.0 5.29 5.16 12.8
Jose Altuve Astros 152 660 8.8% 12.7% .406 160 3.9 52.9 -0.1 7.5 8.4 4.93 5.53 5.2
Mike Trout Angels 113 505 18.6% 17.8% .437 181 3.8 54.4 -4.6 6.7 6.7 5.93 5.93 8.3
Stats Courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Savant

The Narratives

Of course, there is more to an MVP race than just the statistics. In fact, many times the narrative is what wins the award for a player. How does each player stack up in this department? Here’s a brief look at some of the storylines in play.

Aaron Judge

Yes, he was absolutely billed as the face of the game in the first half of the season, and yes, he gets a boost because he’s playing for the New York Yankees. But any idea that the media is “stealing” anything from anyone else probably is an idea that should be put to bed - Aaron Judge definitely fell back to earth pretty hard in August with a 90 wRC+ for the month, but his performance over the course of the season has indisputably been top-shelf even with all the strikeouts - which aren’t a huge deterrent in this day and age. He is the runaway Rookie of the Year, and with the counting stats (52 home runs, a new all time rookie record, along with 114 runs batted in, 128 runs scored, and his 127 walks is also an all time rookie record - breaking Bill Joyce’s record from 1890) lining up with incredible rate stats (that beat everyone but Mike Trout) and the Big Apple star power, it definitely seems like the award is Judge’s to lose at this point.

Jose Altuve

A lot of the argument for Jose Altuve comes down to how much weight one puts into statistics, and how much weight one puts into intangible and emotional arguments. No one on this site - least of all this writer - is going to tell anyone they’re wrong for picking Altuve to win the award - it would be great if he won, and besides, everyone is entitled to their opinion. He’s had an incredible year statistically, and on one of the best teams in baseball (and one of the better offensive teams in recent MLB history) that has had what seems like every other player miss significant time throughout the course of the season, Altuve has been a rock day in and day out. After leading the league in hits outright for the fourth straight season - which has never been done before - his leadership and consistency day in and day out, on a per game basis, has been invaluable to the Astros through the course of their rebuilding - and just as invaluable to the City of Houston as we rebuild following Hurricane Harvey. His stature is an inescapable element of most conversations about his performance, and that with his backstory all combine with his performance this year to add up to a very, very strong #HeartAndHustle argument.

Mike Trout

And still, the main takeaway for a lot of folks when they read this piece will inevitably be to focus on the inclusion of Mike Trout in the first place. “He missed forty games”, they say. “If he wins the MVP every year it gets boring”. These are valid points, and it could very well be that voters end up agreeing.

But perhaps they shouldn’t.

After all, there is precedence for this sort of thing. It is true that it’s rare for a player to have an MVP-caliber season and to miss significant time, but is has happened before: in 1980, George Brett won the American League MVP award after playing in only 117 games thanks to various heel, ankle, and wrist injuries. To be sure, George Brett dwarfed the competition with a 9-WAR season and a wRC+ that was 62% better than the second best hitter in the league that season, Rickey Henderson. But Mike Trout was also better than any other hitter in the American League (if not as much better) this year, and with his value being significantly better on a per-game basis than any other challenger based on the WAR per game stat, it seems that a significant argument could be made that Mike Trout - whose otherwise-mediocre team missed the playoffs this year, but stayed in contention most of the season - should be the American League Most Valuable Player this year.

But that’s enough from this writer. Take your turn to weigh in with the poll!

Poll

Who, in your opinion, SHOULD win the American League MVP this year?

This poll is closed

  • 21%
    Aaron Judge
    (231 votes)
  • 75%
    Jose Altuve
    (798 votes)
  • 2%
    Mike Trout
    (25 votes)
  • 0%
    Other (Answer In The Comments)
    (2 votes)
1056 votes total Vote Now