Who will finish second to the reinvented Mike Trout in the AL MVP voting?

Whilst watching Robinson Cano in person for a couple of games this week, I started wondering about a question. Before we get to that question, though, a related question …

Who’€™s been the most valuable player in the American League? Maybe this is an easy one …

Wednesday night, Mike Trout hit his 30th home run and knocked in his 93rd and 94th runs. He’€™s tied his career high in homers, is close to his career high in RBI, and of course he’€™s still got another four-plus weeks of smashing things.

Back in May, I wondered if Trout had actually become mortal. Well, the short answer is a) yes, sort of, and b) but really, he’€™s just become different. 

In Trout’€™s first full season, he led the American League with 49 steals.

In Trout’€™s second full season, he led the American League with 110 walks.

In this, his third full season, he’€™s going to steal 15 bases and draw 85 walks.

He’€™s also going to destroy his career highs in homers and ribbies. Whether on purpose or not, he’€™s simply become a different player, slower but more powerful. And what’€™s amazing is that he’€™s remained the best player in the major leagues throughout everything. 

I’€™ll say this, though … the gap between him and the others isn’€™t what it was. Because while Trout’€™s overall production as a hitter has essentially remained the same –€“ his wOBA’€™s in these three seasons are .409, .423, and .402 –€“ he’€™s lost value as a baserunner and an outfielder. Which means he’€™ll finish this season with a WAR closer to 7 than 10.

So, actually … yeah, maybe he is mortal. And maybe this is a great object lesson in not thinking we can predict what sort of player a 21-year-old will become. Because Mike Trout is only 22, and he’€™s already changed right before our eyes.

Still, we can guess the 22-year-old Mike Trout will finally win the big award he probably deserved at 20 and 21, because the other guy hasn’€™t been nearly as good this year, plus the Angels are probably (finally) going to the playoffs with Trout.

What I got to wondering, though, was who’€™s the best player in the American League, non-Trout Division?

You know I don’€™t believe in be-all, end-all stats. Still, I think it’€™s instructive to begin with one of those, just to narrow the field some. To that end, I added the two most popular versions of Wins Above Replacement, and here are the guys whose combined totals exceed 10:

Combined WAR leaders

Player Combined WAR
Josh Donaldson 11.6
Alex Gordon 11.4
Robinson Cano 10.7
Adrian Beltre 10.4
Kyle Seager 10.2

Sorry, Indians fans: That’€™s it. Michael Brantley falls short, although his 9.4 would be next on the list. To be sure, though, he’€™ll get some consideration, especially because his WARs are dragged down by his fielding metrics, which many voters won’€™t trust. Even though they probably should, as Brantley’€™s never really measured up as a good outfielder in the stats.

Getting back to our list, I should hasten to mention how misleading the figures are, at least in this respect: Remember, we’€™re double-counting. So the real difference between Donaldson and Seager is 5.8 vs 5.1 … and of course 0.7 wins, while hardly meaningless, is hardly the stuff of dreams, either.

A few things I think we can guess about the actual MVP voters:

One, many of them won’€™t trust Gordon’€™s wildly great defensive metrics, which are what gets him into this conversation in the first place. On the other hand, if the Royals do get into the playoffs, voters will be looking to reward someone. And Gordon’€™s the obvious choice.

Two, Beltre has no chance because the Rangers have the majors’€™ worst record.

Three, Cano and Seager will both get serious consideration, if the Mariners are in the playoffs. But Cano, as the newcomer and the better-known of the pair, figures to get more consideration.

I think the ballot will look like this, based on what we know now:

1. Trout

2. Cano

3. Donaldson

4. Gordon

5. Brantley

Followed by Seager, Adam Jones, Jose Abreu, Adrian Beltre, and maybe even Jose Altuve (but not in that order).

What I was hoping to tell you is who should finish second in the balloting. But I can’€™t. Because to even attempt a good answer would require a great deal of work, with a bunch of tiebreakers involved. Things like clutch hitting — Trout and Gordon good, Donaldson bad — and past performance (to account for regression) and stirrup-wearing, which is a proven morale- and performance-booster.

Trout’€™s going to win, and he’€™ll almost certainly deserve to win. But there’€™s little drama there. What’€™s already got me jazzed is that second slot. Because that will tell us a lot about how BBWAA voters think about the game in 2014.