Mike Trout's Unfortunate Season-Ending Injury Shouldn't Impact MVP Race
MVP candidates are dropping like flies. Just a week after the Brewers lost NL frontrunner Christian Yelich for the season due to a fractured kneecap, the Angels announced that Mike Trout, resident god figure of the AL, will be sidelined for what’s left of 2019 with a foot injury. Trout, who hasn’t played since Sept. 7, will undergo surgery to remove a Morton’s neuroma, a very medical textbook-sounding issue that was causing him enough pain to result in a season-ending procedure. The game’s best player should be fine for next year, but this campaign will sadly come to an early close.
Unlike Yelich, Trout’s injury will have no impact on his team: While Milwaukee is still scrapping for one of the NL’s wild-card spots, Los Angeles long ago vanished from the AL race and, at 67–82, is assured of a fourth straight losing season. His absence will still be felt, but given that the Angels had already shut down Shohei Ohtani (knee) and Justin Upton (knee) earlier this week, the only immediate result is to make a weak lineup that much worse.
Instead, the context that matters for Trout’s injury is individual, both in terms of the excellent season he was having and in an AL MVP race that may tighten with him gone. Last month, I ranked Trout’s eight full seasons, both because that kind of celebration of dominance is fun and because I wanted to see where his superlative 2019 might fit. I placed it second, behind last year, because I wanted to see how it played out fully. “If his current pace continues, then 2019 has a strong case to become No. 1 with a bullet,” I wrote. (I also noted that Trout could roll out of bed and break his foot to cut his year short, so, uh, sorry Mike.)
With his season now officially over, Trout’s 2019 still looks plenty gaudy. He set a career high in homers with 45 and slugging percentage at .645—both of which are first in the AL—and leads the majors in walks (110), on-base percentage (.438) and OPS+ (184). His 8.3 bWAR is tops in the AL (and tied with Cody Bellinger for best in baseball), and by fWAR, he’s No. 1 in the majors at 8.6, comfortably ahead of Yelich, Alex Bregman and Bellinger. This year marks the sixth of Trout’s career with 8.0 or more bWAR; only nine other players in history have done that more times, and they’re all the elite of the elite of the elite (as is his company at six).
The shame is that, as with 2018 and ‘17, Trout won’t get a chance to add to those impressive stats. With just 134 games, this marks the third straight year he’ll fail to crack the 140 mark—a potentially worrisome sign, though his abbreviated ‘17 campaign (114 games) is largely due to a torn thumb ligament suffered sliding into a base, which is as fluky an injury as you can find. This current malady shouldn’t be an issue going forward, but Trout’s durability is something to watch, particularly as he gets closer to 30.
Still, the record Trout leaves behind for this season is as good as it gets, even if some of his accomplishments will fall as others pass him. His week-long absence had already cost him the majors’ overall home run crown, currently a battle between Pete Alonso and Eugenio Suarez, and he’ll almost certainly lose the AL title to Jorge Soler, who’s hit 44. Bregman will overtake him in walks, and Rangers starting pitcher Mike Minor has an outside chance of beating him in bWAR in the AL (he’s at 7.7, albeit with only two or three starts left.)
But Trout should hold on to his advantage in OBP, slugging percentage, OPS+ and wRC+ (179, with Yelich at 173 and Bregman at 164), which should help give him an edge when it comes time to cast MVP votes in November. Bregman is his best competition, and Trout has him beat in those four categories above, as well as home runs, stolen bases, Win Probability Added, Baserunning Runs, and all three flavors of WAR (bWAR, fWAR, and Baseball Prospectus’ WARP). That alphabet soup may not mean much for a segment of the voting base, but making the case for Bregman as the MVP, given Trout’s numerous statistical advantages, rests entirely on the fact that the Astros are a better team than the Angels. There’s no doubting that, but that’s also not Trout’s fault, unless he was the one who told Billy Eppler to give $28.5 million in the offseason to Matt Harvey, Trevor Cahill and Cody Allen. Trout’s career has been one long sad example of how hard it is for a superstar to lift a franchise by himself, and 2019 is no exception.
So while Trout’s departure will likely hurt his MVP chances with some voters, it’s unlikely to be a deciding factor (and said voters probably weren’t going to choose him anyway). He still played nearly 85% of a full season, and 85% of Trout is far better than 100% of everyone. It’s a bummer of a way for his year to come to an end, but hopefully it doesn’t take away from what should be the third MVP award of his career—a sweeter note to finish 2019 on than this unfortunate injury.