The harsh, angry sun tormented a desolate landscape. A sour wind howled through the scorched hills and barren valleys. Little life remained in the wasteland of Southern California.  The once pleasant spring had been shattered by unforgiving winter. The date was May 29, 2017, and Mike Trout had been placed on the disabled list.

Somehow, baseball will continue without Trout, though no one knows why. The baseball community holds its breath for his return in 6-8 weeks. Before his thumb injury, Trout was having a career year even by his own incredible standards: he is the league leader in OBP (.461), SLG (.742), BB (36), wRC+ (213), and every version of WAR by a healthy margin.

If there was a Most Valuable Player award for the first two months of the season, Trout would win unanimously. Of course, the MVP is only awarded at the end of the season, and Trout will be out of action until roughly the All-Star Break. Still, if anyone could win the MVP while missing a huge chunk of time it would be the consensus best player in baseball. What would it take for him to win his third MVP this year?

 

Short Recovery

Let’s start with the obvious. Trout needs to miss as little time as possible. Six weeks from his injury takes us to July 3. The Angels will have 76 games remaining as of that date. He has already played 47 games, which would bring his possible season total to 123.

There is precedent for position players winning the MVP with 130 games played or less in a non-strike year. In reverse chronological order they are Barry Bonds in 2003 (130 games), George Brett in 1980 (117 games), Willie Stargell in 1979 (126 games), Joe DiMaggio in 1939 (120 games), Gabby Hartnett in 1935 (116 games), and Mickey Cochrane in 1934 (129), though Hartnett and Cochrane were catchers.

 

Lead the League in Rate Statistics

Trout will most likely not have enough playing time to lead the league in counting stats, such as HR, BB, or TB. It’s tough to win the MVP award without black ink, especially while missing a lot of time, so he’ll need to lead in rate stats, such as BA, OBP, SLG, and OPS.

For a player to be eligible to lead the league in a rate statistic he must average 3.1 PA per game that his team plays. Over a 162 game season, that works out to 502 PA. A player can still qualify with fewer than the minimum PA if he still leads the league if he adds enough PA to qualify with all of the additional PA being outs. Here it is written as MLB rule 10.22(a):

“Notwithstanding the foregoing requirement of minimum appearances at the plate, any player with fewer than the required number of plate appearances whose average would be the highest, if he were charged with the required number of plate appearances shall be awarded the batting, slugging or on-base percentage championship, as the case may be.

An example of this occurred in 1996 when Tony Gwynn led the NL in BA with only 498 PA. Still, it would be best for Trout if he qualified without the technicality. Right now he has 206 PA. To accrue 502 PA for the season he needs 296 more. Over 76 games post-injury, he would need to average 3.92 PA per game. This is quite reasonable; he’s averaging 4.38 PA per game so far in 2017.

 

Lead the Angels to the Playoffs

Trout won the MVP in 2016 despite the Angels winning only 74 games. Most of the time, however, the MVP comes from a playoff team, or at least a team that challenges for a playoff spot. With Trout missing so much time to injury, he probably won’t be granted an exception for his team having a poor record. As of this writing, the Angels are 28-28, 1.5 games behind the second Wild Card spot (the Astros are running away with the division), however they have a -11 run differential and have lost the best baseball player in the world.

Furthermore, for Trout to build a narrative for MVP he would have to be the one who leads the playoff charge. This requires the Angels to play poorly while he is gone, but not so poorly that they could not recover. Then, upon Trout’s return, they would have to be pretty much the best team in baseball. Perhaps they would need quick returns from other key contributors that are currently injured, such as Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs, Cam Bedrosian, and Yunel Escobar, as well as some helpful additions at the trade deadline.

 

Weak Competition

Mookie Betts was the MVP runner-up to Trout in 2016. The two of them actually had very similar seasons in most categories. Trout posted a .315 BA, .550 SLG, 29 HR, and 30 SB. Betts had a .318 BA, .534, SLG, 31 HR, and 26 SB. The main difference between them offensively was walks, in which Trout bested Betts 116 to 49, and this of course led to Trout having a significantly higher OBP and OPS. If it wasn’t for Trout, Betts would have been a fine choice for MVP and clearly had a MVP-caliber season. In fact, he received nine first place votes.

This can’t happen if Trout is to win the 2017 MVP. The population of MVP voters has gotten collectively more analytical with regards to player value. There’s a good chance Trout will need to lead the league in WAR to justify missing about ¼ of the year. So far, he has 3.4 rWAR, 3.4 fWAR, and 3.33 WARP. He’s averaging 0.0723 WAR per game. That may not sound like a lot, but over 162 games it works out to 11.7 WAR, which would be the 10th best season ever by a position player. If he resumes this rate of production over the 76 games he could play after his return, he would amass 5.5 WAR in the second half. Add that to his 3.4 WAR pre-injury and he’ll have 8.9 WAR for the season. In 2016 the only players to have more than 8.9 rWAR were Trout (10.5) and Betts (9.5). No one else was higher than 7.7 (NL MVP Kris Bryant).

 

Do Something Memorable

Everyone likes a good story; perhaps baseball fans more than most. Names like Bobby Thomson, Joe Carter, and Kirk Gibson have special meaning because of one moment of absolute greatness, regardless of whatever happened with the rest of their careers. Many of the greatest heroes of baseball’s past have had signature moments, such as Babe Ruth’s Called Shot or Willie Mays’ Basket Catch.

The aforementioned moments of glory all bring clear images to mind. We can all picture Gibson pumping his fists as he rounds the bases. Now think of your favorite Mike Trout moment. Maybe you have a personal favorite highlight from his still young career, but he has yet to write a story that we will tell our grandchildren. That is not in any way a denigration of his performance; he has been without question the best player in baseball since he became a regular at the age of 20. But if he were to do something truly special in this year’s playoff race it might have a significant impact for MVP voters. Besides, the people who write professionally about baseball love a good story most of all.

 

In conclusion, a lot of things would have to break right for Trout to be the 2017 American League MVP. Each of them is more or less plausible, but for all of them to happen is a long shot. It would take an all-time great season on a rate basis for him to win, of which he is uniquely capable. Perhaps that will be Trout’s legacy: being so great that he could not play for a quarter of the season, and still be the most valuable player in baseball.

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