Ask someone who their pick is right now for the American League MVP Award and you're generally going to get one of two answers: Baltimore Orioles slugger Chris Davis, who is leading the league in home runs, or Detroit Tigers superstar Miguel Cabrera, last season's Triple Crown winner and the guy currently leading the two non-HR Triple Crown categories this year. Some people might even tell you Chris Davis' teammate Manny Machado deserves consideration. He went into the All Star Break with 39 doubles already in the books and dazzled fans at the All-Star Game with the same sterling defense he's shown all year.
One name you probably won't hear: Mike Trout.
Trout was last season's American League Rookie of the Year, having the best season by a 20-year-old in the history of baseball with the exception of Alex Rodriguez's 1996 -- and even then, when you adjust for defense and base-running, Trout was arguably a little bit better than A-Rod. As 2012 came to a close, Trout was a strong candidate for Most Valuable Player; you might remember all of those silly Old School vs. New School arguments that pitted "statsheads" with their WAR leader Trout against "traditionalists" and their Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera. In the end, the often-embarrassing debate was a lot more divisive than the actual voting results: 22 first place votes for Cabrera, a mere 6 for Trout. The Angels outfielder was never really in the race.
Nor is he this year, for a variety of reasons, but mostly because of the two aforementioned players. Miguel Cabrera, the game's best hitter, hasn't gone anywhere and is having an even more ridiculous season so far than he did the last time around. He's at .358/.454/.666 going into Tuesday's action, leading the league in batting average and second in both home runs and runs batted in. Whereas last year he and Trout had very close raw hitting totals, this season Cabrera's batting average is thirty points higher and his on base and slugging percentages are sixty points higher than where they ended last season. Then there's Davis, the home run and RBI leader going into Tuesday, who leads the league in slugging percentage with a monstrous .704 and who is pacing Roger Maris on his quest for 61 home runs. Maris is important: both Davis and a number of sportswriters were industriously hard at work around the All-Star Break hyping Maris up as the "true" home run champion because he was never associated with PED use like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire were. If Davis does manage to surpass 61 home runs in the current climate -- especially given the Braun suspension and the rest of the upcoming Biogenesis circus -- it would be a huge boost for his MVP campaign. That is, unless Cabrera breaks Maris's record too on his way to a second consecutive Triple Crown.
But let's examine Trout closely, to see how much he measures up. His numbers at the plate are amazing for anyone, let alone a 21-year-old in his second season in the majors -- but they're also exactly the same as they were last year. There's no narrative to consistency in your sophomore year for a lot of sportswriters; either you do worse so we can talk about "sophomore slumps," or you do better and we can talk about taking a step forward. Instead, Mike Trout is following up a season where he hit .326/.399/.564 with a season where he's hitting .323/.402/.565. That's an OPS difference of four points, and yet not only is he out of the MVP discussion, there's credible talk about whether Baltimore third baseman Manny Machado (.306/.333/.458) is a better young player than him. Why? How?
The answer most comes from the perception of Trout's defense, especially compared to Machado's. Last year, Trout's MVP case was made by the stat-inclined crowd on the strength of his defensive and base-running ability. This year, the base-running is mostly still there -- though he already has been caught stealing four times versus getting caught five times all of last season -- but the publicly available defensive metrics aren't as impressive. The defensive component of Baseball Reference's WAR stat, for instance, rates him as -1.2 defensive wins above replacement this year. When compared to his 2.1 defensive wins above replacement last year over a full season, the model suggests between this year and last year Mike Trout went from adding two wins in the field over the course of the season to taking two away. That's a pretty huge swing, and it's not something borne out by going over to Fangraphs and looking at his UZR for this year (2.1) against last year (13.3) or even to Baseball Prospectus and comparing his FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average) of 1.2 this season to 2012's 8.6.
There's a whole lot of arcane reasons for defensive metrics to vary, many of which come down to how each individual metric is scored -- what counts as a play in the zone, what counts as a play out of the zone, etc. -- but while Trout isn't the dazzling defender he was last year, he is still a competent fielder who doesn't hurt his team with his defense. Baseball Reference's outlier doesn't pass the smell test (according to the metrics Baseball Reference draws its defensive value from, Miguel Cabrera is having a better season in the field than Trout is -- only -0.8 dWAR).
But a bigger reason than there being no WAR or Triple Crown based case for Trout's name getting back into the MVP discussion is the one that cost him even a puncher's chance at the award last year: the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are not going to make the playoffs. That's not Trout's fault; the team has no pitching, its other superstars are hurt and not hitting, and they play in a division with two far superior teams. These things happen. But despite the league's highest individual honor being awarded for accomplishments during the regular season only, it has always been weighted heavily towards good players on teams that make the postseason, and that's not changing anytime soon. Until the Angels manage to build a successful team around Mike Trout, he can OPS .960 as many years in a row as he pleases -- he'll never be MVP.