Mookie Betts is not your American League MVP. He lost to Mike Trout, and he lost rather decisively. There’s no question of David Ortiz leaching too many votes or anything like that. The BBWAA spoke, and they said in a clear voice that Mike Trout was better.
They were right.
There’s about a hundred ways to argue that Mike Trout was the more valuable player than Mookie Betts this year, and only one way to argue the reverse. That way lies in focusing on the use of the word “valuable” in the name of the award, and saying that a player cannot be valuable to a team that didn’t win anything.
I don’t really know I’d say that argument has much merit. The MVP award isn’t called the “best player” award, but that’s what it is in pretty much every other league it exists for, and if it’s not intended to be that in baseball, then the absence of such a prize is awfully conspicuous when you consider we have hardware for the best hitter at each position, best fielder at each position, best manager, and best rookie. For all the other awards, the criteria is best. For MVP, it’s some ill-defined idea of value that takes into account if the player’s team was good enough to make the playoffs, but rarely whether or not that player was actually the difference between a playoff appearance and an early trip to the golf courses? I don’t buy it.
Neither, it seems, did the BBWAA. At least not in large enough numbers to sway the results from Mike Trout, whose Angels were an absolute disaster, to Mookie Betts, who was the best player on a division champion.
And that kind of sucks. I’ll be honest: I was hoping for a bit of a travesty. I recall being quite annoyed when the clearly superior Trout lost out to Miguel Cabrera in 2012 because the statue with a big bat happened to lead the league in three arbitrarily chosen statistics while Trout was busy just saving his pitchers a bunch of runs. But Betts was my guy, and so I wanted him to win even if he didn’t really deserve it. I’m guessing I wasn’t alone in that among Red Sox fans.
When Mike Trout didn’t win, many shrugged off the loss and said he would win another in due time. But that’s Mike Trout. It’s hard to be quite so certain with Mookie Betts simply because, well, Mike Trout does exist. There’s a very real argument to be made that he has deserved the MVP every single full season he’s played thus far. And while he’s older than Betts, it’s only by one year. It would hardly be surprising to see Betts run into the brick wall that is Trout in this race time and again.
And that, too, is fine. Sure, I’d really like to see him take one home one of these days, assuming he keeps playing like he played in 2016. But seeing these two 25-and-under stars going to war over the MVP seems like an amazing story to follow. They’re both of them so early in their careers that it wouldn’t be surprising to see them take the fight to new heights as they enter their primes. I don’t dream of Mookie Betts winning the MVP against a weak field nearly so much as I dream of him and Trout having a rivalry for the ages over it.
And in that, I get ahead of myself. Mookie Betts, after all, has had one truly exceptional season where Mike Trout has had five. There’s no doubt that Betts is a star at this point—if you’re not completely on-board the hype train, I’m afraid it’s long since left the station—but his 2016 season is the stuff of first-ballot Hall of Fame players. And there’s plenty of very good players who put up one year like that and don’t really reach those peaks again. Betts will have to show he’s not the newest member of that club.
Mookie, of course, has been there before. 2016 was really the first year where he didn’t have to prove himself in any way. In 2013 he was an afterthought who needed to prove he belonged in professional baseball. In 2014 he started the year as a potential flash-in-the-pan and then faced the biggest challenge of all in showing he could transition to the majors. In 2015 he had to show he could react to the league’s adjustments to him and overcome the sophomore hurdle that has taken out so many promising rookies before him. 2016 was the first time nobody was really doubting him or expecting more out of him, but then he went ahead and smashed any and all expectations anyways.
Long story short, I’m never betting against Betts rising to a challenge laid before him. I don’t know if he’ll ever actually win the MVP or not. But I expect him to be a perennial contender, and hope against hope that the race between him and Trout will be the fascinating and exciting spectacle it has every chance of being. We Red Sox fans are lucky to have one of the premier members of baseball’s new generation of stars in town, whether or not he was able to take home the trophy in 2016.