Opinion

Mike Trout Versus Mookie Betts: Looking Beyond the WAR

Mike Trout Versus Mookie Betts: With the first quarter of the season finished, these two players have established themselves as the frontrunners for the MVP award. Which player is having the better year?
Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com (May 17, 2018 – Source: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images North America)

With just over a quarter of the major league regular season finished, two clear front-runners have emerged for the American League Most Valuable Player award. One of them is Boston Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts, whose incredible 2018 is proving that 2017’s relatively bad year was nothing more than a fluke. The other is Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout, who has been the best player in baseball ever since entering the league. Currently, Trout has the higher WAR, while Betts has the better overall stat line. So, who should be victorious in this battle of Mike Trout versus Mookie Betts?

Mike Trout Versus Mookie Betts: Who’s Better?

Before we begin, let’s start with a disclaimer. Mike Trout is an absolutely phenomenal baseball player and is quickly approaching Babe Ruth status. This article is not to diminish his accomplishments or to say he’s overhyped. He’s a sure-fire Hall of Famer and is arguably one of the top-five baseball players ever.

That being said, Betts has been on another level this year. His numbers at the plate are borderline unbelievable, as he’s posting a slash line of .371/.443/.761 to go along with an isolated power of .390 and a wRC+ of 215. He’s striking out only 10.9% of the time and leads the league in hits, home runs, average, runs, extra-base hits, and OBP. Betts is in the midst of one of the greatest seasons in baseball history.

That’s not to say Trout isn’t having a great season. Trout’s doing his usual thing, boasting a .291/.432/.614 slash line to go along with a .323 ISO and a 181 wRC+. These stats are all stupid good, and most years these stats would belong to the best hitter in baseball. However, Mookie’s numbers are better than Trout’s in almost every category measurable. As far as hitting goes, Mookie currently holds the edge on Trout.

The Better Fielder

Even during a typical year, Mookie has always been the better fielder. Trout’s a fine fielder in his own right, but his defense isn’t his calling card. Basically, he’s only a good defensive center fielder, not an elite one.

Betts, on the other hand, is an elite fielder. Since becoming the teams everyday right fielder in 2016, nobody’s been better defensively. He has an unparalleled range to go along with one of the strongest and most accurate arms in the game. As good as Betts is with the bat, he’s just as good with the glove.

A simple eye test shows this, and the advanced data confirms it. For one, Trout has never won a gold glove for his work in center field, while Betts took home the hardware in each of the past two seasons. Trout currently owns a somewhat pedestrian 3.8 UZR/150, which is probably the best metric by which to judge a fielder this early in the season. By comparison, Betts owns an absurdly good 12.4 UZR/150. What this essentially means is that Betts is on pace to save around nine more runs than Trout. Needless to say, that is good. Once again, Betts is the better player.

Why is this a Conversation?

So, if Betts is the better hitter and the better fielder, then why is Trout in the conversation? The answer to that question lies in the convoluted WAR statistic. WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, is essentially considered the be-all, end-all statistic to determine how good a baseball player is relative to their peers. While WAR is a fantastic statistic, it shouldn’t be taken as gospel.

First off, WAR can be calculated in a series of different ways and, depending on where you go, you can get completely different numbers. For example, per Fangraphs, Betts owns a 3.5 WAR in 2018, while Trout owns a 3.0 WAR. However, Trout earns a 3.67 WAR in ESPN’s rankings, while Betts is below him at 3.54.

For the sake of this exercise, let’s examine ESPN’s data. Offensively, the worldwide leader assigned a 3.09 offensive WAR to Betts, while Trout is slightly behind him with a 2.9 WAR. This aligns with what both standard and advanced statistics show. However, Trout’s defensive WAR is significantly larger than Mookies, as Trout boasts a 0.9 dWAR compared to Betts 0.34 dWAR.

Mookie Betts is a better fielder than Mike Trout, so why is Trout’s defensive WAR so much higher? The answer to that lies in positioning. Trout is a center fielder, while Betts primarily plays right field, so the defensive WAR sees Trout as more valuable. While center field is generally a more difficult position, this assumption does a great disservice to Betts. It’s generally seen as blasphemy to question the wisdom of WAR, but in this case, WAR is wrong.

Questioning WAR

ESPN doesn’t release its formula for calculating WAR, but let’s assume it’s something like the Fangraphs version. In the Fangraphs version, being a center fielder adds to your overall WAR, while being a right fielder slightly decreases it. In most cases, this makes sense, as right field is typically the easier position.

However, Fenway Park is a different beast. With a deep right center field and incredibly odd dimensions all around the park, Fenway may host the most difficult right field in baseball. Taking defensive WAR away from Mookie for playing right field is a drastic oversight in the calculation process.

Mookie has shown the ability to play great defense in center field, as evidenced by the 2015 season and a few spot starts since then. It’s not fair for the WAR system to generalize Mookie by his position when he’s one of the best fielders in the league, regardless of position. The assumption that Trout is a more valuable fielder than Mookie simply because he plays the harder position spits in the face of Mookie’s UZR/150 being almost nine runs better than Trout’s.

None of this is to say the WAR stat is a bad one. To the contrary, it’s one of the best single stats for evaluating just how good a player is. However, the statistic is not perfect. Mookie Betts is having a better season than Mike Trout by just about every measure, and right now, Betts is the best player in baseball.

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