Thursday night MLB and the BBWAA announced Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts as . It was not a surprise, of course. Betts separated himself from the pack late in the season and led all players with 10.9 WAR. He's only the 27th position player in baseball history with a 10 WAR season.
Among the other 26 players with a 10 WAR season is Angels wunderkind Mike Trout, who was the 2018 AL MVP runner-up and is one of only eight players with at least three 10 WAR seasons. They're basically the eight best players ever: Barry Bonds, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Trout. The inner circle of the inner circle of the Hall of Fame. And Trout.
In his seven full big league seasons Trout now has won two MVPs, finished runner-up four times and finished fourth in voting once. He was fourth in the voting last year only because a thumb injury limited him to 114 games. If the Angels had given him a little more help these last few years and made the postseason a couple times, we could easily be talking about a four- or five-team MVP here, and Trout is still only 27 years old. Pretty nuts.
But, for the first time since Trout arrived for good in 2012, there appears to be a legitimate challenger to his throne as the best player in baseball. We've seen others have Trout-like seasons. There was the year Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown. Bryce Harper's historic 2015 season. Giancarlo Stanton swatting 59 homers. Josh Donaldson's and Jose Altuve's MVP seasons. Aaron Judge rewriting the rookie record books. So on and so forth.
We've seen many great players have Trout-like seasons but Trout is the only guy who's been able to do it year in, year out. The WAR leaderboard since 2010 is comical:
That's since 2010. Trout didn't make his MLB debut until 2011 or stick in the big leagues for good until 2012. He spotted the rest of the league two full seasons and still leads all players by approximately 10 WAR since 2010. There is no argument to be made here. Trout has been the best player in baseball since he arrived for good in 2012 and it's not even close. He's far ahead of the pack.
Going forward though, Betts appears to offer the kind of staying power guys like Cabrera, Donaldson and Altuve did not. Great players, all of them, but Mookie is only 26 and he offers the similar all-around excellence as Trout. Cabrera was limited defensively. Donaldson was about to turn 30 when he won his MVP. Altuve is a great all-around player but a notch below Trout and Betts in the field.
Just consider where Betts ranked in the various aspects of the game this past season:
- Batting runs: 62.2 (second behind Trout)
- Fielding runs: 16.8 (second behind Andrelton Simmons)
- Baserunning runs: 6.9 (ninth)
No other player in baseball was top 10 in batting, fielding, and baserunning. Not even Trout. Only one other player was top 10 in two of the three categories -- Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez was sixth in batting runs (38.5) and first in baserunning runs (12.0). Ramirez, not coincidentally, finished third in the 2018 AL MVP voting behind Betts and Trout.
Furthermore, Betts has already had one other MVP caliber season. He had a 9.7 WAR season in 2016 and was the runner-up to Trout in the MVP voting. That 9.7 WAR was built largely on defense, however, and while no one would argue Betts is something less than an All-World gloveman, measuring defensive impact is an inexact science. The difference between 2016 Mookie and 2018 Mookie is offense. Betts was great in 2016. He was on another level in 2018.
Defense and baserunning matter, especially so with MVP voters these days, but the quickest way to an MVP voter's heart is with monster offensive numbers. Betts, in his age 26 season, took his offense to another level in 2018. He had one of the lowest strikeout rates in baseball and hit for a ton of power. That allowed him to make the jump from great hitter to MVP-caliber hitter.
Trout, truth be told, is a better hitter than ever. He hit .312/.460/.628 (199 OPS+) with 39 home runs this past season after averaging .309/.414/.572 (175 OPS+) from 2012-17. We've seen a lot of one year Trouts offensively. The 2015 Harpers and 2017 Stantons, guys like that. Trout does it year after year after year, and he does while providing big impact on the bases and in the field. No one has been able to match Trout's consistent all-around greatness.
Betts is the first player with the skill set to match Trout's all-around impact. He has elite hand-eye coordination and more power than you'd expect given his frame. He's a standout defender in right fielder -- earlier this year Buck Showalter called Betts the best defensive right fielder he's ever seen, and that is high praise -- and he's fantastic on the bases. And he's young. That's important. There's no reason to believe his skills will begin to erode soon.
It's hard to do all those things well. Trout does it. So does Betts. One season does not mean Betts has taken the best player in baseball crown away from Trout -- Betts has had one Trout-like season whereas Trout has had seven Trout-like seasons -- but the tools are there for Mookie to remain this productive going forward. Others couldn't hang at Trout's level more than a year or two. Mookie just might be at that level for the long haul.