When it comes to MVP voting, Mike Trout is the human embodiment of the shruggie. All he has done is turn in the greatest four-year run to start a career in baseball history and been the best player in the American League in each of those seasons, and he has but one measly Most Valuable Player award to show for it.
To which Ted Williams would say: Well, at least you got one, kid.
Yes, the only other player in Trout’s four-season stratosphere is Williams, and the parallels extend to the ability of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to spit the bit when it comes to selecting the proper MVP. Miguel Cabrera laughably beat him in 2012 and put up a more reasonable showing but still wasn't as good in ’13. Josh Donaldson on Thursday night bested Trout in a coin-flip vote with which it was tough to quarrel. Williams, on the other hand, went 0 for 4 in MVP balloting, something he’d done in a game just 55 times in those four seasons. Williams was so thoroughly jobbed in his third and fourth years that nearly 75 years later it keeps Trout from having built up the biggest slaughterhouse of MVP beef.
Not that his is empty. The voters once again looked past Trout's superiority – this season a 52-point OPS lead on Donaldson in addition to the well-above-average glove at the more challenging position – and found reasons not to reward him. One voter actually had the temerity to put Nelson Cruz – a designated hitter on a worse team with worse numbers in every offensive category except home runs and RBIs, in which he beat Trout by three apiece – in second place and drop Trout to third.
At this point, Trout has to ask: "Are you not entertained?" In less than half a decade, have the baseball writers grown so tired of Trout's consistent excellence that they're now looking for something bigger or better or just plain different?
Certainly Donaldson brought forth a great case – a better one, frankly, than Cabrera's Triple Crown season in 2012 (which Trout still deserved in a landslide) and his even better performance in 2013 (which Trout outdid with a superior all-around game). Donaldson is the exact kind of player a vote for Trout in '12 and '13 advocated: not just a masher but someone with a slick glove and excellent baserunning skills. Donaldson's tremendous numbers with runners in scoring position bolstered his case even more. In the future, we won't look upon his win with the side-eye it reserved for both of Cabrera's.
And even those pale next to the AL MVP votes in 1941 and 1942. As great as Joe DiMaggio was in '41 – it was, in most other years, an MVP-caliber performance – the fact that he got nearly twice as many votes as Williams remains one of the great MVP injustices. That was the year Williams batted .406. His .553 on-base percentage was more than 100 points higher than DiMaggio's. His .735 slugging percentage led by just short of triple digits.
Awful though '41 was, the next season saw baseball writers at their worst. Joe Gordon – a really good player who turned in a career year – beat Williams, who was Secretariat to Gordon's Sham. Williams' line: .356/.499/.648. Gordon's: .322/.409/.491. That's almost a 250-point OPS advantage for Williams.
He finally nabbed an MVP in his first season back from the war, 1946, should've gotten another in 1947 (DiMaggio beat him in a shameful balloting), and won his second and final in 1949. The greatest hitter who ever lived was good enough for only two MVP awards.
Which provides some levity when looking at Trout's situation. Trying to make Trout's case in the three years he didn't win amounted to treason in Detroit and Toronto, where parochialism unleashed its standard madness, as well as among the set that still refuses to acknowledge the importance of position or fielding or baserunning and the folly of batting average and RBIs.
Three-quarters of a century later, and the voters are still doing the same thing they did back then, incentivizing the value of a player's teammates – Cabrera and Donaldson made the playoffs in the year they won, Trout's Angels didn't – when his individual contributions aren't altogether distinguishable. Had the Angels made the playoffs and the Blue Jays faltered, almost certainly the 23 first-place votes Donaldson received would've gone to Trout and Trout's seven to Donaldson. That's how this still works: 2015, just like 1942.
All Trout can do, then, is take solace in his four seasons standing alongside Williams'. Baseball-Reference.com's Wins Above Replacement metric has Trout at 37.9 and Williams at 34.2. By FanGraphs' measure, it's Trout 37.8, Williams 36.4. Those numbers are far from definitive, especially seeing as the defensive components from back then are pure guesses, but they give a sense of how great Trout really has been, like the hype actually undersells him.
Laugh at that at your own peril. Just know history will see the votes against Trout much like we do today those against Williams. In a different way, each was almost too good for his own time, his skills transcendent enough that not even those who get paid to watch the game every day fully appreciated them.
Thursday night gave us something to which we've grown far too accustomed: Mike Trout, runner-up. Oh, well. At least he's got good company.