ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Mike Trout's claim to the designation of "best player in baseball'' is no longer fodder for debate. Remember the hot take from last season, that Bryce Harper had caught up to Trout and that they were on equal footing as the Mantle and Mays of their generation? That argument has died a slow death since Harper's torrid April. On the grand measuring stick of MLB's elite, there's Trout and there's everybody else.
The impact extends beyond the field. Trout's fellow Los Angeles Angels love him because he's so humble and reliable. Fans love him because when they line up for autographs and selfies, he's on the other side of the railing, ready to oblige. Trout is cheerful and vanilla, and with the exception of a recent car accident, he never makes news. He has been dominating the game since 2012, and what do we really know about him? He roots for the Philadelphia sports teams, and he's a weather geek. That's pretty much it.
Trout's sustained but boring brand of excellence has earned him a $144.5 million contract and an endorsement deal with Subway, but it's not a recipe for acclaim when the awards are dispensed in November.
Baseball attributes notwithstanding, Trout stinks at crafting a Most Valuable Player narrative. Without a storyline that captivates voters, he'll have difficulty winning the MVP award this season or any other year.
Yes, Trout won the award in 2014, the only year the Angels have made the postseason since he entered the league, but the media-driven MVP storyline already has bitten him twice in his young career. In 2012, Trout finished second to Detroit's Miguel Cabrera, who won a Triple Crown and selflessly switched positions to accommodate the newly acquired Prince Fielder. It happened again last season, when Josh Donaldson rolled into Toronto, changed the Blue Jays' clubhouse culture and led the franchise to its first playoff appearance since 1993.
So who'll stand in Trout's way this season? Maybe it's Jose Altuve, the undersized, big-hearted engine who makes the Houston Astros go. Or it could be Mookie Betts, a dynamic breakout star who's poised to carry the leadership mantle for Boston in a post Big Papi-world. They play for contenders, whereas Trout plays for the Angels, who are doggedly trying to fend off Oakland for fourth place in the American League West.
Here's the scary part: The Angels have one of baseball's weakest farm systems, and their second-best player, Albert Pujols, turns 37 in January. They also play in a stacked division against the Texas Rangers and Astros and an improved Seattle Mariners team. Talk to baseball executives, and the consensus is that the Angels' outlook over the next several years falls somewhere between challenging and grim.
So we might be back in 2017 and 2018 discussing which player in the midst of a great year is about to relegate Mike Trout to second or third place in the MVP race.
On the field, Trout is the Mickey Mantle of his day. But is he destined to be the Phil Mickelson of MVP voting?
Winners get the edge
Trout isn't one to complain about the situation -- he never complains about anything -- but he said he has given it some thought.
Should a player on a losing club receive the same consideration for MVP as a candidate from a winning team?
"A lot of people talk about that," Trout said. "They say, 'Are you playing meaningful games or not playing meaningful games?' For me, I go out there, and every game is meaningful. It doesn't matter who we're playing."
History confirms that MVP voters like winners. Of the 171 recipients since the Baseball Writers' Association of America began handing out the award in 1931, only seven have played for teams with .500 records or worse:
1952 NL -- Hank Sauer, Cubs, 77-77, fifth place out of eight teams
1958 NL -- Ernie Banks, Cubs, 74-80, fifth place out of eight teams
1959 NL -- Ernie Banks, Cubs, 72-82, sixth place out of eight teams
1987 NL -- Andre Dawson, Cubs, 76-85, last among six teams
1989 AL -- Robin Yount, Milwaukee Brewers, 81-81, fourth place out of seven teams
1991 AL -- Cal Ripken Jr., Baltimore Orioles, 67-95, sixth place out of seven teams
2003 AL -- Alex Rodriguez, Texas Rangers, 71-91, last among four teams
The tilt toward contending clubs is so firmly ingrained in the baseball consciousness, even Trout's manager can't deny it. Mike Scioscia was catching for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988 when Kirk Gibson arrived from Detroit via free agency and put his stamp on the team psyche during spring training. After reliever Jesse Orosco pranked Gibson by smearing shoe polish on the inside of his cap, Gibson bolted camp in anger. When he returned, he made it clear to his new teammates that he would not abide any juvenile pranks moving forward.
"Let's just say I won't be doing it again,'' Orosco told reporters. "That's because I don't want to read my name in the obituaries."
MVP voters were smitten by the story, and Gibson emerged from a crowded field that included Darryl Strawberry, Will Clark, Andy Van Slyke and teammate Orel Hershiser. He is the only MVP winner who never made an All-Star Game in his career.
"Nobody impacted a team more than he did us," Scioscia said. "Guys had better numbers, but we won a division and then beat the Mets in the playoffs and beat Oakland [in the World Series].
"If somebody separates himself with numbers -- if a guy hits 60 homers, and the next guy hits 30 -- that might carry him through a mediocre season. But all things considered, I think there has to be a certain amount of weight given to a team's performance. How much is up for debate. I definitely don't go by the old adage that a team has to win to have an MVP candidate. But I don't go purely on stats and say, 'This guy hit 35 home runs and the next guy hit 32, so all his numbers are better and he should be MVP.'"
Trout's supporters contend it's not his fault that pitchers Garrett Richards, Andrew Heaney, C.J. Wilson and Nick Tropeano suffered arm problems, or that the Angels' second basemen rank 28th in the majors in OPS.
"If we're in first place, this guy is literally on the top of everybody's MVP charts," Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs said. "Very rarely do you see a guy win the MVP who's on a last-place team that's 20 games out in the division. But at the same time, would they be 50 games out in the division if he's not on the team? There's something to be said about that."
A spirited debate
Several all-time greats have fallen victim to the "narrative" or other novel circumstances in MVP voting. In 1942, Ted Williams finished second to New York Yankees second baseman Joe Gordon amid suspicions that a hostile Boston writer left the Splendid Splinter off his ballot. In 1962, Willie Mays hit .304 with 49 homers and a .999 OPS, only to lose out to Maury Wills, who stole a record 104 bases for the Dodgers. And in 1991, Barry Bonds finished second to Atlanta's Terry Pendleton, who led the Braves from last place to first in the NL West.
Pittsburgh outfielder Andrew McCutchen won the MVP award in 2013 when he led the Pirates to their first winning season and playoff appearance in 21 years. McCutchen posted better numbers in 2012 and 2014, but finished third both seasons. As a player, he could only guess at the criteria writers use to make their calls.
"It depends on your definition,'' McCutchen said. "Some people think the value you bring has to do with team success. Some people might think it's what you do individually. That's the reason I won it -- because of the team.''
As Trout keeps plugging away in Anaheim, he's raising the debate to a new level because of a unique confluence of circumstances. Statistical analysis has advanced to the point where his advocates can make a stronger case on his behalf, even as the MVP landscape gets more crowded because of the expanded postseason field.
Trout is the poster boy for wins above replacement (WAR), which has grown in popularity over the past decade. Since 2012, he leads MLB players in Baseball-Reference.com WAR at 46.7, with Robinson Cano a distant second at 32.3. He also grades out well on baserunning and defensive metrics.
At the same time, as Trout plays out his season in a publicity vacuum on the West Coast, Altuve, Betts, Donaldson and Manny Machado take part in high-profile games that are perceived to be more meaningful because playoff berths are at stake.
"There are now 10 teams in the postseason," Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau said. "There are a lot of different stories and narratives just within those teams who had successful seasons. In the old days, when only one team finished in first place and made it to the World Series, it might have been easier to look for someone on another team. When 10 teams make it, that's a lot of competition for a guy whose team doesn't make it."
Regardless of the backdrop, it's a challenge to win an MVP award. Eddie Mathews, Mel Ott, Eddie Murray, Al Kaline, Dave Winfield and Tony Gwynn all sailed into Cooperstown without one.
So as Mike Trout continues to exude greatness each time he takes the field, it's likely these missed opportunities will have zero impact on his legacy. He receives validation every night in the form of praise from fans and his peers. But come November, MVP time, he's getting used to the role of spectator.