Mike Trout has a Wins Above Replacement total -- what we refer to as WAR -- of 10.6. That means he's been about 10.6 wins better than a replacement-level player for his position. That total (all numbers here come from Baseball-Reference.com) is phenomenal. Since the divisional era began in 1969, there have been just eight seasons where a positions player compiled a 10-WAR season: Barry Bonds three times and one apiece by Joe Morgan, Robin Yount, Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez and Sammy Sosa.
In six of those eight seasons the player won the MVP Award. The seventh came from Sosa, who posted a 10.1 WAR season in 2001, the same year Bonds was at 11.6 and won the MVP. The eighth was Rodriguez; we'll get back to him momentarily.
There have been 26 seasons (again, since 1969) where a position player had a 9+ WAR season. Eleven of them won the MVP Award and four others had their seasons when another player had a higher WAR. We'll get to the other 11.
This introduction serves as a baseline defense of WAR as a valid metric in the MVP debate. Players who have had historic seasons -- and Trout is having a historic season -- have done very well in MVP voting.
This post was originally going to be about the worst MVP winners of all time. But I'm going to go in a different direction and discuss players who had truly pantheon-level seasons but a lesser player took him the MVP trophy. In some years, the MVP winner was, at least in retrospect, a bad selection. In other years, maybe not.
In the interest of time and space, we're using 1969 as a cutoff (if you want to debate earlier MVP awards, go compare the stats for Willie Mays and Maury Wills in 1962).
Let's start with Alex Rodriguez. He's won three MVP Awards, but didn't win in 2000, when he hit .316/.420/.606 with 41 home runs and 132 RBIs for the Mariners and posted a career-high 10.1 WAR. The MVP voting that year:
1. Jason Giambi, A's: .333/.476/.647, 43 HR, 137 RBIs, 7.4 WAR (317 points)
2. Frank Thomas, White Sox: .328/.436/.625, 43 HR, 143 RBIs, 5.8 WAR (285 points)
3. Alex Rodriguez, Mariners: .316/.420/.606, 41 HR, 132 RBIs, 10.1 WAR (218 points)
All three teams made the playoffs, with the Mariners winning the wild card (they finished a half-game behind the A's). Sometimes great seasons don't get recognized when the player's team was lousy, but that wasn't the case here.
This debate is pretty similar to the Trout-Cabrera debate: A great offensive player who played a key defensive defensive position very well versus two great offensive players with limited defensive value. Thomas, in fact, was primarily a designated hitter that year and I'm guessing he picked up 10 first-place votes (Giambi had 14 and A-Rod four) due to his perceived leadership skills. Or his cool nickname.
Anyway, this vote really revolved around the monster September of Giambi and the A's. Oakland went 22-7 the final month and had one of the great months in baseball history -- .396/.536/.844, 13 HR, 32 RBIs, with several key hits and home runs as I recall. The storyline took over. So even though the Mariners went 18-10 the final month and Rodriguez had nine home runs and 29 RBIs, Giambi took home the hardware.
It wasn't a terrible selection; Giambi had a 7.4 WAR, high enough to lead the league in many seasons. Like Cabrera, Giambi had a monster year at the bat. But he was a bad first baseman who couldn't run while A-Rod was an excellent shortstop with speed who was nearly as good at the plate.
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OK, let's look at those other 11 seasons, working backward.
2004: Ichiro Suzuki (9.0 WAR)
1. Vladimir Guerrero, Angels: .337/.391/.598, 39 HR, 126 RBIs, 5.2 WAR (354 points)
7. Suzuki, Mariners: .372/.414/.455, 8 HR, 60 RBIs, 9.0 WAR (98 points)
This was Ichiro's 262-hit season, but the Mariners were a horrible 99-loss team. Plus, a large chunk of his value that year came from his defense. He had no chance of winning. The only other two positions players above 5.4 WAR were Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees (7.3) and Miguel Tejada of the Orioles (7.1). Tejada finished fifth in the voting while A-Rod finished 14th. Guerrero wasn't a bad choice.
1996: Ken Griffey Jr. (9.5) and Alex Rodriguez (9.2)
1. Juan Gonzalez, Rangers: .314/.368/.643, 47 HR, 144 RBIs, 3.5 WAR (290 points)
2. Rodriguez, Mariners: .358/.414/.631, 36 HR, 123 RBIs, 9.2 WAR (287 points)
3. Albert Belle, Indians: .311/.410/.623, 48 HR, 148 RBIs, 5.4 WAR (228 points)
4. Griffey, Mariners: .303/.392/.628, 49 HR, 140 RBIs, 9.5 WAR (188 points)
One of the worst MVP selections of all time, Gonzalez was a one-dimensional slugger with a big RBI total. Not that Griffey and A-Rod were slouches at the plate. Rodriguez scored 52 more runs than Gonzalez. The key factor here: The Rangers finished 4.5 games ahead of the Mariners to win the West. The American League had a long list of questionable MVP winners around this time, including Gonzalez again in 1998.
1996: Barry Bonds (9.4)
1. Ken Caminiti, Padres: .326/.408/.621, 40 HR, 130 RBIs, 7.4 WAR (392 points)
5. Bonds, Giants: .308/.461/.615, 42 HR, 129 RBIs, 9.4 WAR (132 points)
Caminiti was the unanimous MVP for the West champion Padres. He also won the Gold Glove, although the defensive metrics don't rate him as a great fielder. Not a bad selection; there are many MVP winners with a larger gap than the two wins between Caminiti and Bonds. Plus, this falls under the corollary that can affect great players like Bonds, Mays, Rodriguez and Albert Pujols: You can't give it to them every year.
1985: Rickey Henderson (9.8)
1. Don Mattingly, Yankees: .324/.371/.567, 35 HR, 145 RBIs, 6.4 WAR (367 points)
2. George Brett, Royals: .335/.436/.585, 30 HR, 112 RBIs, 8.1 WAR (274 points)
3. Henderson, Yankees: .314/.419/.516, 24 HR, 72 RBIs, 9.8 WAR (174 points)
This one was all about the RBIs, another affliction that strikes MVP voters. The Yankees didn't even make the playoffs, so it's a little surprising he beat out Brett, whose Royals won the West. Mattingly picked up 23 of the 28 first-place votes, Brett the other five.
1984: Cal Ripken (9.8)
I'm not going to list the vote totals here. Ripken finished -- get this -- 27th! Tigers reliever Willie Hernandez won. Ripken had won the MVP the year before (when the Orioles made the playoffs) and his numbers were nearly identical: .888 OPS in '83, .884 in '84. Somehow the voters completely ignored him even though he finished ninth in the AL in OPS. That was enough to give the highest offensive WAR in the league once you adjust for position. Baseball-Reference's metrics also credit him with one of the best defensive seasons ever (3.5 WAR). Ripken's defensive skills (positioning, strong arm) weren't really appreciated at the time.
1974: Mike Schmidt (9.4)
1. Steve Garvey, Dodgers: .312/.342/.469, 21 HR, 111 RBIs, 4.3 WAR (270 points)
6. Schmidt, Phillies: .282/.395/.546, 36 HR, 116 RBIs, 9.5 WAR (136 points)
A weird vote, but understandable at the time: Garvey came out of nowhere to have a nice season. He hit over .300 and drove in 111 runs and that's all people looked at back then. In retrospect, his OBP wasn't great, his power somewhat marginal for a first baseman and his defense overrated. Plus, the Dodgers won their division. Schmidt was the better all-around player and it wasn't even close. (Garvey's Dodgers teammate, Jimmy Wynn, would have been a better MVP choice, a power-hitting center fielder with 32 home runs and a .387 OBP.)
1972 and 1973: Joe Morgan (9.3 and 9.1)
Morgan would eventually win two MVP Awards, once he towered over the league. 1973 wasn't really a bad vote: Morgan finished fourth as Reds teammate Pete Rose (8.2 WAR) won. Morgan was also fourth in 1972, again behind a teammate, Johnny Bench (8.5 WAR).
1970: Carl Yastrzemski (9.3)
1. Boog Powell, Orioles: .297/.412/.549, 35 HR, 114 RBIs, 4.8 WAR (234 points)
4. Yaz, Red Sox: .329./.452/.592, 40 HR, 102 RBIs, 9.3 WAR (136 points)
Yaz led the league in OBP, slugging and runs scored (125). His OPS was nearly 100 points higher than the No. 2 guys, Powell and Frank Howard. Powell was a fat first baseman, Yaz a left fielder with a powerful arm. Powell had better teammates.
1969: Rico Petrocelli (9.5)
1. Harmon Killebrew, Twins: .276/.427/.584, 49 HR, 140 RBIs, 5.7 WAR (294 points)
7. Petrocelli, Red Sox: .297/.403/.589, 40 HR, 97 RBIs, 9.5 WAR (71 points)
Petrocelli was a career .251 hitter, but as you can see he had a monster campaign, even more so when you consider he was a shortstop. B-R's metrics say he was a very good shortstop (and rate him well there throughout his career), but the Red Sox moved him to third base in 1971, when they acquired Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparacio. Anyway, the Twins made the playoffs, the Red Sox didn't and Petrocelli isn't really remembered now outside of Boston.
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Final quick note. All the players discussed here were all-around players. They created runs on offense and prevented runs on defense. Mike Trout excels at both parts of the game. Miguel Cabrera is an awesome hitter. The Triple Crown chase is fun, but that in itself isn't value; in fact, Cabrera actually had a higher OPS in both 2010 and 2011 than he has this season (his OBP is 56 points lower than a year ago). He won't be a terrible MVP choice (his current WAR is 6.6) -- he's not Juan Gonzalez or Jeff Burroughs in 1974 or Andre Dawson in 1987 or anything close to that.
But he's not the best choice for 2012.