Mike Trout vs. Mookie Betts: MLB May Have a New No. 1 Overall Player in 2017

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistMarch 1, 2017

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 06:  Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox reacts prior to game one of the American League Divison Series against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on October 6, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

To paraphrase Derek Zoolander, Mike Trout is really, really, really ridiculously good at his job.

No one would dare dispute this claim. It's etched into a mountain somewhere.

At a certain point, however, someone is going to come along and be even more ridiculously good than Trout. 

Here's the question: Could that year be this year, and could that someone be the Boston Red Sox's Mookie Betts?

Trout isn't going to slow down. The Los Angeles Angels center fielder won his second American League MVP Award last season. He's 25 years old. He's defined durable, playing at least 157 games every year since 2013.

To catch or surpass Trout, Betts—or anyone else—will have to outplay him at the height of his powers. Counting on injury or regression is a fool's errand.

Mike Trout has won two AL MVPs and is just entering his prime.
Mike Trout has won two AL MVPs and is just entering his prime.Matt Brown/Getty Images

Trout was so good last season, he won the MVP even as the Angels finished 21 games out of first place. It wasn't a landslide, but Trout garnered 19 first-place votes compared to Betts' nine.

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That reflects the changing attitude of voters over the definition of "most valuable," but it's also a testament to Trout's position as the game's undisputed alpha dog.

Betts, however, did impressive things in 2016. Let's compare the stats:

Trout vs. Betts: 2016
PlayerAVG.HROPSSB
Mike Trout, LAA.31529.99130
Mookie Betts, BOS.31831.89726
Stats courtesy of FanGraphs

Those are strikingly similar lines. The biggest disparity is in OPS, where Trout led by 94 points.

OPS, of course, is a combination of on-base and slugging percentage. While Trout won the slugging percentage battle, .550 to .534, his OPS soars because of his MLB-leading .441 OBP. That, in turn, was boosted by his MLB-leading 116 walks.

Trout got on base a ton more, which matters. It's also worth noting the Angels finished in the bottom third in average and OPS, while Boston ranked first in both categories. Trout only drew 12 intentional walks, but plenty of pitchers pitched around him. 

Again, that's not to impugn Trout's greatness. It must be said, though: The biggest difference offensively between him and Betts was as much a function of the teams they played for as their respective skill sets.

What about defense? That's where Betts pulls away, if you believe in the metrics.

In 2016, Trout posted six defensive runs saved in center field. His career-high DRS was 21 in 2012. Betts, meanwhile, posted an eye-popping 32 DRS in right field in 2016. 

Mookie Betts won a Gold Glove in right field last season, and the defensive metrics bore that out.
Mookie Betts won a Gold Glove in right field last season, and the defensive metrics bore that out.Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Defensive stats can fluctuate widely year to year, and center field is a more difficult position than right. FanGraphs' Dave Cameron made both points in September:

We've probably done more to advocate for the acceptance of stats like UZR and DRS as anyone, but even I wouldn't look at Betts' 2016 defensive numbers and argue that we should accept that he was the best defender in baseball this year, and far more valuable defensively than Trout, who still plays the more demanding defensive position.

Betts wasn't better than Trout last season. Stat-savvy voters who cast their lot with the Angels stud should feel zero buyer's remorse. 

Betts is creeping closely, though. He's in the conversation. Just ask Trout.

"He's special. He's great for the game," Trout said of Betts in November after the MVP results were announced, per Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald.

"A lot of people ask me about the young guys coming up in baseball, and for him to have a year like that, it was just unbelievable. I talked to a bunch of guys on the Red Sox who played with him, and they say he's one of the best they've been around. He's a special talent, and hopefully it's going to be a battle the next 10-15 years."

The ever-humble Trout heaped praise on Betts in November.
The ever-humble Trout heaped praise on Betts in November.Leon Halip/Getty Images

Remarkably, Betts, who turned 24 in October, isn't much younger than Trout. He has a shorter track record, though, which means he has more to prove.

Can he repeat his 2016 success, on offense and defense? He teased the potential in 2015, his first full season, when he slashed .291/.341/.479 with 18 home runs. His 2016 leap was massive. A return to earth is in play.

Heck, remember after 2015, when the world was ready to declare newly minted National League MVP Bryce Harper as Trout's successor? Harper didn't fall on his eye-black-smeared face in 2016, but his average tumbled from .330 to .243 and his OPS from 1.109 to .814.

Boston skipper John Farrell isn't worried about Betts.

"That's always going to be case by case, but in Mookie's situation, he's such an attentive person," Farrell said, per the Associated Press (h/t the Lowell Sun). "His aptitude is some of the best I've been around in the game. He's that bright, he's that advanced as far as him processing information and applying it in a moment."

Boston manager John Farrell had high praise for Betts after his breakout season.
Boston manager John Farrell had high praise for Betts after his breakout season.Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

If you're laying the safe money, put it on Trout retaining his throne as the best all-around player in baseball.

There are other horses in the race, including Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, who finished with 8.4 WAR in 2016, per FanGraphs, sandwiched between Trout's best-in-the-game 9.4 and Betts' 7.8. Add Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager (7.5 WAR) and Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado (6.5 WAR) to the conversation.

Bold gamblers, however, will bet on Betts.

Like Trout, he's really, really good at his job. That, in turn, should make the 2017 season ridiculously compelling.

   

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and MLB.com unless otherwise noted.

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