Who Is the Leading Candidate for American League MVP?

The battle for the American League's top player is between two AL West superstars and an AL Central upstart.

Whether you like the one-game wild card playoff or not, you have to admit one thing. It sure is doing its job.

After the Angels routed the Athletics on 9-4 on Sunday night, Los Angeles reclaimed a one-game lead over Oakland in the American League West. Before the advent of the one-game playoff, this three-game set in Oakland wouldn't have had the same importance as it did this weekend, as the wild card winner and division champ would both be in the same position when all was said and done, in a five-game NLDS.

Leading the charge for these two powerhouses are each teams' respective best players, Oakland's Josh Donaldson and L.A.'s Mike Trout, both of whom are not only battling it out for AL West supremacy but are also engaged in a fierce battle for the American League MVP race. They are joined by Kansas City's Alex Gordon, all three of whom are having fantastic seasons for playoff contenders.

Here is how their numbers break down this year.

Mike Trout29.932.4001645.86.03.99 (1)
Alex Gordon15.805.3541265.75.51.64 (41)
Josh Donaldson25.790.3471254.86.21.67 (38)

Judging by our nERD metric, as well as the other offensive numbers above, Trout seems to be the clear favorite, with a 3.99 nERD that is tops in all of baseball. That means he's worth 3.99 runs a game more than a lineup full of league average players. Donaldson's nERD of 1.67 is 38th in all of baseball and Gordon's 1.64 is 41st. Trout's weighted runs created of 164 means he's generated 64% more runs than a league average player at his position, also tops in the American League. And his OPS and weighted on base average (wOBA) are both far better than Gordon's or Donaldson's.

Seems like a no-brainer, right?

But when you look at the Wins Above Replacement numbers for Fangraphs, you find Trout barely ahead of Gordon, 5.8 to 5.7 and he's behind Donaldson in Baseball Reference's WAR statistic, 6.2 to 6.0. So, what gives? Here's a look at how both sites break down Trout's defense, compared to Donaldson and Gordon.

Alex Gordon16.82.03.0
Josh Donaldson11.72.53.9
Mike Trout-7-0.36.6

Somehow, both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference has Trout listed as a below average defensive center fielder. That's how, despite having a commanding .142 advantage in OPS over Donaldson, he trails the Oakland third baseman in rWAR 6.2 to 6.0, and is just barely ahead of Gordon in fWAR despite holding a .127 OPS advantage. The last number, Baseball Reference's offensive WAR (roWAR), shows how much better Trout has been offensively than either player this season.

And check out FanGraph's defensive numbers for all MLB center fielders.

Juan LagaresNYM2914.718.932.520.2
Jackie Bradley JrBOS1410.616.925.818.4
Billy HamiltonCIN109.814.32116
Desmond JenningsTBR57.968.47.7
Adam JonesBAL-
Leonys MartinTEX11-
Carlos GomezMIL20.
Marcell OzunaMIA9-
Denard SpanWSN3-1-0.3-0.51.5
Jacoby EllsburyNYY-61.7-1.1-1.60.7
Adam EatonCHW8-1-4.5-6.2-3.2
B.J. UptonATL-14-2.9-5-6.7-3.2
Austin Jackson- - --3-3.4-7-9.8-5.2
Mike TroutLAA-7-5.1-8.1-11.4-6.2
Ben ReverePHI-17-3.4-8-11.9-6.4
Andrew McCutchenPIT-7-4.7-11.1-17.9-9.3
Dexter FowlerHOU-13-10.1-14.7-36.7-13.4

Maybe I'm nuts, but I raise an eyebrow at any list that has Mike Trout as a barely-better defensive center fielder than Ben Revere.

Attempts to quantify defensive value are a good thing. Looking at the number of errors committed and fielding percentage alone are not enough. And many of the new defensive metrics, such as Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Range Runs (RngR), Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and FanGraphs' Def statistic, all do an admirable job of trying to quantify something that is very difficult to quantify.

But perhaps their importance in determining WAR totals should be limited, or at the very least taken with a grain of salt. Certainly, a player's defensive ability should be a factor when deciding who the Most Valuable Player in the league is. But when Mike Trout is listed as the 15th-best defensive center fielder in baseball, I don't think those numbers should be taken as gospel.

Another example is Atlanta's Jason Heyward, who is tied for the third-best fWAR in the National League at 4.8. This is despite the fact his OPS of .744 is 43rd in the NL, his wOBA of .333 is 41st, and his wRC+ of 111 is 40th. Most of his value comes from his superb defense, which defensive metrics say is second-best in all of baseball. But does that really make him a top-five player in the National League?

Anyone who uses the WAR leaderboards alone to determine the best players in the league are not doing their due diligence.

At the end of the day, Trout seems to be the leader in the clubhouse for AL MVP as we enter the last week of August. But certainly, the superb defense displayed so far this year by Gordon and Donaldson have added tremendous value to their teams, and defensive numbers should be a part of any MVP conversation.

Just be wary of using any one metric all by itself to determine a player's overall value.