Comparing the tools and other traits of value of Mookie Betts and Mike Trout in 2016

Mike Trout’s AL MVP win yesterday was preceded by a lot of talk about who really was the more valuable player in 2016, Mike Trout or Mookie Betts. I’ve noticed, though, a lot of those assessments didn’t have the facts quite right. Others overlooked some things that matter. Some may look at the competing lists of WAR numbers, see that Trout is ahead of Betts on both of them, and just call it for Trout. I say there’s more to it than that. So I wrote this article to try to ensure people have the comparisons correct, and to point out what they may be overlooking.

One thing about WAR is that there are at least two versions out there (the FanGraphs version and the Baseball-Reference.com version), and the variances in the different versions show that WAR is not a perfectly calculated statistic. Small differences in WAR leave room for further analysis, so I think it’s worth breaking down the two players based on each of their five tools. Beyond that, I’ll look at traits that don’t factor into WAR calculations but still impact a team’s win totals (clubhouse presence) and a ballclub’s revenues (fun to watch, and likeability). Though this article is focused on who Trout and Betts were in 2016, I may reference some things that happened in earlier seasons as examples.

I’ll rate these loosely using the following categories. As a rule of thumb, these correspond approximately to the following percentiles of performance:

Average 43rd to 57th percentiles
Above average 58th to 70th percentiles
Well above average 71st to 84th percentiles
Excellent 85th to 94th percentiles
Elite Top 5%

Note that one of the tools is traditionally called “Hitting for average”. I’m updating this to “Reaching base”, as these days on-base percentage is considered more important than batting average. Another is traditionally called “speed”. I’m updating this to “baserunning”.

First the results, followed by the analysis. After looking at the 2016 numbers for both players and mixing in anecdotes and commentary I’ve come across, and actual play that I’ve witnessed, I came up with these assessments of their five tools:

Tool Trout Betts
Speed/baserunning Elite Elite
Hitting for average/on base Beyond Elite Excellent
Hitting for power Well above average Well above average
Arm strength Average Excellent
Fielding Average Elite

Looking at traits that don’t contribute to WAR but do contribute to a ballclub’s bottom line, I came up with these results:

Trait Trout Betts
Glue – clubhouse presence Above average Elite
Fun to watch Above average Elite
Likability Well above average Excellent

Let’s break these down.

Speed/baserunning
Both players are elite. On stealing bases, they’re about the same; most teams would prefer to have Betts’ 26 steals versus 4 times caught stealing over Trout’s 30 steals versus 7 times caught stealing, but this really is kind of a toss up. Fangraphs’ BsR agrees. BsR puts a value in runs produced on all aspects of baserunning, including base stealing prowess, extra bases taken, outs on the bases, and avoiding double plays. Mike Trout had the fourth best BsR in 2016 among all players, at 9.3. Betts had the third best at 9.8. It’s basically a toss-up.

Hitting for power
While most probably think of Trout as more of a power hitter than Betts is, that’s not really true anymore. Per plate appearance, Trout and Betts hit home runs and triples at the exact same rates in 2016. Betts hit doubles more frequently (5.8% to Trout’s 4.7%) and singles more frequently (18.6% to 15.7%). If we divide by at bats instead of plate appearances, however, Trout’s power numbers start looking better, because we’re not including his very frequent walks and hit-by-pitches in the divisor. If we were to look at slugging percentage alone, we might give both Betts and Trout an “Excellent” for power; but when you look at stats like ISO that isolate power from on-base ability, both end up in the well-above-average range instead.

Reaching base
Trout blows Betts out of the water in walk rate, 17.0% to Betts’ 6.7%. Also Trout’s hit-by-pitch rate of 1.6% was much higher than Betts’ 0.3%. Trout’s 20.1% strikeout rate was much worse than Betts’ 11.0%, though.

So at the plate, the main difference in results is Trout’s extremely high on-base rate due to taking so many walks, and the main difference in approach is that Betts puts the ball in play a lot, and Trout does not. Only about 4% of qualifiers put the ball in play more frequently than Betts; only about 7% put the ball in play less frequently than Trout.

Trout’s .441 on base percentage led all of baseball. In the American League, it wasn’t even close. The next several players on the list were all clustered around .400. In the National League, only Joey Votto’s .434 came close. It’s obvious Trout deserves elite status in this category, but I though his separation from the pack warranted a little more, so I gave him a “beyond elite” instead.

Arm strength
There’s a component of UZR that measures arm strength not just by velocity but also accuracy. Betts qualifies as “excellent” for arm strength based on this, and based on the eye test (such as when he threw a perfectly-placed laser beam of a throw to gun down one of the game’s fastest runners, Kevin Kiermaier, trying to take third on a fly out to right). Trout actually rates below average on this, though not by a whole lot. I’m upping that to “average” based on the anectodal evidence that he’s improved his arm strength to be average or a little above average.

Fielding
Some metrics have Betts as the best defender in baseball in 2016. Others have him a few notches down. But they certainly put him at an elite level, even when you remove arm strength from the equation. Trout’s fielding was actually average in 2016, even if you separate this from arm strength. This may surprise some who think of him as an above average fielder; they may have formed this impression based on his rookie season in which he was above average as a fielder. He hasn’t been better than average since, however.

Clubhouse Presence
Those are (a slightly altered version of) the so-called “five tools”. Now some may disagree, but I really do think there is a “sixth tool” a player can have to impact his team’s win total, which we can call “clubhouse presence”. It’s anything about a player that makes his teammates want to give their best effort during preparation to play and during actual gameplay. It affects win totals because, in my opinion, the results achieved on the field are a product of three things: skill, preparation, and effort, and clubhouse presence impacts two of those.

Mike Trout may or may not set a good example to his teammates by working hard on preparation. I don’t know. I do know he worked hard on his one area of weakness, his throwing arm, to eliminate the weakness. One thing I know about Mookie Betts is that he is constantly asking people questions on how to improve, and that will certainly set a tone that players can be working hard on preparation.

Trout is a positive, good-natured guy who plays Pokemon Go and Nerf basketball in the clubhouse. Certainly not a clubhouse drain. But at the same time he doesn’t seem to be very outgoing. Betts is the kind of guy who’s friends with everybody. He’s got friends on his team and on all the other teams. Having his personality in the clubhouse and on the field makes baseball fun for everyone, and that helps get maximal effort from the players on the team.

So I’m giving Trout an “above average” on clubhouse presence, but Betts an “elite”, because his type of personality is actually pretty rare.

Fun to Watch and Likability
These last two traits are all about the fans. What, aside from winning games, hitting home runs, etc. gets fans to fork over their money to watch a team play? To me, it’s being fun to watch and being likable.

Trout climbing the outfield fence to rob a home run makes him fun to watch. Mookie Betts stealing two bases on one play (with no error), or alertly taking an unmanned second base on an infield single, these are unique plays that nobody’s ever seen before, and help to make him an elite for this category. His catches on defense can be quite spectacular and acrobatic, too, such as the time he almost fell into the Fenway Park bullpen while making a game-ending, home-run robbing grab to preserve Rich Hill’s masterful shutout late in 2015. The excitement he visibly displayed while running back into the infield with the ball held high in his glove is an example of the enthusiasm for baseball that always radiates unrestrained from Betts. Oh, and who did he steal that home run from … that’s right, it was none other than Mike Trout. So I guess they kind of teamed up on that one. Trout probably had to smile at that.

Trout smiles a lot. So does Betts. But I’d say that Betts is the one with the “winning” smile. Electric. Unrestrained. Wins you over, and wins fans over. They’re both likable, but Betts is in a higher category of likable.

Summary
So there you have it. Looking over these ratings, Betts is one of the best in the game in every category except hitting for power, and he’s approaching being one of the best in that, too. He’s pretty much everything you could want in a player. Trout is definitely better at the plate, which is the most important part of achieving a high WAR. But his “secret weapon” has been his excellent baserunning, and Betts is his match there. In every other aspect of the game, the fielding aspects and also the less tangible but still valuable ones, Betts is his superior.

I’m not concluding that Betts should have gotten the MVP over Trout. But there’s been a lot of debate on that topic, and there may be some yet to come. But it seems to me that a lot of people have wrong ideas on how close Betts and Trout are on baserunning and power hitting, and many overestimate Trout’s fielding ability. There also never seems to be discussion of clubhouse presence, likability, and being fun to watch, and those do carry value. I wrote this to help ensure that discussion doesn’t miss any of these points.

I hope to hear some good discussion on this now!

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