For a moment, think back to November of 2018. What comes to mind when you think about what was going on in baseball at that point in time? This should help you jog your memory – Mookie Betts had just won his first MVP award and led the Red Sox to a World Series victory over the Dodgers, and Christian Yelich had just completed an absolutely incredible second half of the season leading to his first MVP award. Mike Trout also had an incredible season in 2018 but finished second in MVP voting to Betts. It was the seventh consecutive year that Trout finished in the top five in MVP voting, having won the award two times previously in 2014 and 2016. Trout would go on to win his third MVP award the following year in 2019.
What has happened since then? Baseball seems to have moved on from these three amazing superstars. Yelich was the face of the sport for two unforgettable seasons, but down years in the shortened pandemic season and in 2021 have caused some to soften on the lanky Milwaukee outfielder. Betts was traded to the Dodgers, and has continued to play exceptionally well, but has struggled with declining power and speed. Trout has had a number of injuries, leading some analysts to think his best years are behind him and suggesting that he should be put out to pasture, moving him away from the home he has made in center field to a more age-appropriate corner outfield spot.
Simply put, in many ways, the sport seems to have moved on to younger, and, allegedly, more exciting stars. We seemed to have moved on, as a community, to arguing about whether Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., or Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (perhaps we should call them Soto and the Jrs.?) is the best player in baseball. People haven’t completely forgotten about Betts and Trout, who often show up on fan and analyst top ten lists. Yelich has almost completely fallen out of the conversation and into a new category with Cody Bellinger, like flashes in the pan who could never sustain greatness.
There is a reason these three superstars have won MVP awards, and have finished top five in the voting multiple times. They all have skills that could return them to the top of the mountain, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if any of these three receive MVP votes this season. There are some signs of aging, injury risks, and declining physical capabilities that may limit the likelihood of them returning to their peak form. But that’s what makes these three players so unique and worth watching – none of them would have to return to their absolute peak to receive MVP votes, or even take the award home.
With that being said, let’s take a look at what we should be watching for early in the season with Yelich, Betts, and Trout. There are certain indicators that will clue us in as to whether a return to MVP form is coming.
Yelich was arguably the best player in baseball in 2018 and 2019, slashing .328/.416/.635 with 52 stolen bases and 80 home runs over those two seasons. Despite all the good work Yelich did in 2018 and 2019, much of it was undone in the following two seasons. In 2020 and 2021, Yelich slashed just .227/.359/.402 with 13 stolen bases and 21 home runs. Obviously, the 2020 season was cut short due to COVID-19, so it’s to be expected that Yelich’s counting stats would dip over that two-year span, but very few saw such a significant dip coming. Yelich has also struggled with a bad back over the past few seasons, which could also help to explain his dip in production. Christian Crespo provided an in-depth look at Yelich and his back issues in a Pitcher List article last month.
Despite the decline over the past few years, Yelich did still do a few things very well in 2021. Most notably, Yelich hit the ball hard and showed solid plate skills. Below you can see Yelich’s hard-hit rate, average exit velocity, max exit velocity, chase rate, and walk rate from 2021, along with how those numbers stacked up against the rest of the league.
As you can see, even after the back injury Yelich is still more than capable of hitting the ball hard and continues to have an elite feel for the strike zone. There are several factors that can help explain Yelich’s decline, but the numbers that stand out the most are Yelich’s power and steal numbers (or lack thereof). Despite having borderline elite exit velocity numbers, Yelich’s power has taken a huge hit over the past two years. This is primarily because Yelich has struggled to hit the ball in the air consistently – something he struggled with early in his career in Miami. Below you can see Yelich’s career groundball and flyball rates by year, along with his home run totals in those respective years.
Yelich was able to overcome a pedestrian flyball rate in 2018 to hit 36 home runs, but in 2019, Yelich’s best power year, he got the ball in the air at a much higher rate compared to the rest of his career. Yelich will need to get the ball airborne at a rate much closer to his 2018 and 2019 totals to hit 35+ home runs in 2022.
It’s unclear how much Yelich’s back has impacted his ability and willingness to run. His sprint speed still ranks in the top 20% in the league, and Yelich’s steal efficiency hasn’t dipped significantly over the past two years. That would seem to indicate that Yelich still has the speed and ability to run, but the key questions will be whether his body feels up to it and whether Craig Counsel lets him.
There are two things we should be looking for early in the 2022 season with Yelich: (1) Is he hitting the ball in the air closer to his 2018 and 2019 rates? (2) Is Yelich running? If Yelich is getting the ball in the air more consistently and running, it should come as a surprise to no one if he has a huge bounceback season.
Mookie probably has the highest floor of this group, having performed at an elite level for the better part of a decade now. Simply put, Mookie puts the bat on the ball about as well as just about anyone in baseball. The questions surrounding Mookie now center on whether he can still hit for power and whether he still has the speed to steal the same number of bases he did early in his career.
Mookie hasn’t had a significant dip in his career numbers, per se. Since arriving in Los Angeles, Mookie has slashed .278/.367/.525 compared to his career line of .284/.377/.510. That being said, during Betts’ MVP season in 2018, he hit 32 home runs and had 30 stolen bases, whereas Betts only hit 23 home runs last season with 10 stolen bases. Below you can see Betts’ hard-hit stats dating back to his 2018 MVP season, along with how he ranked in those categories across the league in each respective season.
As you can see, Betts’ hard-hit numbers have slowly been declining since his MVP season. At only 5’9 and 180 lbs, Betts’ frame doesn’t project as aging particularly well when it comes to power. The big question mark going forward for Mookie will be whether he can continue to hit the ball hard enough to post consistent power numbers.
Betts will also need to steal more to regain MVP form, but there are several reasons why that scenario is unlikely to play out. First, Betts sprint speed significantly declined last year, barely ranking in the top half of the league in that category. Second, and perhaps more significantly, Betts now hits at the top of one of the most potent offenses in baseball (if not one of the most potent offenses in MLB history). Betts will be hitting in front of Freddie Freeman, Trea Turner, Justin Turner, Max Muncy, Will Smith, and Cody Bellinger – just to name a few. Dave Roberts may be hesitant to give Betts green lights when he gets on since there are such elite hitters behind him in the order. In theory, there’s no reason for the Dodgers to risk running themselves out of an inning when any of the next eight hitters behind Betts could put one in the gap or in the seats to drive him in. Betts and the Dodgers may take a “pick your spots” approach to stealing with Mookie, as opposed to consistently giving him green lights.
Similar to Yelich, there are two things we should be looking for early in the 2022 season with Betts: (1) Is he recording hard-hit ball events frequently? (2) Is he running? Since he’s batting at the top of the best lineup in baseball, Betts doesn’t need to go 30/30 as he did in his MVP season to win the award this year – however, he will need to improve upon his first two years in Los Angeles when it comes to power and speed.
In looking at what Mike Trout needs to do to regain MVP form, the answer can be boiled down to two words: stay healthy. Trout hasn’t played in 140 games since 2018, playing in 134 in 2019, 53 in the pandemic shortened season, and 36 last year. Trout won the MVP award in 2019, despite only playing in 134 games, which speaks to why Trout has by far the highest ceiling of any of the players discussed in this article – if Trout can give the Angels 130 games, he’s capable of putting up a 7+ win season.
Although very few of Trout’s skills have declined, there are a few things we should keep an eye on early in the 2022 season aside from his health. In the 36 games Trout played in 2021, he posted a 28% strikeout rate, which, if extended over a full season, would have been the highest strikeout rate of Trout’s career by two full percentage points. Obviously, 36 games is a small sample, so there’s no reason to be overly concerned about Trout’s ability to put the bat on the ball. However, it is worth monitoring early in the season, as it could point to a possible decline in plate skills.
The one number that has essentially plummeted for Trout at this point in his career is his steals totals. At his peak, Trout was a 30/30 threat every year, but he hasn’t stolen 30 bases since 2016. In fact, Trout hasn’t stolen 20 bases since 2018. Trout’s sprint speed numbers are still elite, and he hasn’t ranked outside of the top 10% of the league in that category in his entire career. The speed is very clearly still there, so the only question for Trout is whether he will have green lights throughout the season. After a calf injury sidelined him for most of 2021, it is unclear whether the Angels will want to be aggressive with Trout on the base paths this season, as they could opt to limit him in an attempt to decrease the likelihood of reinjuring his calf. Additionally, the Angels lineup has continued to improve, and Trout will be hitting in front of Anthony Rendon and Jared Walsh all season. The Angels’ primary concern this season will be preventing runs, not scoring them, meaning the Angels may want to limit sending Trout to keep themselves from running out of innings, and instead allow Rendon and Walsh to drive Trout in from first.
In terms of the rest of his advanced numbers, Trout has shown no signs of slowing down. During his 36 games last season, he slashed .333/.466/.624 with eight home runs and two steals. He also managed to hit a ball 115 mph and had a hard hit rate over 50%. Simply put, Trout can still mash – as proven by this moonshot he hit last weekend.
.@MikeTrout is BACK!! pic.twitter.com/GdTKaqMaJA
— MLB (@MLB) April 10, 2022
There is much less cause for concern for Trout in terms of skills than there is for Mookie and Yelich. That being said, the two things to watch for early in 2022 with Trout are: (1) Can he keep the strikeout rate down closer to his career average of 23%? (2) Does Joe Maddon give Trout green lights to show he can still be an above-average base stealer? As long as he’s healthy, if the strikeout rate drops back in line with his career average and he’s running early in the year, Trout could put some distance between himself and the rest of the field in the AL MVP race very quickly.
All three of these former MVPs could add more hardware to their trophy cases in 2022. It’s fun to discuss whether Shohei Ohtani or one of Soto and the Jrs. is the best player in baseball, but Yelich, Betts, and Trout could very easily rejoin that conversation going into next season. Yelich has the most work to do out of the three, as he has a fairly deep hole to dig himself out of and a significant skill problem he must fix to climb back up the mountain of being a top-tier player. Mookie needs to figure out a way to stop his declining hard-hit rates and sprint speed – but the Dodgers lineup should do a lot of work for him in terms of counting stats this year. All Trout needs to do is stay healthy and do what Trout does. It’s worth remembering that Trout is the oldest of this bunch at just over 30.5 years old, meaning all of these guys should have at least a couple of years of elite production left in them. All three of these players are worth your time, and it’s still possible that any of them (and potentially all three of them) could find themselves receiving MVP votes at the end of this season.
Graphic by Michael Packard (@artbyMikeP on Twitter & IG)