Donaldson, acquired from the A's over the offseason, has been the most productive bat in a Blue Jays lineup loaded with them. And unlike in Trout's past AL MVP Award battles with Miguel Cabrera, Donaldson does not make this a "best player vs. best hitter" debate. He, like Trout, is a terrific two-way player at a pivotal position. The fact that his heroics are boosting a club vying to end baseball's longest postseason drought only adds to his allure.
So let's delve into what is shaping up to be another heated MVP debate season by assessing the current credentials of these two men.
The case for Trout
Wins Above Replacement, as a stat, probably has more flaws than Trout, as a ballplayer. But yes, as tends to be the case, Trout entered the week leading not just the AL but all of baseball with a Baseball Reference-calculated 7.3 WAR tally, a full point better than that of Donaldson.
Trout possesses above-average advanced metrics in baserunning (though he doesn't attempt nearly as many steals as he did in his first two seasons), defense and, above all else, offense. He just turned 24, and he's such a superior talent that people are already making deeply analytical assessments of his Cooperstown credentials.
If you want more traditional means to tout Trout, he's got you covered. He's hit 33 homers (trailing only Nelson Cruz and Chris Davis) and he's slugged at a .593 clip (second only to Cruz). Trout's OPS (.986) also trails only Cruz (1.000). After showing susceptibility to the high fastball last year, en route to a league-leading strikeout total, he's made some adjustment to cut down on the K's.
And if we may briefly dabble into another non-traditional stat, Trout's 174 weighted-runs-created-plus mark is far superior to that of Donaldson (152). The reason this number matters is that it takes the ballpark factor into account. Donaldson plays his home games in Rogers Centre, where the ball flies. Trout plays in Angel Stadium, where the ball dies. Trout also doesn't have as much lineup support as Donaldson does, and that undoubtedly affects the RBI count.
Really, if you want to argue for Trout in some bar, you can just exclaim, "He's the best player in the game!" and no bartender worth his bottle opener would cut you off. It's a sound, if simple, argument.
The case for Donaldson
Sometimes the MVP Award voting is not just about what you do but when you do it. Donaldson is seizing the moment thus far in the home stretch, while Trout, perhaps affected by a late-July wrist injury or (more likely) merely going through some timing troubles, has had an awful August, especially by his lofty standards.
Trout entered Monday in a 10-for-57 funk in which he had struck out 19 times in 67 plate appearances while generating only four extra-base hits.
Juxtapose that against what Donaldson has done the past few weeks. Going back to July 29, he's got a .324/.420/.706 slash line with seven homers, five doubles and 19 RBIs -- a transcendent showing that has aided Toronto's rapid rise up the AL East standings.
As far as the season stat line is concerned, Donaldson is first in the league in extra-base hits (61) with 31 homers and 30 doubles, second in RBIs (87) and third in slugging (.560) and OPS (.921). On the field, as was the case last year, he's had trouble with throwing errors, but he also brings elite range and agility to the position and rates above average in the advanced metrics.
Again, the biggest case for Donaldson is that he's rising to the occasion of the playoff race. That matters.
The case for… the rest of the field
You saw Cruz's name mentioned above a time or two. He's having an amazing offensive season that, alas, gets lost in the shuffle of the standings, where his Mariners are non-factors. That's a traditional voting element that hurts Cruz's case, and a more modern one is our increased appreciation of defensive value. Cruz's defense drags him down. So voters old and young alike will have reason to relegate him only to down-ballot support.
Manny Machado presents an increasingly interesting case on an Orioles team that keeps milling around both the AL East race and the AL Wild Card hunt. The power gains that the young Machado has made this season have made him the superior player so many expected him to become. He's currently ranked fourth in the AL in WAR for position players, and a strong late-season push -- for both him and the O's -- could give him a ballot boost.
But the guy who I think really belongs on the periphery of the Trout-Donaldson talk is the Royals' Lorenzo Cain. He's a late bloomer with a rare combination of power, speed and defense (placing him second in WAR to Trout), and he's been the best player on the AL's best team, which has got to count for something.
It's really, really, really hard to doubt Trout (really), but it's equally hard to ignore the trend line that is the dual surge of Donaldson and the Blue Jays.
If I had an AL MVP Award vote (I don't) and the season ended today (it doesn't), I'd go with Donaldson. But we've still got a long way to go.
If Toronto reaches October and the Halos don't (or vice versa), you'd better believe that will have an impact on the voting of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, which has tended to favor players from postseason teams. So that Blue Jays-Angels series this coming weekend could go down as a big one on both the October and the award fronts.