10 Degrees: Betts vs. Trout and other great award debates at MLB's quarter mark

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

All of this Mike Trout-vs.-Mookie Betts jabberwocky is unlikely to end anytime soon. Betts is on a career-defining jag. The Mookie stans are mobilizing for a fight. If you’re the sort who likes to base sports arguments on a six- or seven-week stretch, it’s a perfectly reasonable discussion.

Because the truth is, Mookie Betts has been every bit as good as Trout, if not better, as the 2018 season approaches the quarter mark. Handing out awards for less than two months of work almost encourages the overemphasis of small samples, but there have been so many interesting and compelling individual performances this season that 10 Degrees can set aside its principles for a week and dive right in.

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Before anyone tries a Triple Lindy, an important point regarding Trout and Betts: The player who is playing best and the best player are not the same thing. For six consecutive years, Trout has been the best player in baseball, and that is not a title given away because a phenomenal player with Hall of Fame-caliber talent happens to cobble together a similar stretch. What Betts is doing this season, Trout has done for more than half a decade. It is a historic run. It is Ruthian. It is Bondsian. Maybe Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle brought similar stretches of pure dominance, unabashed superiority. Either way, it’s a Post It-sized list.

So to see Trout off to a .315/.450/.650 start with more walks than strikeouts, typical solid defense in center and a still-unparalleled power-speed combination is a reminder that you. Are. Watching. Something. Historic. This is a generational player at what has to be near his peak, because he has eliminated so many of his flaws that envisioning a better version of this seems impossible. And yet that may be the greatest wonder of Trout: Like Amazon stock, he somehow keeps getting better.

Which is why picking …

1. Mookie Betts as the American League first-quarter MVP almost feels wrong. If Trout is the best, and he’s better than he’s ever been, how can someone be better?

That’s one of the beauties of baseball. Great players are capable of superhuman runs, and Mookie Betts – hitting .360/.440/.772, playing his typically elite outfield, running the bases with grand skill – is on the sort that not only rivals Trout’s this season but exceeds it.

The arguments in favor of either is perfectly convincing. Wins Above Replacement, which tries to encompass the entirety of a player’s contributions, has Trout negligibly ahead of Betts because defensive and baserunning metrics rate him higher. The former are flawed – really, Corey Dickerson has been a better outfielder this year than Betts? – and the latter do not take enough factors into account to render judgment this early in the season.

Another metric worth considering is Win Probability Added – a number that tries to account for a player’s contextual contributions to his team. Betts’ of 2.0 is the best in the major leagues. Trout is ninth at 1.3. Then again, remove context from the situation – just neutralize all numbers – and Trout leads the major leagues, with Betts second best.

Want a perfect personification of how close they’ve been this year? In tight cases, I tend to look at how a player performed with runners in scoring position. It’s far from the be-all, end-all, particularly if one player got more plate appearances in such situations than another. It also can be quite instructive on how a player performed when run-scoring opportunities were optimized.

Betts’ OPS coming into Sunday: 1.304. Trout’s: 1.303.

If I believed in splitting votes, they’d be 1a. and 1b. It’s that close. But due to his slight offensive edge – and even acknowledging that he plays in a better hitters’ park – Betts is the pick. The top 10:

1. Mookie Betts
2. Mike Trout
3. Manny Machado
4. Francisco Lindor
5. Aaron Judge
6. Gerrit Cole
7. Justin Verlander
8. Jose Ramirez
9. Andrelton Simmons
10. Jed Lowrie

Each of the first four – maybe even more – would be National League first-quarter MVP. And because no position player has distinguished himself in such fashion …

2. Max Scherzer is the clear choice. In each of his last two Cy Young-winning seasons, Scherzer has finished 10th in the MVP voting. Never has he received anything better than a fifth-place vote, and both of those came from the Arizona Republic’s excellent Nick Piecoro.

He may well look prescient, because the delight of Scherzer this season – nine starts, none shorter than five innings, none with more than two earned runs, 58 2/3 innings total, 91 strikeouts, 35 hits, 13 walks, four home runs, 1.69 ERA, 7-1 record – shows no sign of abating.

Much credit to Arizona center fielder A.J. Pollock, a pending free agent picking one whale of a time to look like an MVP, and Chicago third baseman Kris Bryant, who is putting up superstar-like numbers. The top 10:

1. Max Scherzer
2. A.J. Pollock
3. Kris Bryant
4. Tommy Pham
5. Nolan Arenado
6. Odubel Herrera
7. Nick Markakis
8. Ozzie Albies
9. Francisco Cervelli
10. Freddie Freeman

Yes, that is three Atlanta Braves in the top 10, including Nick Markakis, who’s never been so much as an All-Star and is hitting .344/.416/.541 in his walk year. The Braves are on top of the National League East, and the race among them, Washington, Philadelphia and perhaps New York may chase the AL East and West for best in baseball. If there’s a trump card among the four, it’s that …

3. Max Scherzer pitches every fifth day for the Nationals. Here’s how special he is: It is the 10th year of 10 Degrees, and this may be the first time one player has gone back to back.

The NL first-quarter Cy Young is his and his quite clearly. Scherzer leads the NL in ERA (1.69), fielding-independent pitching (1.75) and strikeout rate (13.96 per nine). He is second in innings. He is dominant and a workhorse. One or the other is great in and of itself. Both together make for the game’s best pitcher. The top 5:

1. Max Scherzer
2. Patrick Corbin
3. Aaron Nola
4. Carlos Martinez
5. Jacob deGrom

Corbin has been incredible. He also has lost 3 mph of velocity in each of his last two starts, which is rather alarming. The 45-pitch mess of a scoreless inning deGrom threw Sunday in his first start back from the DL wasn’t altogether promising, either. Much like the MVP voting, the AL’s pitching selection offers a far deeper grouping of options, with …

4. Gerrit Cole ever-so-slightly edging out teammate Justin Verlander. It’s similar to Trout vs. Betts. No bad choice exists.

Cole: 1.43 ERA, 1.54 FIP, eight starts, 56 2/3 innings, 30 hits, 12 walks, 86 strikeouts, three home runs

Verlander: 1.21 ERA, 2.24 FIP, nine starts, 59 2/3 innings, 30 hits, 13 walks, 77 strikeouts, four home runs

It’s essentially the same guy. Because of Cole’s slightly superior peripherals, he gets the nod, though the sample is small enough that one bad start could skew the numbers to separate them – or vault any of the three below them ahead. The top 5:

1. Gerrit Cole
2. Justin Verlander
3. Chris Sale
4. Luis Severino
5. Sean Manaea

Apologies to Charlie Morton, who is great and has a fruitful winter ahead, as well as a trio of Indians (Corey Kluber, Mike Clevinger, Trevor Bauer) and Rick Porcello. And a nod to someone who looks awfully likely to appear on this list as well as the MVP one. Because even if the sample for …

5. Shohei Ohtani remains small, his talent is anything but. Even as the league adjusts, he is adjusting back, and soon enough we’ll no longer be able to use “two-way” as a modifier for the word “experiment.” Because the hypothesis – someone simultaneously can succeed hitting and pitching in Major League Baseball – is nearing validation.

Ohtani is the AL Rookie of the Quarter, and the competition isn’t all that close. He is hitting .348/.392/.652 – and among all players in the major leagues with at least 20 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, Ohtani’s .529 average and 1.718 OPS lead the major leagues. He is the force the game hoped he’d be. The top 3:

1. Shohei Ohtani
2. Gleyber Torres
3. Joey Wendle

Torres has been the best of a pretty ridiculous Yankees rookie class. On any given night, three-quarters of their infield are rookies, with Torres at second, Miguel Andujar at third and Tyler Austin at first. Justus Sheffield could arrive any day to pair with Domingo German, too. It’s a testament to the Yankees’ development pipeline and what makes them the most frightening franchise in baseball. Well, that and the money.

They’ve even got Aroldis Chapman doing his best …

6. Josh Hader impersonation. Until this year, Chapman was the undisputed king of left-handed strikeout monsters, and his 35 punchouts in 18 innings this season would set a career-best K/9 mark. It still pales next to Hader – the guest on next week’s Yahoo Sports MLB Podcast – whose 48 strikeouts in 23 innings would set a K/9 record at 18.78. Almost as impressive: In those 23 innings, he has allowed just five hits: two singles, a double and home runs to Tommy Pham and Starling Marte.

Hader’s inclusion here would seem to insinuate that he’s the clear leader for NL Rookie of the Quarter – and he would be if he were still a rookie. It’s confusing: Hader threw only 47 2/3 innings last year for Milwaukee, shy of the 50-inning threshold. There’s a second element to rookie status beyond 50 innings or 130 plate appearances, though: If a player is on a team’s active roster for 45 days or more days before Sept. 1, he’s no longer a rookie.

As such, the top 3 in the NL is not exactly luminescent:

1. Joey Lucchesi
2. Franchy Cordero
3. Caleb Smith

Really, they’re all just placeholders for Ronald Acuña, the Braves’ 20-year-old outfielder who should jet to the top of the list once he accumulates the requisite playing time. Give the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler enough innings, and he’s going to be there, too. And Cordero is the sort of fast-twitch talent who hits the sort of home runs that cause the cameraperson to pan out to fully capture the resplendence of the thing.

Normally, this is the part where the managers get their due. Let us acknowledge the difficulty of a manager’s job, acknowledge as well that trying to judge them based on a quarter-season of work is even more difficult and futile than with players, and move on to something more interesting, like the season …

7. Manny Machado is having. Earlier this week, as Machado was in the midst of another superlative week, one executive wondered: “Is Machado going to get more than [Bryce] Harper?”

Now, he said this as Machado was surging toward a .350/.431/.669 line, with 23 walks and 23 strikeouts to complement 13 home runs and 38 RBIs. Machado is fulfilling every last dream of what he could be: an elite-hitting shortstop. In the meantime, Bryce Harper was in the midst of a weeklong funk that dropped his season line to .236/.400/.543 – excellent by almost every standard but not the sort of which $400 million contracts are necessarily made.

Both will hit free agency this winter as 26-year-olds. Harper entered this year with one all-time season (his MVP-winning 2015) and three good ones. Machado has been more consistent in terms of playing at a very good level but never has had a year close to Harper’s ’15. To come with that this year while showing he can play shortstop and third, plus make plate discipline a strength – that’s the kind of mic drop that could bridge the gap between the money Harper would bring through marketing that surely will factor into the size of his contract.

Again: It’s mid-May. There’s a lot of season to go, a lot of time for Harper to reassert himself, a lot of opportunity for pitchers to find Machado’s weaknesses. Just as there are a lot of at-bats for the descendants of …

8. Mario Mendoza to rescue themselves from ignominy. Considering that heading into Sunday, hitters had combined for 9,789 hits and 10,121 strikeouts, it’s no surprise that nearly two dozen semi-regulars to regulars can’t seem to crack a .200 batting average.

That the St. Louis Cardinals have been as good as they have with a combined $30 million-plus going to Dexter Fowler (.146) and Matt Carpenter (.145) is telling. The two have hit first and third, respectively, for nearly half of the Cardinals’ games. Kole Calhoun’s .162 average may be better, but the numbers beyond it are almost inconceivable: In 136 plate appearances, he has 17 singles, five walks, one triple and one home run. Pitchers this year heading into Sunday were hitting .123/.149/.156. Calhoun is hitting .162/.191/.200.

Others who entered on the wrong side of .200 aren’t exactly scrubs, either. Jackie Bradley Jr. could lose time if Betts shifts to center, J.D. Martinez patrols right, Hanley Ramirez jumps to DH and Mitch Moreland slides into first. Baltimore gave Chris Davis a $161 million deal, Colorado gave Ian Desmond $70 million and Philadelphia gave Carlos Santana $60 million. At the moment, each is a Mendoza scion.

In total, 22 players with at least 100 plate appearances entered Sunday under .200. Granted, on this date last year, the number was 18 – and it ended up that no player who qualified for the batting title would end up below .200. One of two things tends to happen: a player improves or he is replaced. Only 17 times since the end of the Dead Ball Era has a player qualified and finished under .200. Five of those have been this decade, the last was Davis in 2014.

A million things can get any of them on track. A swing change. A new bat. A lucky pair of …

9. Shoes – so long as at least 51 percent of them are their team’s designated primary shoe color and the portion of the club’s designated primary shoe color is evenly distributed throughout the exterior of each shoe.

Sorry about that. The last 24 words are almost verbatim from the collective-bargaining agreement that dictates uniform regulations. For 12 pages – 12! – the owners and players hashed out what was and wasn’t allowed. And so because of that – because this is not some sort of unilateral imposition of absurd standards – the anger of Clevinger and Ben Zobrist this week after MLB warned them about running afoul of footwear regulations isn’t entirely on the league. Every player can have a say in negotiations.

That said: What is MLB doing? Zobrist wants to wear all-black shoes. Clevinger was disciplined for these:

This is such a layup, such an easy win for MLB. They’re shoes. Shoes. The only argument against them would be that the designs or colors provide a player an unfair advantage, and that goes out the window when the league allows Clevinger to wear shoes like this for Mother’s Day.

Should Clevinger or Zobrist violate the policy again, they’ll be subjected to increasing fines of $1,000, then $5,000, then $10,000. Anything beyond that is unclear. Perhaps a well-heeled sort – Zobrist has made upward of $75 million – will challenge the league, just to see how far it’s willing to go to uphold rules that so clearly make little sense. If baseball wants to be fun, playing uniform narc is about the worst possible way to embody it. Instead, take a lesson from …

10. Mookie Betts and just be cool. One of Betts’ clearest qualities is the calm he exudes, the complete control over every situation he radiates. Soft flare down the right-field line? All good. He’ll just make one of the best catches of the year.

Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts is hitting .360/.440/.772, playing his typically elite outfield, and running the bases with grand skill. (AP)

As fun as Player A-vs.-Player B debates are, the drawback is clear: They encourage those sticking up for A to diminish B’s accomplishments. And that is ridiculous, because there really is nothing bad to say about Mookie Betts or Mike Trout this year. Betts is a 5-foot-9, 170-pound power hitter and Trout is a middle linebacker who makes center field look easy. Betts is a fifth-round pick who distinguished himself to the Red Sox via excellence in brain-training games, and Trout is a cold-weather kid who had 24 players chosen in front of him – including one by his own team. Each is a piece of why baseball is baseball.

So even if Betts has been better by minuscule amounts this year – or Trout just the same – don’t allow the debate in any way to muddle a much clearer truth. Both are the embodiment of what a baseball player should be: great at what they do, fun as hell to watch and excellent representatives of the game.

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