On March 20th, 2019, Mike Trout officially signed the biggest extension in MLB history, becoming baseball’s most expensive player. The deal was officially worth 426,500,000 dollars over 12 years, which included a 20 million dollar signing bonus and various incentives for MVP awards, Gold Gloves, etc. But while Trout is considered to be the best hitter in today’s game, and possibly one of the best of all time, is the astronomical amount of money worth it for a player who is almost sure to decline as he gets older? That very question will be evaluated through sabermetric values, prior contracts, and team success.
The first angle that Trout will be evaluated is the actual value his sabermetrics produce. Hence, I go to Mike’s overall WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Discounting 2020, Trout has produced a career 73.2 WAR. Even with a lackluster 2011 campaign, it averages out to 8.13 WAR a year. Please refer to Fig. 1 to view each individual season as well as his wRC+ production. To put that into perspective, Trout’s average is a low-end MVP season in any given league. Even through numerous injuries, his production continues to be absurd. But truthfully, what is that average worth? How much is a given Win worth to an MLB team? According to Craig Edwards of Fangraphs, 1 WAR in 2020 Free Agency cost roughly $8,000,000. Hence, if we were to assume that Trout would at least produce his average levels of play, he would be worth almost $65.1 million in a given year. Now, like any player who ages, his production and skill are sure to decline. Even if one were to assume that Trout would average a 33% decrease in production over the remainder of his new contract, he would still be valued at $43.6 million based on the value of the metric. Keeping in mind that Trout produced an 8.5 WAR over the first year of his contract, this amount continues to look like a bargain for the Angels. But while keeping an evaluation of WAR is important, comparing his contract to other high-caliber players is another side that needs to be considered.
In the second angle Trout will be evaluated through, I compare his contract to others of somewhat similar skill. The first comp that will be used is a signing that happened only earlier in the same offseason, the long-term Bryce Harper-Phillies deal. In the deal, Harper received a similar $20 million in signing bonus as well as $330 million over 13 years. In Bryce’s deal, he averages $25.4 million, while Trout averages $35.5 million. While both are fairly short of the highest average annual value, they are some of the highest total amount values. Again discounting 2020, Harper averaged 4.4 WAR a year over the first 8 seasons of his career. That is 54% of Trout’s production, while still earning 72% of what Trout makes. Even with Harper opting for a lower AAV for a longer-term deal, Mike can still be deemed a better deal than Harper. The next contract being discussed was signed mid-season after Trout for a historic amount, which was the Mookie Betts-Dodgers deal. Betts got a much higher $65 million signing bonus while also getting $365m/12 years. Mookie averages 30.4 million dollars a year in this contract, about 5 million dollars less than Trout. Compared to the other players mentioned, Mookie has had a relatively short career but has splashed with a 6.2 WAR average over his first 6 seasons (without 2020). The average WAR is 76% of Trouts, while the AAV is 86%. Even with Mookie having a lesser differential from Trout than Harper, these prior contracts show that Trout is relatively underpaid. While one may argue that Trout’s extended period in the game of baseball could be detrimental to the remaining length of his career from this point compared to Mookie, justifying a larger payment for Betts, the two players are only 11 months apart in age. Hence, this argument could justify even larger payment for Trout with more experience at a younger age. Even with evidence that the Trout contract is worth the payment, is the amount of money being spent beneficial to his team?
In the third and final angle Trout is looked at, I aim to figure out if spending this amount on a single contract was worth it for the Angels. From 2011-2019, the time Trout has spent with the team, the Angels are 742-716 (.509 Win %). In that time, they have only won the division once in 2013, later getting swept in the ALDS by the Royals. While the Angel’s performance is primarily due to their struggle to find decent pitching, Trout’s entire tenure has only helped produce a barely-above .500 team. Even though they would’ve likely been below that number based on Mike’s WAR, their major investment has proven to gain little returns. While there is something to say regarding the fan attraction he brings into a ballpark, anything in terms of on-the-field advantage has ultimately been a waste. So, while Trout has proven to be an asset, the Angel’s were the wrong destination for this slugger. They would be better-served trading Trout to a competitive team in which his 8 WAR average could be the difference between the playoffs or not. In a potential scenario where this happens, Trout’s WAR and other sabermetrics could experience an increase as there are increased scoring opportunities.
So, in truth, was Mike Trout worth the biggest extension in MLB history? His WAR value was examined and accounted for a performance decrease, which estimated Trout to be undervalued. High-caliber players with similar contracts were also compared, again estimating that Trout was underpaid compared to his colleagues. The value he brought to the Angel’s was also looked at, and although ultimately futile to any postseason appearances, it showed he could further benefit from a trade to a more competitive team. While Los Angeles ultimately overpaid Trout subtracting revenue he attracted into the stadium, this signing would’ve been more than worth it to any competitive team. He has ultimately proven through his performance and consistency that he is not only worth the amount he was given but even more to the right buyer.