Watching Greatness: Mike Trout's Illustrious Career
The views expressed in this article represent only the individual author and not the entirety of The Drummey Angle
Over the last decade, one player has dominated baseball at a historic rate. His name is Michael Nelson Trout. He quickly became a household name as he compiled MVP top-2 finishes. Over an 8-year span, he was top 2 in voting for 7 of those years. He reached 1,000 hits before age 26. He was compiling milestones at a rate baseball has not seen in a long time.
By age 21, he had finished second in MVP voting twice. That is bonkers. Early on, he was being compared to the titans of the game we love, such as Hammering Hank Aaron and Barry Lamar Bonds. Through his first 586 games, Trout was more accomplished than Bonds. Not to mention that Trout could have held 3 MVPs by then, whereas Bonds’s first four seasons only consisted of a 6th place finish in his rookie year. Over that same period, Trout had a slash line of .306/.397/.957 with 33.6 WAR, whereas Bonds held a .256/.345 /.803 slash line with 23.4 WAR.
In 2012 and 2013, Mike Trout was the best all-around player in baseball, and the MVP voters got it wrong. He lost to future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera in both years. In 2012, Cabrera won the Triple Crown of hitting, which means he led the MLB in batting average (.330), runs batted in (139), and home runs (44); he also compiled 7.9 bWAR and 7.3 fWAR. Now don’t get me wrong, that is a great season. But Mike Trout had a historic season, which the voters failed to appreciate. For comparison, Trout hit .326 with 30 homers to go along with 83 RBIs. He ran wild on the basepaths, stealing 49 bags. Additionally, he posted a higher on-base percentage than Miggy. In total, Trout’s season amounted to 10.5 bWAR or 10.1 fWAR. I am not a statistician, but 10 is bigger than 7 the last time I checked. A 10-plus bWAR season is incredibly rare. Yes, it has happened, but mostly by players who were playing on fields without fences or before there were 50 states in the US.
As the 2013 season drew to a close, it was clear that the MVP race was once again between Trout and Miggy. Let’s get it right this year! “Ha, nope” - the MVP voters. Trout posted an 8.9 bWAR (10.1 fWAR) to Miggy’s 7.5 bWAR (8.6 fWAR). That year, Miguel Cabrera was a defensive liability at third base, which is the biggest differentiator between the two All-Stars. Despite having a UZR of -6.0 (not good), Miguel did have a better slash line (.348 / .442 / 1.078) than Trout (.323 /.423 /. 989). To complement an above-average season at the plate, Trout posted a positive UZR of 0.1 (average). Additionally, Trout suffered from being on a mediocre Angels team, whereas Miggy was on the playoff-bound Detroit Tigers. Unfortunate…
This can’t keep happening, right?! Well, it did. I wish I were kidding. In 2015, Trout posted another MLB-leading 9.6 bWAR (9.3 fWAR) and somehow lost to Josh Donaldson. Donaldson did put up a great 7.1 bWAR (8.7 fWAR), but that pales in comparison to Trout’s numbers. If you are screaming at your screen about games played, I counter with Trout playing 159 to Donaldson’s 158. I will admit, Donaldson did have a very strong year defensively, but it is not like Trout is a defensive liability. Offensively, Trout had a better year (.299 / .402 / .991) versus Donaldson’s (.297 / .371 / .939). Once again, Mike Trout suffered from being on a mediocre Angels team in comparison to Donaldson, who was the centerpiece of the Blue Jays amid a playoff race.
In 2018, Trout lost the MVP race to Mookie Betts, who had one of the best seasons of the last 40 years. Trout’s 9.9 bWAR (9.5 fWAR) fell shy of Bett’s 10.7 bWAR (10.6 fWAR), which highlights how special of a year it took to knock off Trout for MVP after 5 top-2 finishes over the last 6 seasons. Trout is just special. I would argue that going into the 2020 season, Trout could have won 6 MVPs. Am I a tad biased? Yes. But I do think there is an argument to be made. For reference, Barry Lamar Bonds holds the record for 7 MVPs, 4 of which are tainted by his steroid use.
Enough about MVP snubs, but before I talk about where he is currently, I want to highlight that Mike Trout is arguably one of the biggest losers from the Covid-19 shortened season. He missed roughly 100 games of his prime, which is going to be a big deal in the long run when determining where he falls on the all-time leaderboard. But where is he now, and where is he heading aside from Cooperstown?
Above, I included a simple comparison of the top 2 center fielders of all-time (Mickey mantle and Willie Mays), Hank Aaron, and Mike Trout to show their numbers through roughly the first 1400 games of their careers. I acknowledge that there are guys who were “better” from the Dead Ball Era of baseball, but I do not think it is a fair comparison given the competition level. I want to be clear. I am not saying Trout is better than any one of these all time greats. I am using them as a measuring stick to show how dominant Mike Trout has been over his first 1400 games. What jumps off the page is Trout’s home runs and OPS/OPS +. Somehow, he has been a more efficient power hitter than the home run king (Hank Aaron). Something else that surprised me is that his production is very similar to these inner-circle Hall of Famers. The comparisons are not a stretch, which highlights how incredible Mike Trout’s career has been to this point.
As of now, September 2022, Trout has amassed 1,532 hits, 347 homers, and 81.7 bWAR (81.5 fWAR). That is a 162-game average of 177 hits, 40 home runs, and 9.5 bWAR, which is spectacular. Because of the Covid year and injuries over the last two years, Trout has lost at least 1.5 years of his prime. To say that he is a sure thing for 3000 hits is a stretch, but he still has a chance at it, depending on how the second half of his career goes. He is likely to hit 500 homers and might make it to 600 home runs. As for his career WAR, that is a little harder to project. If he plays 10 more years, until age 42, he can add 60 more wins above replacement to his resume. Obviously, there is going to be a decline in his game after his prime years, but I do think his swing will age well.
It is clear that if you watch the way opposing pitchers handle Trout, he sees maybe one strike an at-bat that he can truly drive. It explains why he has such a high on-base percentage. Pitchers nibble on the corners because they do not want to throw him anything remotely in the zone. Looking at his plate disciple information on Fangraphs (pictured above), a few things stand out to me. Over his career, he makes contact with 86.6% of the balls thrown into the strike zone that he swings at, which is very good. Even his overall contact rate, when he swings at balls and strikes, is 80.8%. He controls the plate, and, as a result, he only sees strikes thrown to him 51.4% of the time. I know 2022 has been an anomaly when looking at the chart in comparison to previous years, but I would argue that was caused by his back injury, which had him in a crippling slump before going onto the IL for an extended period of time.
So where does all this leave us? Is Trout the greatest baseball player of all time? No. He suffers from a huge fatal flaw that might derail his career - he has trouble staying on the field. Can he stay healthy as he ages? Over the last 2 years, he has played roughly the same amount of games he has missed. Despite that, I will always love watching Trout play and somehow think he is still underrated, especially after spending time diving into his numbers. He truly is a once-in-a-generation talent, which is why players are compared to him whenever they are having a great season. He is the standard. His consistent dominance is remarkable. Undoubtedly, he already has the numbers to be in the Hall of Fame, which is rare, considering he is 31. I do not know what the rest of his career looks like, but I do hope that he can stay healthy and continue to climb the all-time leaderboard.
"Mike Trout" via Keith Allison licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0