For the fourth time in five years, Mike Trout may not win the AL MVP award, despite yet another outstanding season by the Los Angeles Angel. Entering play Monday, Trout had put up a triple-slash of .312/.431/.546, accumulating 24 home runs, 21 stolen bases, 82 RBI’s and 98 runs. Defensively Trout has ranked about league average, but advanced metrics have been bullish on him in the past, and to the naked eye he can still impress with his glove. His base-running has been great, per usual, and looks to once again be in the running for AL MVP. Other candidates, like Mookie Betts and Jose Altuve, come and go from year-to-year, but Trout can always be counted on to be right in the thick of the race.
A friend of mine recently asked me, “How good is Mike Trout really?” Most people probably wouldn’t give much thought to this question, for Trout is the best, but it sure is a good one. In the context of baseball history, where is Mike Trout? I myself would like to know. Therefore, I decided to study up on this question so that I could provide a way-too-long-and-probably-unnecessary answer. For the purposes of this exercise, I will be looking at players primarily through their age-24 seasons, as Trout just turned 25 on August 7th, 2016 is considered to be in his age-24 season as well.
The first thing I would like to look at is how Trout compares to some of the best players of the last 30 years or so. The following graph compares the beginning of Trout’s career to 15 of the best players of the recent past, sorted by total WAR, through each player’s age-24 season:
As you can see, Trout is ahead of everyone; and frankly, it isn’t even close. The names on this list are nothing to joke about either. Despite what you may think about Alex Rodriguez, he is one of the 10-15 best position of all time. Ken Griffey Jr. was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and Barry Bonds has more home runs than anybody in history. Even the names towards the bottom of this list, such as Carlos Beltran and Manny Ramirez, are potential Hall of Fame candidates. Essentially, based on WAR, Trout has shown better early-career production than any of the top position players of the past three decades.
For people who prefer not to rely strictly on metrics like WAR, I have gone through and highlighted the top three players in each stat category as well. I chose to exclude runs and RBI’s, as those numbers are partially related to a team’s batting order as a whole (although Trout did rank 2nd and 5th respectively in those categories). What should jump out at you is that no player on the list made it into the top three in any more than two stat categories, that is, other than Mike Trout. Trout, in fact, leads in double that number with four. Despite being tied for 6th on the list in batting average, he jumps up into 3rd place in overall OPS on the strength of a .402 OBP and a .558 SLG%. Furthermore, by placing top-3 in triples and stolen bases as well as in home runs, Trout demonstrates the speed/power combo that has made him such a standout player early in his career.
Now, let’s up the standards a bit and compare Trout to some of the best players of all time, again taking the accumulation of numbers through each players’ age-24 season (note that I have excluded Babe Ruth, who did not do much hitting prior to the age of 25)…
Once again, Trout is ahead of the pack in terms of WAR, albeit his lead on Mickey Mantle is much smaller than it was on Alex Rodriguez in the previous chart. Ted Williams, who missed his age-24 season while serving in World War II, is the only player on this list who possibly could have matched Trout’s production of 45.5 WAR (Williams averaged 9.1 WAR through his first four MLB seasons). In terms of top-3 finishes for each stat category, Trout is behind the likes of Mickey Mantle and Lou Gehrig this time around, while holding a four-way tie with the aforementioned Williams, Stan Musial, and Willie Mays. Thus, while Trout is comparable to some of the best players in the game at this point in his career, he still has more to accomplish if he wants to separate himself from the pack (something that I wouldn’t count on considering that these are some of the best players in history). Even if Trout were to decline, however, there is no shame in finishing behind a group that consists of seven first-ballot Hall of Fame inductees, one second-ballot inductee (Mel Ott), and a special case inductee (Lou Gehrig).
The final chart that I would like to show you is a bit unique. It does not carry as much significance as the previous ones, but it is interesting to look at nonetheless. While studying various players and stats in FanGraphs, I noticed that Mike Trout’s worst season, according to fWAR, was in 2014, where he posted a 7.9 in that category and, ironically, won his only MVP award. In comparison, he had a 10.3 in 2012, 10.5 in 2013, 8.9 in 2015, and is currently at 7.2 in 2016. That 2014 season, Trout recorded a .287/.377/.561 batting line with 36 home runs, 16 stolen bases, 111 RBIs and 115 runs scored. Astounded at how these kinds of numbers could be the worst full season of anybody’s big league career, I decided to see just how many players have managed the same type of batting line throughout recorded history. Therefore, I set the following parameters:
Minimum of: 35 HR, 15 SB, 110 RBI, 110 Runs, .285 AVG, .375 OBP, and a .555 SLG%.
Based on those numbers, here are the results:
That’s right, only 44 players in all of baseball history have put up numbers equal to or better than what Mike Trout did in his statistically worst WAR season. Those 44 seasons are accounted for by just 27 players, and by looking at the list, you can see that the names are, again, among the best in baseball. Of course, WAR takes into account fielding and base running as well, which may have added and/or subtracted a few seasons from the list, but generally speaking, Trouts 2014 season is pretty darn rare.
Given what I have just showed you, it makes sense that Trout, at only 25 years of age, has already won a Rookie of the Year Award, 4 Silver-Slugger awards an MVP, and has been to 5 All-Star games. 7 more Silver Slugger awards would tie him with Barry Bonds, who holds the record with 12. Likewise, one more MVP award would jump Trout into a group of 30 players in history who have at least two MVP’s to their name. Two more would tie Trout with nine other’s for 2nd all-time, and three more would give Trout sole possession of second place behind Bonds’ seven MVP awards. With three 2nd-place finishes in the past four years, this is all very possible. Assuming he has a good 12-15 years of baseball left, it is not inconceivable to think that Trout will finish as one of the ten-best players of all time, especially since he is only now entering what should be the prime of his career. Of course the future is not set in stone and anything could happen to alter a players’ production moving forward; but I suggest you appreciate the history now while it is right in front of you rather than look back after it is too late.