Mike Trout’s Opening Act
Even if the Angels outfielder doesn’t win the MVP this season, no other hitter has been this great at such a young age
Baseball is the sport that launched a thousand barstool arguments, and unlike Helen of Troy, it inspires new fleets to disembark all the time. No sooner is one debate resolved than another one arrives to take its place. This time last year we were asking whether the Red Sox were the most disappointing team in recent history and whether the Pirates would ever get over .500. This March, “Can the Washington Nationals win 105 games?” was a legitimate question in some quarters. In May, the debate about the Dodgers was how a team with the highest payroll in major league history could be so mediocre; by July, the discussion had shifted to whether the Dodgers were the hottest team since World War II.
But one question has endured for more than a year, an eternity by the standards of these debates. It is one of baseball’s quintessential questions, pitting two players with vastly different skill sets head-to-head. How you answer the question says as much about you as about the players involved. And the argument is as far from being settled today as it was last September.
Miguel Cabrera? Or Mike Trout?
Perhaps you recall the great MVP debate of 2012. Miguel Cabrera hit .330/.393/.606 for the Detroit Tigers; Mike Trout hit .326/.399/.564 for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Cabrera played in 161 games, and Trout played in 159, but because the Angels had no idea that Trout was about to have the finest season ever by a 20-year-old, he played the first 20 of those games in Triple-A.
Even spotting Cabrera 22 extra games, Trout outdid him — and everyone else in baseball — in overall value. The Angels play in one of the game’s best pitcher’s parks, which made Trout’s performance at the plate even more impressive — his OPS+ (168), which factors in ballpark effects, was even higher than Cabrera’s (165). In addition to being one of the five best players in the world with a bat in his hands, he was also the league’s best base-runner (a league-leading 49 steals in just 54 attempts) and one of the league’s best defenders (Trout was 21 runs better than an average outfielder, and he robbed four players of a home run).
Trout led the American League in steals and runs scored, and he had a Secretariat-like lead in the granddaddy of sabermetric stats, Wins Above Replacement (10.9; no one else in the majors had more than 8.5). Cabrera led the league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in (as well as in double plays grounded into). The historic intertwining of those three stats as the Triple Crown — and no baseball player having won the Triple Crown in 45 years — made the vote a foregone conclusion. In addition, the Tigers went to the playoffs, even though they won fewer games (88) than the Angels (89).
Trout was denied the MVP award last year by a combination of geography and baseball’s peculiar fascination with the guy who drives in runs over the guy who scores them. This year, the voters won’t need to be nearly as arbitrary when they come up with reasons to vote for Cabrera over Trout. Cabrera may not win the Triple Crown thanks to Chris Davis, but he again leads the AL in RBIs, and he currently holds the more relevant Triple Slash Crown, leading in batting average, OBP, and slugging average. The Tigers have clinched another AL Central crown, while the Angels, because of a leaky pitching staff and surprisingly mediocre seasons from Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols, won’t even finish over .500.
While Davis may still crash the party, this could be just the fourth time in history that the same players finished in the top two in MVP voting in back-to-back seasons. Roger Maris topped Mickey Mantle in the AL MVP vote in both 1960 and 1961, a crime for which Yankee fans never really forgave him. In 2002 and again in 2003, Pujols was Alydar to Barry Bonds’ Affirmed. Only in 1992, when Bonds beat out Terry Pendleton for the MVP award after finishing behind him in 1991, did the top two MVP candidates flip-flop in the voting from one year to the next.
But here’s the thing about this year’s AL MVP debate: Like global thermonuclear war and tic-tac-toe in War Games, sometimes the only winning move is not to play. The argument over which player is most deserving inevitably leads to looking for holes in each player’s game as reasons not to vote for him. Cabrera is a terrible defensive third baseman — but he did, at least, willingly move back to a position that’s difficult to get elite offense from, a position he hadn’t played in five years.
Trout’s team hasn’t won anything yet, because apparently it’s Trout’s fault that his front office, in consecutive off-seasons, (1) traded for Vernon Wells, (2) signed Pujols to a 10-year, $240 million contract, and (3) signed Hamilton for five years and $125 million. The consensus in baseball at the time was that Wells had the game’s worst contract; today, Pujols and Hamilton rank only behind Alex Rodriguez as the sport’s most un-tradable assets.
Picking apart their weaknesses is silly. Criticizing Cabrera or Trout is like whining about the mole on Kate Upton’s upper lip. They’re both great players, maybe all-time great players. But only one is transcendent.
Cabrera has held the title of Most Dangerous Hitter in Baseball for several years now. But within the admittedly lofty ranks of men who have held that title, Cabrera is hardly unique. Just among right-handed hitters in the last 25 years, Cabrera still ranks third behind Pujols and Frank Thomas.
Over the last four years, Cabrera has hit .338/.426/.615, good for a 178 OPS+. From 2003 to 2010 Pujols hit .334/.433/.635, a 177 OPS+. From 1990 to 1997, Thomas hit .330/.452/.600, a 182 OPS+.
Cabrera is hitting at a level that few players have reached before. But “few” is different from “zero.” Cabrera’s performance from 2010 to 2013 is not much different than Jeff Bagwell from 1994 to 1997 (175 OPS+) or Albert Belle from 1994 to 1996 (174 OPS+) or Manny Ramirez from 1999 to 2002 (176 OPS+). What Cabrera is doing is historic, but it’s not unprecedented. What Mike Trout is doing is unprecedented.
He wasn’t supposed to be this good, and not just because no one is supposed to be this good. Trout fell to the no. 25 pick in the 2009 draft for two main reasons: (1) he went to high school in New Jersey, and skeptics wondered how he would fare against elite-level talent, and (2) Trout was just 17 years old when he was drafted, and the industry didn’t fully appreciate how much additional growth as a player that extra year of development afforded him. But from his first moment in rookie ball, Trout has almost always been the best player on the field.
He hit .352/.419/.486 after signing in 2009, and in his first full pro season in 2010, he hit .341/.428/.490 with 56 steals, reaching high Class A ball while he was still 18. He was rated the no. 2 prospect in the game behind Bryce Harper. In 2011, Trout hit .326/.414/.544 with 33 steals in just 91 games in Double-A, reaching the majors a month before he turned 20. While in the majors he struggled for the first and only time in his pro career, batting just .220/.281/.390. That winter he dropped to no. 3 in Baseball America’s prospect rankings, behind Harper and Matt Moore.
Trout started the 2012 season in Triple-A, because the Angels just had to make sure, one more time, that Wells was finished. It only took 20 games — in which Trout hit .403/.467/.623 and scored 21 runs — before the Angels realized they had made a grievous mistake. When Trout was called up, they were 6-14. From that point on, the Angels were 83-59. It was too late. Trout had one of the greatest rookie seasons of all time in 2012. Despite missing the first three weeks of the season, his 129 runs scored rank behind just four other rookies: Lloyd Waner, Joe DiMaggio, Vada Pinson, and Ted Williams. His .326 batting average was the sixth-highest by a rookie since World War II, as was his .564 slugging average. And remember, he did this playing in Angel Stadium of Anaheim, which is a hitter’s graveyard. After adjusting for ballpark, Trout’s 168 OPS+ is the second-highest of any rookie in major league history, behind only Shoeless Joe Jackson in 1911. And that doesn’t account for his league-leading stolen base totals and Gold Glove–caliber defense in center field. Trout’s 10.9 WAR is the highest of any rookie in history. But here’s the thing: Categorizing Trout as a rookie in 2012 does him a disservice. What was remarkable about Trout last year wasn’t his inexperience, it was his youth. Trout turned 21 on August 7; by baseball protocol, a player’s season is categorized by his age on June 30. By that standard, Trout was 20 years old in 2012, several years younger than the typical rookie. Hitters develop so quickly in their early 20s that a difference of even a year or two has an enormous impact on career expectations. Back in 1987, Bill James estimated that if two rookies have identical seasons, on average the 20-year-old rookie will go on to hit 61 percent more homers in his career than the 21-year-old rookie.
Here is the list of the 10 best seasons by a rookie hitter since 1901. We’ll use offensive Wins Above Replacement, which ignores position and defense, stripping away one of Trout’s greatest assets but allowing us to compare him directly to players throughout baseball history:
Shoeless Joe Jackson
It’s an impressive list of players, but only Fisk and Williams are in the Hall of Fame, and only Suzuki is likely to join them.
By comparison, here is the list of the best seasons by a 20-year-old hitter since 1901:
Despite a smaller pool to choose from — there are far fewer 20-year-olds playing regularly in the majors than there are rookies — the list is significantly more impressive. The only retired player on this list who is not in the Hall of Fame is Pinson, who retired with 2,757 career hits. Rodriguez may be denied entry on account of his history with PEDs, but he’d be a first-ballot Hall of Famer if performance were the only consideration. And these aren’t just ordinary Hall of Famers — most of these players are all-time greats at their position.
On the first list, Trout is in the company of excellent players who had long and productive careers. On the second list, he presides over some of the greatest players to ever hold a piece of ash in their hands. And on both lists, he leads the pack by a comfortable margin. The difference between Trout and the fourth-best performance on each list is greater than the difference between fourth place and 10th place.
What Trout did last season placed him in a rarefied air that only a few players in history had ever reached. This year, he’s gone to places that few have even glimpsed. If Trout ascended to the top of Mount Everest last year, then this year he’s planted his flag at the top of Olympus Mons. The best seasons usually occur when great talent coincides with a little bit of luck — ground ball with eyes here, a Texas Leaguer that drops in there. Trout hit .326 last year, but it was more reasonable to assume that he was a true-talent .300 hitter who got a little lucky than it was to assume that, at age 20, he really was a .326 hitter.
The second and third hitters on the age-20 list are good examples of this. As a 20-year-old in 1996, Alex Rodriguez won a batting title and hit .358. He hasn’t hit better than .321 since. He would eventually have better seasons at the plate, because he would hit for more power and draw more walks. But A-Rod’s batting average on balls in play at age 20 (.382) was unsustainable; he hasn’t come within 35 points of that since.
Like Rodriguez, Al Kaline won a batting title at age 20, hitting .340; like Rodriguez, Kaline would never hit for as high an average or win a batting title again. While he would play 22 years in the majors and finish with more than 3,000 hits, Kaline never hit better than .327 again. His BABIP was .339 that rookie year, which would be his career high. BABIP, more than any other offensive skill, is subject to the vagaries of luck. Kaline and Rodriguez were great players at age 20, but not as great as their batting averages suggested.
Trout had a .383 BABIP last season, which pointed to a considerable amount of luck in his performance. Like Kaline and Rodriguez, he was likely to find worse results at the plate this season even if his actual skills improved. As recently as five months ago, it was still a matter of vigorous debate as to whether Trout or Harper was the game’s best young player. Harper hit “only” .270/.340/.477 last season, but he’s a full year younger than Trout — Harper actually had the best season by a 19-year-old at the same time Trout had the best season by a 20-year-old — and his rookie season didn’t involve a stratospheric BABIP that was likely to regress.
Harper has, in fact, hit better this season than last — he’s hitting .279/.374/.496 — although missed playing time from injuries has kept his overall value down. But then, Trout is also hitting better this year than in his rookie season. His batting average (.325) and slugging average (.560) are perfectly in line with 2012, while his OBP has risen to .432.
This should be impossible. Trout had the greatest 20-year-old season ever by a hitter. He had a .383 BABIP. The armies of regression from greatness and regression from luck amassed on his doorstep in the spring, and he flicked them aside as if he were Achilles. He’s done that in part because his BABIP this year has dropped … all the way to .379.
Unlike pitchers, hitters do have significant influence on their batting average on balls in play. Fast players will beat out more infield singles than slow hitters. Hitters who smoke more line drives will have a higher BABIP, as will hitters who pop up less, since line drives turn into hits far more often than other batted balls, and pop-ups land in a glove 95 percent of the time.
Trout is extremely fast. He turns more than 13 percent of his ground balls into infield hits, which is more than twice the major league average of about 6 percent. His line drive rate the last two years is about 23 percent, comfortably above the major league average of 20-21 percent. And only about 4 percent of Trout’s fly balls are on the infield, less than half the average rate of about 10 percent. There’s reason to think that Trout can exceed the typical .300 BABIP by a substantial margin. Maybe his .380 mark these last two years is not his true level, but it’s close.
Over the last two years, here are the best BABIPs by hitters with at least 500 plate appearances:
While Trout has the highest BABIP in baseball the last two years, there’s little separation between him and guys like Joey Votto and Joe Mauer, considered two of the best pure hitters in the game. Chris Johnson aside, four of those five players are superstars.
Trout’s career BABIP of .367 would be the highest of any major leaguer since Ty Cobb retired, but he’s not that far ahead of the pack. Rod Carew retired with a .359 BABIP; Derek Jeter has a .353 BABIP for his career. Given his skill set and his youth, Trout may very well be the rare player who can sustain a .350 BABIP. This would make him a little lucky this year and last — but only a little.
Meanwhile, in the areas where luck is not heavily involved — power and walks — Trout continues to improve. His home runs are down slightly, from 30 to 26, but he’s approaching 40 doubles and 10 triples, and he actually has nine more extra-base hits than last year in just 16 more at-bats. But where Trout has made the most significant progress is in commanding the strike zone. Last year, he drew 67 walks and struck out 139 times — a better-than-average rate, particularly for a rookie. But this year, Trout has cut his strikeout-to-walk rate by 40 percent. He has whiffed just 130 times while drawing a league-leading 104 walks; no other AL hitter has more than 90. Overnight, at age 21, Trout has become the most patient hitter in the league. In the live ball era, only Mel Ott and Joe Morgan have led their league in walks at such a young age.
Trout leads the league in walks. He is second in batting average. He is second in extra-base hits (he has more than Cabrera). He is fifth in steals. He is the most complete player in baseball, and there is no second place.
Even assuming that Trout simply maintains a 10-WAR pace, he will rank among the 20 best hitters of all time by the time he turns 30. He’ll break the top 10 by the time he’s 33, the top five by the time he’s 35. By the time he’s 37, he’ll pass Ruth for the most WAR by a position player ever. And about the time he’s 38, he’ll pass Ruth’s combined WAR as a hitter and a pitcher to ascend the throne as The Greatest Baseball Player of All Time.
Far-fetched? Sure. No one averages 10 WAR a season. But then, Trout’s been doing a lot of stuff that no one’s done before. Just the fact that I can concoct a scenario in which Mike Trout becomes the GOAT without invoking magic or a Hunger Games scenario that leaves every other major league player dead is a testament to the kind of player he is and the kind of player he can be.
If the voters want to deny Trout another MVP award, at this point, let them. Frankly, Cabrera can have his MVP. There’s one of those every year. (Two of them, actually). But a Mike Trout comes along once in a generation, if that. No amount of hardware, or lack thereof, can change that we have seen the greatest opening act in baseball history.
They don’t give out a trophy for being the Greatest Player of All-Time, but they probably should; I for one, can’t wait to see how the rest of the show unfolds.
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