Mike Trout remains baseball’s best player: While We’re Waiting

(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

The 2016 Major League Baseball season is down to its final two-and-a-half weeks. With that in mind, it’s time to talk year-end awards. And for the fifth straight year (i.e. every full single-season he’s had in the bigs), that means we have to wrestle with what to do with Mike Trout (h/t Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci).

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim franchise has fallen on hard times. From 2002-15, the team averaged 90 regular season wins and made the playoffs seven times. Yes, their World Series win was way back in 2002, and they were subsequently swept in the ALDS in three of those next six appearances. But the Angels were a consistently good team with great talent for a long time.

In 2016, that certainly is not the case. The Angels are 63-82, sitting 23 games back in the AL West and even 16 games behind the second wild card spot. Their starting rotation and bullpen are both among baseball’s worst. They have a collection of below-average performers all over the lineup. This hasn’t been a good team at all.

Yet the even worse prognosis comes into the future. Very little of their existing MLB talent is under 25. And prior to the season, every reputable outlet ranked the Angels as having the league’s worst farm system. The analyses at Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, MiLB.com and Minor League Ball are all brutally ruthless:

“There are times when you just kind of run out of ways to describe something, and the state of the Angels’ system defies much in the way of analytic vigor these days.” “The best thing to say about the Angels system, at this point, is that these rankings stories are over.” “UGHHHH: The Angels get a special category of badness all their own. … There’s no way to spin it: this may be the worst system in recent memory.”

Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper also wrote an extended piece on the Angels’ consistent win-now approach, trading away younger prospects for older players year after year. It’s ugly over there in Anaheim. And the one consistent bright spot happens to be the greatest young player in our lifetime.

Mike Trout is batting .317/.434/.558 in 142 games this season. He has 30 doubles, 28 home runs, 89 RBI and 25 steals. For his career, Mike Trout is batting .306/.403/.559. Per 142 games in his career, he has 31 doubles, 30 home runs, 87 RBI and 25 steals. He’s been remarkably consistent and excellent throughout his five-plus seasons in the majors. His on-base percentage has notably improved in 2016.

Pure offensive stats alone don’t tell the full story, even though Trout’s .962 OPS at this stage in his career places him among legendary peers. Guys like Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig and more. You can easily get trapped in a Baseball-Reference rabbit hole on the topic of Trout’s greatness alone.

But let’s take Albert Pujols for example. In his first five seasons, Trout’s current teammate hit .332/.416/.621 in 790 games. The Machine was one year older than Trout, relative to their MLB experience. But Pujols had three main strikes against him, in comparison: 1) He played first base, a less valuable defensive position; 2) He provided relatively little value with his base-running; and 3) He played in a more offensive-prone era.

According to FanGraphs, Pujols had a 166 Weight Runs Created Plus (wRC+) in 790 games from 2001-05. That statistic, a frequently cited offensive metrics in the sabermetrics community, helps account for “park effects and the current run environment.” But despite Pujols’ much larger slugging percentage, Trout actually has a 167 wRC+ in his career so far.

During those first five seasons, FanGraphs states that Pujols provided -20.5 Runs Above Average from baserunning, defense and fielding position adjustments. Trout, on the other hand, has provided 55.5 such Runs Above Average. Considering the conventional wisdom of 10 Runs per Win that gives Trout a WAR advantage of about 7.5, or about 1.5 per season. That’s a fairly substantial difference given the relatively equal weighted offensive production.

There are simply very, very few modern peers who Trout can be fairly compared to in terms of his all-around production. Any position player of the ’90s has to be compared to the overall slugging numbers of that era. Young prodigies like Alex Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, and Pujols are a clear step below. Ken Griffey might be the best such comparison, but even he pales in comparison to Trout’s league-adjusted value at this stage in their careers.1

Mike Trout leads all of baseball with 9.2 rWAR (via Baseball-Reference) and 8.3 fWAR (via FanGraphs) this season. Nobody else is particularly close. And yet, because of the archaic ways in which Most Valuable Player voting works, Trout likely has no shot at the award. He only has one such honor to his name, back in 2014. He was the runner-up in 2012, 2013 and 2015. He’ll likely finish third or worse this season.

We should be talking about Mike Trout more because he is an anomaly in professional sports. No player this young has ever dominated this thoroughly in the modern times since the very start of his career. I understand the complexities of national baseball fandom, but it just seems this goes often underappreciated. Should we just start up a new award for Trout to win each year, instead of MVP?

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  1. Ed. note: Which is crazy to think about given how transcendent Griffey was. []