Fun-fact faceoff: Why 2018 could be monumental for Mike Trout

BySam Miller and David Schoenfield ESPN logo
Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The 2017 season was a down year for the Mike Trout fun-fact industry. He played incredibly -- through late May, he was probably having his best season-- but a fluke thumb injury came along and spoiled his stat-page perfection. Not only did he not challenge 50 homers or a 40/40 season (both seemed within reach before he missed six weeks), but for the first time, he didn't lead his league in WAR, he didn't score or drive in 100 runs, he didn't finish in the top two MVP spots. A fourth-place finish has never been such a letdown.

But we're bullish on this year's fun-fact potential. With just a typical-for-him season, he'll pass all-time greats on some career leaderboards, accomplish things no other player has by age 26 and separate himself even more historically from his contemporaries. And so, in anticipation of the amazing fun facts that await us, Sam Miller challenged David Schoenfield to a fun-fact faceoff. The rules are simple: If Trout has a Trout-like season this year, which fun facts will he be chasing? We're going three rounds, and Schoenfield acts first.

Round 1

David Schoenfield: We know Trout is obviously one of the best young players of all time. He already ranks fourth among position players in career WAR through theirage-26 season, tied with Alex Rodriguez and trailing only Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle and Rogers Hornsby. Here's the catch: Trout is just now entering his age-26 season. From 2012 to 2017, he averaged 9.1 WAR per season -- a figure that includes his injury-shortened 2017 campaign -- and if he reaches that 9.1 figure again in 2018, he'll pass Cobb, 64.3 to 63.2.

But that's not my first Mike Trout fun fact! That one has been widely noted. I was curious to find out where, if Trout has another typical Trout season, his seven-year run would rank regardless of age. If he has another 9.1 WAR season, here's what that list looks like (position players only):

  • Babe Ruth, 1921-1927: 72.4
  • Willie Mays, 1960-1966: 70.5
  • Ted Williams, 1940-1949: 65.9 (includes missed seasons during World War II)
  • Honus Wagner, 1903 to 1909: 64.9
  • Rogers Hornsby, 1921 to 1927: 64.4
  • Mickey Mantle, 1955 to 1961: 64.1
  • Mike Trout, 2012 to 2018: 63.6
  • Barry Bonds, 1998 to 2004: 63.0

So the only players above Trout would be Mays, Mantle and four players who accumulated all or, in the case of Williams, almost all of their value before the color barrier was broken. The only other players with 60 WAR over seven seasons are Eddie Collins, Cobb, Lou Gehrig and Albert Pujols.

Amazingly, you could actually break Mays' career into two non-overlapping runs of 60 WAR. From 1954 to 1960, he compiled 63.0 WAR. From 1961 to 1967, 65.4 WAR. So I guess that's a Willie Mays fun fact!

Sam Miller: I'm glad you started with this one. There are two different ways to process Trout's greatness over this first part of his career. One is to say, "Given what he's already done, he's well on his way to someday _________." You can fill in that blank with lots of things: He's well on his way to someday reaching the top 10 in career WAR, or to someday reaching 3,500 hits, or perhaps even to someday challenging the all-time home run record. In other words, he has been amazing, but there's still a lot of work to be done to have a truly historically significant career.

I look forward to those pursuits. But I think even if, at the age of 27, his career suddenly veers into oblivion, it shouldn't cheapen what he already has done -- because, as you show, what he already has done is one of the greatest peaks in history. One of the 10 greatest -- probably one of the six greatest -- and considering he has done it in his first six (soon to be seven) seasons, it's even more impressive. A kid born in 1960 turned 40 before he ever got to see anybody play baseball as well as Mike Trout does. (And even that was ambiguous because it was Barry Bonds.) These six years have been truly historically significant, no matter what happens after them. Don't forget that.

Now, though, for a second, let's assume the worst happens after them. Let's assume Trout plays this season and reaches his (relatively conservative) ZiPS projection: 650 plate appearances, 39 homers, .290/.421/.590, around 8.0 WAR. And then, after that, for mysterious reasons, he turns into Tony Womack.

You remember Womack. His rookie season came when he was 27, the age Trout will be in 2019. He stole a bunch of bases, played a ton of games but was otherwise barely there. In fact, since 1981, nobody has had more plate appearances from age 27 on while producing five or fewer wins above replacement. Womack batted more than 5,000 times from 27 on, and the whole time, he was basically as good as the minor league free agent you stash in Triple-A. He hit 36 homers. He slugged .357. He was worth 2.0 WAR. He finally ran out of jobs at age 36.

If Mike Trout, at age 27, became Tony Womack -- let's even say without the steals! -- and spent his final decade of play as one of the league's worst every-day hitters, he'd end up with these final career stats:

.287/.360/.452, 2,544 runs + RBIs, 1,064 BBs + HBPs, 792 extra-base hits, 65.2 WAR

Trout could spend more than half his career as Tony Womack, be forced into retirement at 36, and his most comparable player would still be a Hall of Famer!

Ron Santo: .277/.362/.464, 2,469 runs + RBIs, 1,146 BBs + HBPs, 774 extra-base hits, 70.4 WAR.

Round 2

Schoenfield: Ah, Tony Womack, a good reminder of something Mike Trout has never done (and Womack has): played in a World Series. He even delivered that crucial broken-bat double off Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning of Game 7 that tied the score. Some pundits will argue Trout can't be compared to the all-time greats until he performs in the postseason (he went 1-for-12 in his lone appearance in 2012), but it's not fair to criticize Trout simply because he hasn't had teammates as good as Tony Womack's in 2001. Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, Rod Carew and Ernie Banks never played in a World Series and that hasn't diminished their legacies.

The teammates idea brings me to this: The career record Trout is most likely to break is Rickey Henderson's mark for runs scored. Runs are important, so that's a good record! Henderson scored 2,295 runs. Trout is at 692. Henderson was at 586 at the same age but had monster totals of 146 and 130 the next two seasons and would top 100 runs seven more times after that. Trout has averaged 112 runs per season over his first six seasons; if he averages that through age 35, he's at 1,812 runs, putting him within shouting distance of Henderson.

Here's the thing, however: If Trout had better teammates, he'd have a lot more runs. You score runs by four primary factors: how often you get on base, how often you drive yourself in with a home run, your ability to run the bases and the quality of hitters following you in the lineup. Trout excels at the first three, but the past three seasons, the Angels have ranked 11th, 10th and 12th in the AL in runs.

Here's a little study. I looked at the percentage of runs scored per time on base (hit, walk, HBP, reached on error) for Trout, Henderson, Alex Rodriguez and Jeff Bagwell in their careers:

Rodriguez: 42.5 percent

Henderson: 41.7 percent

Trout: 40.3 percent

Bagwell: 38.4 percent

If Trout had scored runs at the same rate as A-Rod, he'd have 729 runs instead of 692. But remember, that's A-Rod's career rate, which includes old, slow and bad-hip A-Rod. He had much higher rates earlier in his career. Henderson has the stolen bases, of course, but Trout has the higher career OBP and more power than Henderson.

I included Bagwell because he's the only player since 1950 to score 150 runs in a season -- 152 in 2000. That year, he scored 48.7 percent of the time he got on base. That's pretty good. Charlie Blackmon led the majors with 137 runs in 2017 and scored 46.1 percent of the time. With RBI machine Don Mattingly behind him, Rickey scored 52 percent of the time in 1985.

Trout has had just one season in his career with a figure approaching those rates. In his rookie season of 2012, he scored 129 runs in 139 games, scoring 49.2 percent of the time he got on. That was Albert Pujols' first -- and best -- season with the Angels, and Torii Hunter had a big year, hitting .312 and driving in Trout 26 times. But look at his other seasons:

2012: 49.2

2013: 34.1

2014: 42.1

2015: 37.1

2016: 39.7

2017: 40.2

So that's my second Mike Trout fun fact: Even though he has never had a Mattingly or Ken Griffey Jr. or Nolan Arenado to help him out, he might still break Henderson's record. And maybe a 150-run season is possible (goJustin Upton!).

Miller: Oh, that's a good one. I think a lot about which record Trout is most likely to break -- if any, since his signature skill is well-roundedness. Through age 25, he's somewhere between fourth and 10th on a bunch of through-that-age leaderboards -- walks and extra-base hits (fourth in each), homers and times on base (fifth in each), total bases (seventh) and runs (ninth), but he's usually ahead of the eventual record-holder's pace. Runs is a great bet. It'll probably be runs.

I'm going simple with my second attempt. I'm never not amazed at how fast Trout is climbing certain career leaderboards -- not through-that-age leaderboards, but full-on career leaders. At first, he was just passing various Angels in franchise record books, but now he's doing despicable things to actual legends' places in history. So, if he has a typical-for-him (I'll agree with you on 9.1 WAR) season this year, he will pass the following Hall of Famers in career WAR:

Joe Medwick, Luis Aparicio, Bill Dickey, Joe Gordon, Hank Greenberg, Willie Stargell, Mike Piazza, Yogi Berra, Zack Wheat, Harmon Killebrew, Jake Beckley, Jackie Robinson, Home Run Baker, Jesse Burkett, Lou Boudreau, Sliding Billy Hamilton, Richie Ashburn, Billy Williams and Dave Winfield; and pitchers Red Ruffing, Eppa Rixey, Jim Bunning, Joe McGinnity, Hal Newhouser, Rube Waddell, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal, Dazzy Vance, Dennis Eckersley, Ed Walsh and Mickey Welch.

He'll pass Ichiro Suzuki this year, and Sammy Sosa and Gary Sheffield and Todd Helton and Mark McGwire and Bobby Abreu. A 9.2 WAR season ties him with Willie McCovey, and 9.3 ties him with Andre Dawson. (Keep in mind, he's already ahead of a bunch of Hall of Famers, such as George Sisler and Tony Perez and Ralph Kiner and Orlando Cepeda.) He'll turn 27 in August!

In win probability added-- an offense-only counting stat that includes clutchness -- he'll pass Adrian Gonzalez, Carlos Beltran and Wade Boggs this year. (He'll be fourth among all active players! He's 26!) If he wins the MVP award, he'll pass Alex Rodriguez and move into 10th place all time in MVP shares. (If he finishes only second, he'll pass Mike Schmidt and Frank Robinson and Thomas to move into 11th.) If he wins the award, he'll have more MVP shares than Derek Jeter and Henderson combined, more than David Ortiz and Cal Ripken Jr. combined. He already has more black ink -- meaning, statistical categories that he led the league in-- than Bagwell, Griffey, Ortiz or Thomas, and with a typical year this year, he'll pass Sosa and Duke Snider. He'll pass Mattingly in career home runs this year. These are things he won't even need a Tony Womack career to accomplish. He'll have done an awful lot of things.

Round 3

Schoenfield: Have we accurately expressed Trout's dominance yet? I hope we have. But if you're still hesitant about comparing him to Mays or Mantle or Bonds or Ruth because you believe players of yesterday were of unmatched brilliance, here's another variation: Trout's dominance over his peers puts him on another level of greatness.

Using a seven-year period for cumulative WAR and that same 2018 projection for Trout, his WAR from 2012 to 2018 comes in at 63.6. The No. 2 position player in that period will likely be Josh Donaldson at an estimated 44.4 WAR (assuming 6.5 WAR for 2018). There are 18 other players who have accumulated 55 or more WAR over seven seasons. Leaving aside Ted Williams (whose stretch was interrupted by World War II) and using each player's best seven-year stretch, here are the gaps of at least 10 WAR between the top players:

Ruth was an unmatched force, but Rogers Hornsby was doing similar things at the same time. Gehrig was great, but he had Ruth in the same lineup. Cobb and Eddie Collins had the same dominant stretch from 1909 to 1915, with Tris Speaker right on their heels. Stan Musial was great, but Jackie Robinson wasn't far behind. Mantle had Mays. Young Bonds had Griffey, and old Bonds had A-Rod. In other words, those players all had a legitimate rival for "best player in the game."

Trout? He towers over everyone. He has no rival. Maybe you think this is some quirk of history. It could be, although I don't believe that's the case. If anything, the game is deeper with better and more talented athletes than ever before and Trout still manages to crush his peers with his all-around brilliance. Here's another way to look at it: If you take the top seven players in WAR in 2017 --Jose Altuve, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Joey Votto, Nolan Arenado, Andrelton Simmons and Jose Ramirez -- their combined WAR adds up 52.7. Trout could miss the entire 2018 season and his seven-year total would still be higher than that group's combined total.

Miller: Well, speaking of "towering over his peers" ...

My last one is a little complicated, and I'm not sure I'll land it. But here goes: If Mike Trout has a typical Mike Trout year this year, there's a pretty good chance he'll be more valuable than all the players drafted ahead of him combined are this season. Even more incredibly, he still has a shot at being more valuable in his career than all of them combined.

Here's how I figure. There were 23 players picked before him. (Plus his former teammate Randal Grichuk, but you shouldn't count Randal Grichuk.) So far, the 23 of them are winning the race. Trout has 55.2 career WAR; the 23 players deemed better than him have 97.4 WAR.

But baseball is a game of attrition. While Trout is arguably reaching his prime, a lot of his draft class has already gotten hurt, peaked and descended, or even retired. Few of those 23 players are still adding significant value.

In fact, only seven had positive WARs in the majors last year. Four others appeared in the majors with negative WARs. (Nine are retired or pitching in independent leagues, and the final three are bouncing around as minor league veterans.) The 11 who appeared in the majors project this year to be worth ... 10 WAR. Just enough to edge a typical Mike Trout year. But not enough to edge an excellent Mike Trout year, and heavily dependent on the health of Stephen Strasburg.

Whether the 23 will hold off Trout for the long term likewise depends on Strasburg and A.J. Pollock. My guess is Trout will end up around 140 career WAR -- behind Hank Aaron but ahead of Tris Speaker, sixth all time among position players. If he does, the 23 need to add another 43 WAR. Right now, with Strasburg healthy and dominating, that looks like an easy ask. But pitchers are fragile and their peaks sometimes fleeting. Strasburg's most similar pitchers through age 28 include those who were stars well into their late 30s (Roy Halladay, David Cone) and those who added almost nothing after 28 (Tim Lincecum, Matt Morris). The median outcome of his comps is around 15 additional WAR.

I don't think Trout will catch the 23. Even if Strasburg or Pollock doesn't significantly expand the lead, one of Mike Leake, Shelby Miller, Mike Minor or Kyle Gibson will have an unexpectedly long and effective career tail. There are too many players still active for Trout to dodge them all. But even by Trout's age-26 season, almost half of his draft peers have gone dark. It's extremely likely he'll eventually outlast the rest -- that after his final rival has retired, he'll still be putting up three, six, maybe even nine wins a season.

Fun fact: He's really good.