Let me make one thing clear: I have no inherent bias towards Mike Trout. I am from Michigan and grew up a Tigers fan. I do not own him in a fantasy league. I do not know anybody who knows him, nor do I have his rookie card in my possession. My closest connection to Mike Trout is that Angels in the Outfield was one of my favorite childhood movies.
As a baseball fan, however, I cannot help but stop and gawk at what Trout has done thus far. Much has been made of Bryce Harper‘s major league debut, and rightly so; Harper is on track to have one of the best, if not the best, seasons ever by a teenager. But Trout, just fourteen months older than Harper, is currently on pace for one of the finest seasons ever. By anyone. In the history of major league baseball.
I’ll explain. The metric I’m using is WAR, or Wins Above Replacement. The exactitudes of WAR are too many to go into here (check out this helpful page for further reading), but the essence is that WAR measures how many wins a player is worth based on a replacement-level player. Last year, Carl Crawford had a WAR of 0.2. If the Red Sox had replaced Crawford with, say, Curtis Granderson (7.0 WAR), WAR says they would have won about seven more games (and would have been in the playoffs).
Entering June, Mike Trout had been merely excellent, nothing more. Hitting .304/5/16 with 8 steals and playing sterling defense, Trout had seemingly contented himself with turning the Angels’ season around. In June, however, the young Angel has been a dynamo, raking to the tune of a .431 average, 10 RBIs, 14 runs, and 8 steals in 12 games. His torrid half month has brought Trout’s season line to .341/6/26 with 35 runs and 16 steals. And as good as Trout’s hitting has been, it’s been his defense that has truly stood out; UZR/150 projects Trout to have the 16th best defensive season by an outfielder ever.
Trout’s WAR in 2012 is 3.1. The MLB leader is Joey Votto, at 3.9. But Votto has over 260 plate appearances (PA), seventy more than Trout. Had Trout accumulated as many PA as Votto, his WAR would be 4.2.
Let’s take it a step farther. The average major league starter gets about 700 PA in a year. Since Trout hits in the top third of the order, we’ll take that number and add a relatively modest 35 plate appearances to it. If we take Trout’s WAR of 3.1 through 192 plate appearances and and extrapolate that figure out for 735 PA, he would finish this season with an incredible 11.9 WAR. A quick look over at the all-time WAR leaderboard shows that an 11.9 fits right in among names like Hornsby, Williams, and Bonds, tied for the 19th best season in the history of the game. Could Trout put up one of the best seasons in baseball history before he’s tasted his first alcoholic drink?
Alas, the answer is almost certainly no. I’ve had my head in the clouds for a while now, but it’s time to deal with the stark reality. Mike Trout will not maintain his current pace. He will hit a slump, his numbers will drop and he will regress to being merely one of the best 20 year olds ever. WAR and UZR, though useful, are not perfect statistics. Trout is not as good a player as Ted Williams or Barry Bonds and the overwhelming probability is that he never will be. But what makes Trout special is that, tiny as that probability is, he has as good a chance as anyone currently playing to be at that level one day. He can run, field, and hit. Will he be one of the best ever? Probably not. But it will be a lot of fun to find out.