Is Trout still the best player in baseball?

October 23rd, 2020

CC Sabathia said on his podcast Thursday that has passed as the best player in baseball. Reds reliever Amir Garrett agreed on Twitter, and Joe Posnanski wrote a column for The Athletic saying the same. This debate seemed unthinkable until recently, and we asked national columnist Richard Justice, Red Sox beat reporter Ian Browne and researcher Sarah Langs to hash it out on Slack.

Matt Meyers (national editor): Ian, you covered Mookie for years in Boston. Is this a conversation you ever saw coming?

Ian Browne (Red Sox beat reporter): I actually did. I remember thinking about this in 2018. Mookie was so great throughout that season and won the MVP Award (with Trout finishing second), and I thought the comparison was real then, even though I felt many scoffed at it at the time.

Richard Justice (columnist): I agree that Betts is a joy to watch. I don't agree that he's better than Mike Trout. There's no quantifiable way to make that case. OPS, OPS+, wOBA, etc., all favor Trout. Mookie brings an element of speed and defense, but Trout may end up being one of the 10 best position players ever.

Sarah Langs (researcher): Yes, I think it’s worth noting that Trout has already had a Hall of Fame-caliber career. Mookie seems to be on his way down an outstanding path, too, but he’s just not there yet. Trout’s numbers already put him in that Hall of Fame.

Browne: Look at Mookie's defense. I know Trout is also a very good defender, but he's not close to Mookie. I think Mookie is closer to Trout on offense than Trout is to Mookie on defense.

Justice: Yes, I agree. Mookie’s defense was better in 2020. No question about that. But this is recency bias. We haven't seen Trout in the postseason, and we've just seen Mookie do amazing things. Also, this isn't an age thing. Trout is one year older.

Browne: So it is basically 2016-20 that Mookie and Trout, in my mind, have been pretty similar players. Trout has those two extra years where he was a star. But now Mookie is right there.

Langs: Part of what brings Mookie into the conversation right now is considering a word like "most dynamic" or "most impactful." That, to me, factors in the distinction we all see: The fact that Mookie is in position to play for his second World Series ring right now and is making those defensive plays in winner-take-all postseason games. Mookie, unlike Trout, is getting the chance to do all of this in the playoffs, and we can’t really blame Trout for that.

Justice: I think we see Mike Trout on so many lousy teams that we come to accept certain things. He can't raise those pitchers to another level. If the Dodgers and Angels had a pitcher draft, the first eight or nine picks might be Dodgers.

Browne: I think it's a shame that Trout has never played on a big stage -- other than an ALDS sweep at the hands of the Royals in 2014 -- because you learn more about who a player really is when they are down 3-1 in the NLCS than you do in some random Wednesday night Angels-Royals game in Kansas City. Trout has never had to play under pressure. Mookie has many times over.

Meyers: Regarding the postseason … Posnasnki wrote in The Athletic: "Circumstances do matter. Reggie Jackson would not be Reggie Jackson without the World Series. Sandy Koufax would not be Sandy Koufax without the World Series. Bob Gibson would not be Bob Gibson without the World Series. When we talk about who the best player in baseball is, we cannot avoid the obvious point that Mookie Betts is doing amazing things in October when it matters most. And Mike Trout, alas, is not."

If Trout even made the postseason a couple of times, even if not the World Series, does that change anything?

Browne: I believe it would make it hard to argue on Mookie's behalf if Trout also had some great moments in the postseason. Mookie had his postseason struggles offensively up to this year, but his defense and baserunning were always on full display in past Octobers.

Justice: I think it would. But those birthdays are starting to add up. That window is closing for Trout to have an impact in October given the Angels’ struggles and their tough division.

Browne: One thing I saw with Mookie over and over covering him for so long is how instinctual he is. That run he scored from third on the contact play on the lip of the infield grass in Game 1 -- I saw him do things like that countless times over the years. That doesn't add up on the stat sheet like many of Trout's eye-popping numbers, but it means a lot, those intangibles.

Meyers: This feels to me like the old vs. debates when they were on different teams and both still at shortstop. A-Rod clearly had better stats, but Jeter had October, and people said Jeter was his equal.

Browne: Yep, or go to a different sport, Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning.

Langs: I really think Trout has been so good for so long that it’s almost taken for granted. It’s so steady, always at that same level -- a really, really high level -- that it’s easy to be captivated by others. And that’s nothing against Mookie or his body of work whatsoever, which is still really good.

Justice: I agree with you, Sarah. But when you just sit down and watch him play, he'll do something almost every night that'll bring you out of your seat. I wish people could see it in October. The thing Mookie is always going to have over Trout is that smile and the outward show of emotion. Those things leave an indelible impression.

Browne: Trout looks like a star just with his prototypical superstar body he has. To me, it's impressive Mookie has been able to generate so much power from his wiry frame.

Meyers: Is that part of the Mookie appeal? Like Stephen Curry in the NBA, where in addition to his incredible ability, people marvel at him being able to dominate at his size? That's an interesting question.

Langs: I like that about the appeal -- there’s almost an everyman quality (as much as a high-caliber professional athlete can have one). I see it with his emotions, too. Those emotions are so real and so identifiable, even for those of us who have never been on that stage.

Browne: Yes, I think so. Mookie's power is from his lightning-quick wrists.

Meyers: I will say, in terms of WAR, both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference have them at basically equal the last three years, despite Trout having clearly better offensive stats (nearly a 100-point edge in OPS, with in between them). Are you guys buying the defensive metrics on Mookie to make up the gap?

Browne: Yes, I saw him play right field at Fenway Park, which is by far the toughest of right fields in baseball. In my opinion, right field at Fenway is a harder position to play than most center fields. Aside from Dwight Evans, nobody has ever compared to Mookie defensively at Fenway.

Justice: And baserunning, right? That's part of his edge.

Browne: I think Mookie going first to third, first to home or second to home is about as enjoyable and impressive a thing as you'll ever see. I believe Mookie would be great at any sport he played. Maybe that's true of Trout also, but I haven't seen him enough. Seems to me Trout was born to play baseball. Mookie simply chose baseball.

Langs: The defense and the eye test absolutely match up with Mookie. We’ve seen him change the game with his defense, multiple times in the last 10 days alone.

Meyers: OK, last question. Is there anyone else who should be in this conversation? If you look at just the past two years, , and are basically equal to Betts in WAR (per FanGraphs), with Trout a tick ahead. But this year it looked like maybe (and others) should be in the discussion.

Browne: I really enjoy the hell out of watching Bellinger play. I think he can join the conversation if he keeps it up.

Langs: Another year or two like Tatis’ pre-September, and I think he can be there. And I think Bellinger can be there with another 2019-esque season -- and a continued powerful postseason this year.

Justice: In going through these numbers, the name that keeps popping up is . Not defensively. But offensively he has few peers. Bellinger was the Dodgers' best defensive player at three spots before Mookie arrived. is phenomenal. Oh, and Tatis. Yikes. How quickly we forget.

Browne: Great point on Soto. I just haven't seen him enough, but he’s amazing.

Langs: Soto is a great name to add. For a World Series champ who so recently got the big stage, he seems so underrated. He had an amazing year, even if it wasn’t that many games. He actually led the Majors in wRC+. Yes, better than Trout.