The 2020 season is going to be perhaps the most unusual in baseball history, and we hardly need to explain why. Yet through all the change, there's one constant you can be absolutely sure of: Mike Trout, as always, will enter the year as The Best Player in Baseball, just like he always does.
You know that because he just won the American League Most Valuable Player Award, his third. You know that because his 72.8 Wins Above Replacement through age 27 are the most of any player ever, ahead of first-name-basis legends like Ty and Mickey. You know that because he does it year in and year out, consistently, and has for eight years now, even if for a moment a 2015 Bryce Harper or 2018 Mookie Betts briefly rise to match up. You know that because you have eyes, and a heart, and because he's Mike Trout.
At some point, perhaps, his reign as The Best Player in Baseball will end. But when? And who will take his crown? And, for that matter, when did it start? At what point did he rise to the top, and who did he dethrone? Has anyone held this unofficial title longer?
So many questions. Let's see what we can figure out.
When exactly did Trout become baseball's best?
It wasn't from the moment he first arrived to the bigs, not really. Trout went 0-for-3 in his debut on July 8, 2011, and actually found himself back in the Minors later that summer. He hit only .220/.281/.390 in 135 plate appearances that first year. Absolutely no one in the winter of 2011-12 would have put him even in the conversation for The Best Player in Baseball.
The next year, of course, he erupted. In 2012, Trout hit 30 homers and stole 49 bases, winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award and finishing second in the MVP. You could have argued that right then, on talent alone, he was the best that baseball had to offer -- it was, after all, the greatest age-20 season of all time -- and you probably wouldn't be wrong. But track record has to count for something, doesn't it? As wonderful as Trout was in 2012, the man who topped him for MVP, Miguel Cabrera, was a decade into a likely Hall of Fame career of his own. That's worth considering. Was Trout clearly better than Cabrera at the end of 2012? Maybe not.
In an attempt to answer that question, we looked at each three-season stretch in baseball history through Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement, weighted for recency 10/30/60, so that the most distant season of the three-year span is weighted a third as much as the middle season, which is itself weighted half as much as the most recent season. The idea behind that is if we're looking for The Best Player in Baseball at any given time, the most recent season should matter most, but some amount of recent track record should factor in, too.
(Should this be five seasons? More? Sure, perhaps. There's not one "right answer" to this, but making Juan Soto or Ronald Acuña Jr. wait three more seasons right now to even be in the conversation seems excessive. Three sounds right to us.)
By doing that, we can take Trout's past three seasons -- 8.2 WAR in 2019, 10.2 WAR in 2018, and 6.7 WAR in 2017 -- and find that his weighted WAR average is 8.6, the most in baseball over that time. If we roll that back over the last few years, we can see that he's been The Best Player In Baseball over the last seven years, taking that crown from Justin Verlander at the end of 2013. That sounds right, and answers our question above; it wasn't after his first great season that his greatness overcame his lack of track record. It was after his second.
This is somehow even more impressive than it looks because again, Trout wasn't that valuable in 2011 -- but he was so good in 2012 and '13 that he was still the best player of the 2011-13 period anyway.
If we keeping rolling this method back through baseball history, we can see not only who has been The Best Player In Baseball at the end of any given season, but also who managed to do it the most times. (You can see the full list here, dating from Joe McGinnity's 1901-03 stretch to Trout's recent run of dominance.)
So: Is what Trout has done, topping this list seven straight years, unprecedented? Is he really dominating like no one else ever? Yes. And no.
Babe Ruth did it nine times and finished second three more times.
Obviously. He's Literally Babe Ruth. He was either the most valuable or second-most valuable player a dozen times from the late 1910s to the early 1930s, and it's not exactly like there's shame in finishing behind a legend like Rogers Hornsby, either. Even the years he was out of the mix here, it wasn't generally due to performance -- he was suspended for a chunk of 1922, and was ill for much of 1925.
Nine times is more than seven, obviously. But he never did it seven times in a row, either.
Willie Mays did it eight times and finished second three more times.
There's a pretty solid argument to make that Mays is the best player who ever lived, and this gets to the heart of it. Remember, Mays didn't even play in 1953 due to military service, but he was so good in '54 and '55 that he was still the best player of the three-year span. (Sound familiar?) Then, he was first or second on the list for more than a decade, ahead of a variety of other inner-circle greats.
Four other players were baseball's best at least five times.
Barry Bonds spread his seven out over a long period, doing it at the end of 1992, '93, '96, and each season from 2001-'04. (He also finished second at the end of '90, '91, and '94).
Walter Johnson managed it six out of seven years from 1912-19, missing out only when Pete Alexander topped him following the '17 season.
Stan Musial was The Best Player in Baseball five times between 1943 and '50, though with a huge caveat: he missed 1945 entirely, serving in the military. Fellow Cardinal Albert Pujols also did it five times, consecutively from 2006-10. (He finished second after 2004 and '05, too.)
So for the moment, Trout still has Ruth and Mays above him, except for two things. First, Ruth didn't do his consecutively, though Mays, like Trout, did have a streak of seven straight. And second, Trout is only 28 years old. He's still not done. Not close to it.
How long does this go -- and who's next?
Again: the 2020 season is going to be weird. Literally anything could happen. But barring some serious injury, there's really no reason to expect Trout to stop being great; a quick look at multiple projection systems had him No. 1 on their 2020 lists for a full season, and even the shortened season shouldn't affect him much. (He was second in WAR at the end of May in 2019, and first or tied in '18, '17, and '16.)
But age comes for us all, and, sadly, one day it will for Trout as well. At some point, he'll be 34, and Soto, for example, will be 27. We don't know what will have transpired between now and then, yet there's going to come a day where he's just another guy, not the reigning king. (Just consider how differently we now look at Pujols, his Angels teammate, for example.)
In order to try to figure this part out, we turned to Dan Szymborski of FanGraphs, creator of the well-respected ZiPS projection system, capable of projecting many years into the future. Even the great Trout will peak and decline at some point, so when might that be, and who is most likely to take over? As it turns out, not only did Dan have an answer for us, but he pointed us to a similar study on Trout he did earlier this year, though he'd used forward-looking projections rather than three-year look-backs, as we've done.
As Dan explained back in March: Trout would be projected to be The Best Player in Baseball headed into 2021. And 2022. And 2023. It would take until 2024, Trout's age-32 season, for someone to finally take over first place. That'd be Acuña, who would be headed into his age-24 season. But even then, it's close: Szymborski's system gives Acuña an 18.8% chance of being the top-projected player in 2024, and Trout is close behind at 16.1%. A similar outcome happens in 2025; it's not until 2026, when Trout would be 34, that he'd fall out of the top five entirely, with Acuña, Soto, and Tampa Bay prospect Wander Franco leading the list.
If Trout actually does all of that -- lead in a shortened 2020, then live up to the first-place projections in 2021, '22, and '23, it would give him 11 years in a row at the top of the heap, and it goes without saying: that's unprecedented. Ruth never did that. Neither did Mays, Bonds or Johnson. When you hear people talk about how Trout may be the best player who ever lived, it's not hyperbole. It's not fantasy. It's reality. He's The Best Player In Baseball, and that crown isn't likely to change hands any time soon.