We've all had the "what if" question cross our minds with some of the greatest players in baseball history. What if Mickey Mantle had two good knees and avoided myriad other maladies during his career? What if Ken Griffey Jr. didn't suffer wrist, shoulder and leg injuries that took away such a large portion of his career? What if Don Mattingly hadn't hurt his back, or if Eric Davis wasn't plagued by injuries and cancer?
Well, there's a huge "what if" out there right now, and it's about the best player on the planet -- Mike Trout.
Trout had another tremendous campaign in the 60-game 2020 season, but it was, by Trout standards, subpar -- if you can even use that word to describe a .281/.390/.603 slash line with 17 home runs in 53 games. Due to COVID-19, it was the fourth straight year he missed out on a full season.
In each of the three prior seasons, the baseball world cringed every time Trout got hurt, coming to the realization that, no, this wouldn't be the year we'd see what heights Trout could reach over a full season. Sure, we've seen incredible performances from him -- he's got three MVP Awards to prove it -- but at age 29, he's now in what is generally considered the peak age range for a player's career, and hasn't played more than 140 games in a season since he was 24.
But lest we consider Trout's greatness static at this moment, let's imagine what his career numbers might be entering 2021 if he hadn't gotten hurt and if he hadn't lost most of this past season to the coronavirus pandemic.
First, a look at what has limited Trout since 2016, his last full season:
2017: Torn ligament in left thumb, missed 39 games
2018: Right wrist inflammation, missed 19 games
2019: Neuroma (pinched nerve) in right foot, missed 28 games
2020: Paternity leave, missed seven games of the 60-game pandemic schedule
Including 102 games that were wiped out when the 2020 schedule was truncated, that's 195 games we were deprived of watching the greatest player due to circumstances beyond his control. So what does that mean in terms of the numbers? Here's what a healthy Trout, with a full 2020 season, might have looked like heading into '21.
WAR entering 2021: 84 (actual number: 76)
If Trout had played in 158 games each season from 2017-20 (the average number of games he played in each season from 2013-16), he would have accumulated 8.0 more WAR, assuming he would have continued to rack up WAR at the rate he was doing so in each of those seasons. That would have put him at 84 career WAR over 1,443 games heading into the 2021 season.
Trout could have been 34th all-time in WAR, just ahead of Joe DiMaggio and Roberto Clemente -- in eight seasons plus 40 games his rookie year, and 53 in 2020.
If not for injury and COVID-19, that would have kept Trout on pace to potentially finish his career, which is somewhere around halfway through if he stays healthy, among the top five position players in history by WAR. Despite an expected decline in production as a player ages, Trout could have had a real shot at that tier -- and he still might, even after missing a significant chunk of the last four years.
Career WAR, position players (FanGraphs)
1) Babe Ruth: 168.4 (2,503 games)
2) Barry Bonds: 164.4 (2,986 games)
3) Willie Mays: 149.9 (2,992 games)
4) Ty Cobb: 149.3 (3,035 games)
5) Honus Wagner: 138.1 (2,792 games)
33) Adrián Beltré: 84.1 (2,933 games)
34) Mike Trout: 84.0 (1,443 games)*
35) Joe DiMaggio: 83.1 (1,736 games)
36) Roberto Clemente: 80.6 (2,433 games)
*Projected entering 2021 if no injuries from 2017-19, no COVID-19 pandemic in 2020
Home runs: 370 (actual number: 302)
If Trout had gotten 580 at-bats in each season from 2017-20 (the average number of at-bats in a season he had from 2013-16), and continued to hit home runs at the pace he was on in each of those years, he could have added 68 homers to his career total, which would have given him 370 heading into his 11th Major League season.
Here's how Trout could have stacked up against the top five sluggers on the career home run list through their first 1,443 games:
Babe Ruth: 389 (age 32 season)
Alex Rodriguez: 385 (age 29 season)
Mike Trout: 370 (age 28 season)
Willie Mays: 340 (age 31 season)
Hank Aaron: 325 (age 29 season)
Barry Bonds: 298 (age 31 season)
Steals: 212 (actual number: 201)
It's tough to project what Trout would have done with four full seasons from 2017-20 when it comes to steals. That's partly because Trout has had spurts during his career in which he has stolen 30 or more bases, and then periods of 10-15 steals a year. And he only attempted one steal over 53 games in 2020. So since Trout missed 195 games, we'll be very conservative here and add 11 steals, which is his career low in one full season (2015).
Even with Trout having ups and downs in his stolen-base numbers over the years, if he stays healthy, it's all but assured he'll reach the 300-steal milestone. That would make Trout the ninth player in MLB history to join the 300-300 club.
Here is where Trout could have stacked up with the current 300-300 club members had he already amassed 1,443 career games played:
Bobby Bonds: 370
Barry Bonds: 344
Carlos Beltrán: 267
Reggie Sanders: 263
Andre Dawson: 253
Steve Finley: 237
Willie Mays: 234
Mike Trout: 212
Alex Rodriguez: 207
MVP Awards: 7 (actual number: 3)
We know what you're thinking: How could Trout have seven MVP Awards entering 2021, if he only has three as it stands?
For this category, we take Trout's value in each of his eight full seasons (not including 2020) to this point and find that he led the American League in WAR six times. He finished second in MVP voting once (to Mookie Betts in 2018), and fourth once (in 2017, when he was limited to 114 games by injury). He finished fifth in 2020, the lowest he's placed in any season (not counting 40 games in 2011).
In 2017, Jose Altuve won the AL MVP crown, finishing with 7.6 WAR over 153 games. Trout had 6.8 WAR in 114 games. It's not at all inconceivable that Trout could have surpassed Altuve in many categories and won that year's AL MVP Award.
So that's three that he actually has, plus three in the other years he led the league in WAR, and another in 2017.
WAR isn't, of course, the be-all and end-all stat. But a legitimate case can be made that had Trout played a full season in 2017, he could have entered 2021 with seven MVP Awards to his name, which would tie him with Bonds for most all-time -- and Bonds played 22 seasons.
The bottom line
We can't get back the time Trout missed. But we can try to understand his greatness in perspective. In a sport that has traditionally held cumulative records as hallowed -- 714 homers, 755 homers, 2,130 consecutive games played, etc. -- Trout has been set back by circumstances out of his control, and will be behind where he should be as his career continues.
But in Trout, we're witnessing one of the greatest players in baseball history, one who has achieved that elite status in half a career. Let's not allow ourselves to take for granted what we're watching every time Trout steps on the field.
Manny Randhawa is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @MannyOnMLB.