Trout quietly having greatest season of career
Angels outfielder on pace to post highest WAR through age-23 season in history
After Mike Trout posted three of the greatest consecutive seasons of anyone to start a Major League career, his career could've taken any number of paths. He could have just kept on doing what he was doing for years to come. Trout could have taken a step back as pitchers continued to attempt to exploit a hole high in the strike zone that led to a career-high strikeout percentage in 2014. He could have been injured. He could have become complacent. Just about any outcome would have been reasonable.
Except for one, that is. Trout wasn't supposed to get better. Guess what: He got better.
Trout's first two seasons, played at ages 20 and 21, went right into the history books. The 20.8 Wins Above Replacement he compiled in those two years placed him atop the leaderboards for "most WAR ever through age 21," with eight inner-circle Hall of Famers (once Ken Griffey, Jr. inevitably gains admission) right behind him. Last year was worth "only" 8.0 WAR, but still finally earned Trout the American League Most Valuable Player Award he'd really deserved to get in each of the preceding two years.
What Trout is doing this year, however, is something else. If there's possibly a way that the best player in baseball can have what seems like a quietly elite season, this is it. It's almost like we're so accustomed to seeing greatness from Trout that to realize he's taken over the WAR lead (from Bryce Harper) and the home run lead (from teammate Albert Pujols) barely raises an eyebrow. Oh, of course Trout's at the top, you think. Nothing new there.
Except that what Trout is doing now is actually a little new, at least for him. Consider this: In Trout's first three seasons, his Weighted Runs Created Plus scores -- a way to capture a hitter's full offensive output, weighted for ballpark and league offense, with 100 as league average -- were 167, 176 and 167. You can read those numbers as "Trout was between 67 and 76 percent better than a league-average hitter each season." To give you an idea of how impressive that is, know that there were only six player seasons from 2012-14 to match or top a 167 wRC+, and Trout had three of them. (Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis and Andrew McCutchen had one apiece.)
Through Monday's games, Trout is up to 184 this season. He's not walking more, and he's not getting luckier; his walk rate and his BABIP are identical to what they were last season. What Trout has done is cut down on the strikeout issue, from 26.1 percent to 22.8, and hit the ball harder. Check the Statcast™ 2015 leaderboards, and Trout is fifth on the average exit velocity charts (minimum 50 batted balls) through Monday, behind Giancarlo Stanton, Cabrera, Randal Grichuk and Ryan Braun. Last year, Trout's fly balls averaged 291.78 feet; this year, they're going 301.36 feet.
Trout is on pace for a third 10-WAR season, when no one since Barry Bonds in 2004 has had even one. He arguably should be finishing off his fourth straight AL MVP Award. Trout is younger than both of last season's Rookie of the Year Award winners; he's only six months older than Kris Bryant, this year's presumptive NL Rookie of the Year Award winner. He's the only player who has had multiple hits in which he has hit the ball 110 mph and run faster than 20 mph on the same play. Trout is just everything -- and he'll almost certainly be atop the all-time leaderboards for most WAR by his age by the end of the season:
Trout's best year of an already historic career has been so impressive, in fact, that with his 24th birthday looming on Friday, we can play a fun game: If Trout were to retire on his 25th birthday, would he be a Hall of Famer? (Setting aside the usual requirement for a career to last 10 seasons.) Right now, he's been worth nearly 36 WAR for his career. If Trout earned nine more over the next calendar year, hardly a stretch based on what he's done, he'd be worth 45 WAR, about equal with Kirby Puckett. That would make him more valuable than 25 hitters already enshrined in Cooperstown, including Roy Campanella and Bill Mazeroski. The answer has to be yes. Whether you like WAR or not, the simple fact that this is a viable argument proves just how astounding Trout has been.
Trout isn't just the best player in the game, though he's also that. He's the best player of a generation. Trout is the best player many of us will live to see, he's having his best season, and somehow it's going under the radar. As baseball fans and media, we're all prone to hyperbole, about the best this or the best that. In Trout's case, that doesn't seem possible. He's capable of seemingly anything.