Mike Trout spent most of the past decade charting a breathtaking course up the career wins above replacement (WAR) leaderboards, finishing 2019 with the highest total through a position player’s age-27 season (73.4), according to FanGraphs.
The delayed start to the 2020 season is a setback in that climb, but Trout also figures to encounter many other challenges in the coming years, as he ages.
To help appreciate the difficulty in ascending to the top of the list, let’s see what happens if we attempt to stitch together the best possible career from the actual top seasons of active MLB position players. The rules here are relatively simple. For each age (using seasonal age, as of July 1), we will look for the hitters with the most productive season by WAR.
There is one twist, however. To make this exercise a bit more of a challenge and create more variety, each player can be selected only once. In other words, we’ll have to play the Trout card carefully. (That being said, we’ll also note the No. 1 option for each age).
Note: Deciding which players qualify as “active” can be a bit murky, but we’ll use our best judgment, based on whether a player was in the Majors in 2019, and whether he has officially retired.
Age 19: Juan Soto, 2018 (3.7 WAR)
It remains shocking how Soto started that season in Class-A, reached the Majors by mid-May, and was more or less fully formed as an elite MLB hitter from the get-go. Soto’s park- and league-adjusted wRC+ of 145 ranked 11th in the Majors (minimum 450 plate appearances) and is the best in history for a teenager with at least 150 PA.
Optimal pick: Bryce Harper, 2012 (4.4 WAR)
Age 20: Mike Trout, 2012 (10.1 WAR)
Yeah, this didn’t take long. While Trout also would have been the best possible pick for four other seasons, we can only choose him once, and it’s his rookie year that stands furthest above the crowd. Trout did it all in 2012, batting .326 with 30 homers, 49 steals and excellent defense in center field. The closest active player in age-20 WAR is Manny Machado (5.0).
Optimal pick: Trout
Age 21: Albert Pujols, 2001 (7.2 WAR)
The closest thing to Trout at age 21 is his current teammate, who was destroying Major League pitching just 22 months after being drafted in the 13th round from a junior college. Pujols hit .329/.403/.610 with 37 homers that year, but what’s more astounding in retrospect is that he started at least 30 games apiece at first base, third base, left field and right field.
Optimal pick: Trout, 2013 (10.2 WAR)
Age 22: Bryce Harper, 2015 (9.3 WAR)
“Trout vs. Harper” has ceased to become a serious debate over the past four seasons, but don’t underestimate just how preposterous Harper’s NL MVP campaign was. He hit .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs, producing a 197 wRC+ that even Trout has never matched. It also remains the highest by any qualifying hitter since Barry Bonds in 2004.
Optimal pick: Harper
Age 23: Cody Bellinger, 2019 (7.8 WAR)
Just look at Bellinger’s 2019 percentile ranks across MLB in various categories. The guy was amazing across the board, showing tremendous growth after a relatively disappointing sophomore season. Bellinger slashed his strikeout rate, raised his OBP by 63 points and mashed 47 big flies while contributing defensively at three positions.
Optimal pick: Pujols, 2003 (9.5 WAR)
Age 24: Kris Bryant, 2016 (7.9 WAR)
Could things have gone any better for Bryant in 2016? He was the reigning NL Rookie of the Year and proceeded to back that up by hitting .292/.385/.554 with 39 homers, taking NL MVP honors, and helping the Cubs snap the most infamous championship drought in sports. He even made the play for the final out of the World Series.
Optimal pick: Trout, 2016 (9.7 WAR)
Age 25: Mookie Betts, 2018 (10.4 WAR)
We’re talking about an extremely unimportant difference of a few tenths of a win here, but technically it’s Betts and not Trout who owns the highest single-season WAR since Bonds. It’s hard to have a better all-around performance. Betts hit .346 with a .438 OBP while going 30-30 and posting 18 Defensive Runs Saved in the outfield.
Optimal pick: Betts
Age 26: Andrew McCutchen, 2013 (8.1 WAR)
This could also be Matt Kemp (8.3 WAR), who did play 20 MLB games in 2019 and was with the Marlins this spring. We’ll go with McCutchen, who not only was at the top of his game, but also took NL MVP honors by leading the Pirates to their first postseason berth since 1992.
Optimal pick: Trout, 2018 (9.8 WAR)
Age 27: Christian Yelich, 2019 (7.8 WAR)
After Yelich broke out in his first season with the Brewers, it seemed reasonable to think that would stand as a career year, if not an outlier. Then Yelich erased any doubts about his status as one of the game’s elite players by putting up even better numbers (.329/.429/.671 with 44 homers).
Optimal pick: Trout, 2019 (8.6 WAR)
Age 28: Marcus Semien, 2019 (7.6 WAR)
This one seemed to come out of nowhere, as Semien doubled his previous career-high WAR. After four straight seasons as a slightly below-average hitter, Semien raked in 2019 (.285/.369/.522, 33 homers) and was credited with excellent defense at shortstop.
Optimal pick: Pujols, 2008 (8.7 WAR)
Age 29: Josh Donaldson, 2015 (8.7 WAR)
This was the year Donaldson was traded from Oakland to Toronto and responded by hitting .297/.371/.568 with 41 homers and 123 RBIs. That explosion helped the Blue Jays reach the postseason for the first time since 1993, landing Donaldson the AL MVP Award.
Optimal pick: Donaldson
Age 30: Miguel Cabrera, 2013 (8.6 WAR)
Not a bad way to enter your 30s. While Cabrera did not win the Triple Crown as he did the year before, he actually was better at the plate, raising his wRC+ from 166 to a career-high 193. Miggy led the Majors in all three triple-slash categories, batting .348/.442/.636 to go along with 44 homers.
Optimal pick: Cabrera
Age 31: Joey Votto, 2015 (7.3 WAR)
This is arguably the best season of Votto’s illustrious career. His sharp batting eye yielded a .459 OBP with 143 walks, which stand as the most in a season since Bonds’ absurd 232 in 2004.
Optimal pick: Votto
Age 33: Robinson Canó, 2016 (6.3 WAR)
In his best season with the Mariners, Canó played in 161 games (157 at second base) and generated a 139 wRC+ while launching a career-best 39 homers and exceeding the century mark in both runs and RBIs.
Optimal pick: Votto, 2017 (6.5 WAR)
Age 34: Jed Lowrie, 2018 (5.0 WAR)
The task starts getting quite a bit more difficult right about now, as there is naturally a scarcity of players who both excelled in their mid- to late-30s and remain active. Injuries ruined Lowrie’s first season with the Mets in 2019, but he was coming off a truly excellent year in Oakland that yielded his only career All-Star selection.
Optimal pick: Lowrie
Age 35: Brett Gardner, 2019 (3.6 WAR)
After struggling at the plate in 2018, Gardner returned to the Yankees and put together his best offensive season, with career highs in homers (28), RBIs (74) and slugging (.503).
Optimal pick: Nelson Cruz, 2016 (4.4 WAR)
Age 36: Edwin Encarnación, 2019 (2.5 WAR)
Encarnación continued to crush the ball last year in both Seattle and New York (.531 SLG, 34 homers overall), but a fractured wrist limited him to 109 games, about half of which came as a designated hitter.
Optimal pick: Cruz, 2017 (3.8 WAR)
Age 37: Ben Zobrist, 2018 (3.6 WAR)
This is stretching the definition of “active,” as Zobrist told reporters in March that he wasn’t planning to play this season. But the pickings are slim at this point, so we’ll give ourselves a break with what may be Zobrist’s final full season. The switch-hitter slashed .305/.378/.440 while splitting time between second base and the outfield.
Optimal pick: Zobrist
Age 38: Nelson Cruz, 2019 (4.3 WAR)
Here is why we were saving Cruz in some of those earlier seasons. The Boomstick is showing no signs of wear and tear, after producing a .639 slugging percentage last season. He also became the fourth player in MLB history and first since Bonds to crack the 40-homer mark at 38 or older.
Optimal pick: Cruz
With no value to be found at age 39 or older, we'll wrap up our career there, after 20 seasons.
• Total with one-selection-per-player limit: 135.5 WAR
• Total without one-selection-per-player limit: 148.6 WAR
How would those figures rank on the all-time list? Not bad at all.
Most career Fangraphs WAR for position players
- Babe Ruth: 168.4
- Barry Bonds: 164.4
- Willie Mays: 149.9
- Ty Cobb: 149.3
No-limit total: 148.6
5) Honus Wagner: 138.1
6) Hank Aaron: 136.3
With-limit total: 135.5
7) Tris Speaker: 130.6
8) Ted Williams: 130.4
9) Rogers Hornsby: 130.3
10) Stan Musial: 126.8
Our active combo-player is clearly an all-time great and inner-circle Hall of Famer, not to mention ranking comfortably as the second-most-productive position player of the past 50 years. He still doesn’t quite reach the heights of Ruth, Bonds, Mays or Cobb, but that’s an extremely high bar -- even for a made-up career.
The lesson? It’s a long, long road to the top.