When analyzing any long-term contract, such as the extension Mike Trout and the Angels finalized on Wednesday, it’s common to project that player’s production over the life of the deal, using similar players from the past as a tool.
Trout makes this a difficult exercise, however. That’s because he almost defies comparison.
No position player has accrued more wins above replacement (WAR) through his age-26 season than Trout (64.3 -- already the best in Angels history), according to Baseball Reference, and few are even close. Trout already has passed many notable Hall of Famers on the career WAR list and should climb well into the top 100 by the end of 2019.
There is simply little precedent for a player being this good, much less with such consistency and at such a young age. It’s no wonder the Angels were willing to make a record-setting commitment, tacking 10 years and $360 million on to Trout’s existing contract to give him a total deal worth $426.5 million over the next dozen seasons through 2030.
When evaluating Trout, two names surface as ideal comps, and they are among the most legendary in baseball history. One is Willie Mays. The other is Mickey Mantle .
Those two were contemporaries throughout the 1950s and ‘60s. Like Trout, they played center field. Like Trout, they arrived in the Majors at a young age and were brilliant immediately, excelling as all-around players.
While it's difficult to find a large number of close comps, MLB.com senior data architect Tom Tango used Trout’s exact age (he turned 27 last Aug. 7), and WAR over the past four seasons (an MLB-high 36.6), to come up with a small group of 21. This group was split into two and served as a basis for projecting Trout over the duration of his new contract.
The first sample consisted of nine players, each worth at least 29 WAR in the relevant four-year span. That included Mantle, the only player to outproduce Trout, with 40.8 WAR from 1955-58, before he turned 27 on Oct. 20, 1958. Mays and Cubs third baseman Ron Santo (both 35.2 WAR) were the next closest, but Mays and especially Trout had more impressive resumes prior to that four-year period. Santo, in contrast, didn’t break out until he was 23.
Six more players made the cut: Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, George Brett and Rickey Henderson. They combined with Mantle, Mays and Santo to generate these averages:
Past four years: 33.6 WAR
Next two years: 14.8 WAR
Following 10 years: 49.9 WAR
12-year total: 64.7 WAR (5.4 per year)
That includes huge successes, such as Aaron, Bonds and Mays, as well as a player in Santo who fell far off the pace. It also factors in Trout’s Angels teammate, Pujols, whose 12-year run just ended with a total of 53.8 WAR -- encompassing his exceptional final five seasons in St. Louis and his rockier tenure in Southern California.
The second group consisted of another dozen players, each of whom produced between 25-29 WAR in the relevant four-year span. Nine of those 12 are in the Hall of Fame, including two recent entries, outfielders Ken Griffey Jr. and Tim Raines. Derek Jeter will join them soon in Cooperstown, and the only other exceptions are the vastly underrated former Angel Bobby Grich, and Nomar Garciaparra, whose career was derailed by injuries. Here is what their average trajectory looked like:
Past four years: 27.0 WAR
Next two years: 11.6 WAR
Following 10 years: 34.8 WAR
12-year total: 46.4 WAR (3.9 per year)
By comparing each group’s average WAR from the next 12 years to its average from the previous four, Tango calculated the following projections for Trout:
Based on first group of nine players
Next two years: 17 WAR
Following 10 years: 56 WAR
12-year total: 73 WAR (6.1 per year)
Based on second group of 12 players
Next two years: 16 WAR
Following 10 years: 47 WAR
12-year total: 62 WAR (5.2 per year)
Since the Angels added 10 years and $360 million onto Trout’s existing deal, let’s focus on that decade that will begin in 2021. Using the conventional wisdom that a win is worth roughly $8 million on the open market, the more optimistic projection would give Trout a value of $448 million over that 10-year span from ages 29-38. The more moderate projection would return a value of $376 million in that time -- or not far off what Trout will receive.
Of course, when considering Trout’s contract, it’s also important to note that he was not on the open market. With two years remaining before Trout would reach free agency, he didn’t have as much leverage as a free agent, with the Angels taking on additional risk.
It’s also possible that Trout will continue to defy precedent and solidify his legacy as a singular player in baseball history, in which case the Angels could be in for a massive bargain despite their considerable investment.
But, turning back to Trout’s closest comps, his 73-WAR projection happens to fall smack in the middle between Mays (97.2 WAR from 1959-70) and Mantle (48.9). That sets up some interesting parameters for how the rest of Trout’s career could unfold.
The Mays Path
As soon as he returned from military service in 1954, taking NL MVP honors and winning a World Series as a 23-year-old, Mays became one of the game’s greatest players. Age might have slowed him a bit -- he stole 20-plus bases once after age 29 -- but it did nothing to detract from his production. The best four-year stretch of Mays’ career came from ages 31-34, when he reached double digits in WAR each season.
It wasn’t until age 36 that Mays fell below 7.5 WAR in a season, but even his decline was graceful. From 36-40, he produced 25.2 WAR -- about equal to Manny Machado’s total over the past five years.
The Mantle Path
With 110 career WAR, Mantle ranks 15th among position players in baseball history. And yet, it’s hard not to wonder what might have been. Mantle’s leg issues began in childhood, and even early in his career, he fought through -- and often played through -- injuries. The setbacks included torn knee ligaments he sustained going after a fly ball in the 1951 World Series. But the problems intensified in Mantle’s 30s.
While he was limited to 123 games in 1962, his age-30 season, Mantle still won his third MVP Award. The following June, in the midst of another brilliant year, he broke his foot jumping into an outfield wall, and missed two months. Mantle remained a stellar hitter after that (156 OPS+) but averaged 132 games played and a solid if unspectacular 3.3 WAR. He retired at age 36 in 1968.
Mantle’s path is a reminder that injuries and the ravages of time always lurk as a threat, especially as players move through their 30s. So far, Trout has remained relatively healthy, but that doesn’t mean he always will.
In that sense, the Angels are taking a risk -- just as any team would be for any player, no matter how good. However, based on the highly exclusive company Trout has kept to this point, the potential reward looks too good to ignore.
Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.