When he first burst onto the scene, Mike Trout was the poster child for the sabermetric movement as the internet exploded into debate around the 2012 American League MVP race. Trout, who combined great hitting with plus defense in center field and speed on the bases, was essentially in a two-man race with eventual winner Miguel Cabrera, he of the first Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. The stat-community generally cited Trout’s defensive advantage as the reason why he pulled ahead of Cabrera despite his historic accomplishment, while the more traditional fans found said accomplishment to be enough for the honor.
Now, I don’t want to stomp all over history. I understand fully how rare and exciting the Triple Crown is, and I don’t mean to take that away. That said, it doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, guarantee the MVP. They aren’t a package deal. There is more to the game than batting average, home runs and RBIs, especially from the perspective of a stat nerd. However, despite Trout demolishing Cabrera in Fangraphs WAR 20.8 to 13.8 over 2012 and 2013, Cabrera was given the MVP nod in both seasons. It wasn’t until 2014 that Trout got what he deserved (despite it likely being his worst season up to that point).
And that brings us to today, and the point of this article. It seems Trout is now garnering the level of respect he deserves from fans of all backgrounds, and is often considered the best overall player in the league. And let us not forget that he reached that level at the age of 22, if not earlier. Most players don’t reach their prime until their mid-to-late twenties. So I wanted to take a look at how the beginning of Mike Trout’s career compares to other players throughout MLB history.
This season isn’t over yet, obviously, but if we add in the 40 games he played in 2011 at age 19, it gives Trout about four full season’s worth of MLB experience, 2694 plate appearances to be exact. Below are the best players through their age-23 seasons in MLB history, with a minimum of 2000 plate appearances, looking first at wRC+, and then at WAR (both via Fangraphs).
As you can see above, Mike Trout’s wRC+, the best single measure of offense especially across parks and eras, ranks fourth all-time among players with 2000 PA through age 23 at 166. The only players to top him are three legends in Ted Williams, Joe Jackson and Ty Cobb. There is no shame in being right behind players like that, especially when you move down the list and notice he has bested the likes of current teammate Albert Pujols and future Hall of Famer (not to mention one of this generation’s best hitters), Yankee legend Mickey Mantle and four other players who are greats in their own right. So, we already know that, even just offensively, Trout is off to one of the best starts in history.
But Trout is not an offense-only player, that much is clear. Though his defense appears to have declined a bit from the elite levels of his rookie and sophomore seasons, he is still a very capable defender in center field, one of the more valuable spots on the field (check out more on the positional spectrum/adjustments here and here, but simply, some positions like catcher, shortstop and center field are far more valuable than others, like first base and corner outfield). So with that said, let’s take a more all-encompassing look at the best careers through age 23, using Wins Above Replacement.
|Ken Griffey Jr.||734||3113||-0.2||148.6||21.9||28.1|
The table above also includes BsR (base running), Off (offensive runs) and Def (defensive runs), which help make up WAR. I wanted to provide an idea of how the players went about accumulating their value, not just throw out a very heavy and general number and call it a day.
Once again, though, we get a similar story on Trout. He is currently tied for second with Ty Cobb for all-time WAR through age 23, and is just 0.2 wins behind Ted Williams. But, let’s not forget that Trout’s age-23 season isn’t quite over yet, and unless he ends up missing the rest of the season, he will surely overtake Williams, potentially by a full win or more.
Beyond that, as solid as WAR is in terms of providing a snapshot of a player’s value, it isn’t perfect, and two-tenths of a win isn’t enough to declare one player superior to another. The margin of error, while reasonably small, is still great enough that Trout could have actually already provided more value than Williams. Or, inversely, provided even less than we think, potentially placing him closer to the fourth place Mel Ott. This is an important thing to remember with WAR: just because it is an all-in-one type metric doesn’t mean it is perfect. It is best used as a conversation starter before digging deeper, rather than as a conversation ender.
So let’s keep digging even further. First off, playing time absolutely matters in a comparison like this, especially when using WAR. Someone with more chances could have a higher WAR, but not necessarily have played as well. While Trout will likely pass Williams by the end of the season, he will also have played over 60 more games to do so. Similarly, it took Trout over 100 fewer games to match Ty Cobb’s production. But how exactly did they go about providing this value?
We can see right off the bat that Ted Williams got all of his value from his bat, actually losing value on the bases and in the field. Now, keep in mind we don’t have the same advanced defensive metrics for his time period as we do now. Instead of using UZR or DRS, historical WAR utilizes TZ, or Total Zone, which is obviously going to be much more crude and volatile. Still, Williams wasn’t known for his defense, and regardless, -23 runs over four seasons comes out to about -6 runs per season, which is far from drastic.
Mike Trout is a much different player, getting less about 50 runs less value (which is still a lot, mind you) offensively, but picking up the slack with plus defense and base running. He isn’t quite Al Kaline defensively, whose +52 Def blows everyone out of the water, or even Ken Griffey Jr. or Arky Vaughn, but a +13.5 clip is certainly nice, especially when accompanied by +32.6 base running runs, which leads the above list.
And that is what helps set Mike Trout apart, not only from his peers right now, but even on a list containing some of the best players of all time. It’s rare for a player to hit the way Trout does and still be able to handle a tough defensive position and provide surplus value with his legs. His offensive numbers look more like what one would expect from a slugging first baseman or right fielder, not from a solid defensive center fielder who has stolen as many as 49 bags in a single season.
They did it in different ways, but it seems pretty clear to me that Mike Trout and Ted Williams are one and two in the category of best through-age-23 careers in baseball history. Trout’s value will exceed Williams’ by a bit, and he did it in multiple facets of the game, but he will have needed more time to do so. In the same 586 game sample that Williams had, Trout’s WAR gets scaled back to about 34.8, almost two wins shy of Ted.
Trout is already off to a legendary start, providing some of the most value in Major League Baseball at an age when most players are still in the minor leagues, or even college. That is what he has already done, but in the future I would very much like to see if we can’t get an idea of what to expect from him going forward. Of course I can’t predict the future, but I can set up some models based on Trout’s skill set and see what similar players have gone on to do from age 24 and beyond. I suspect I would find some pretty exciting things regarding Mike Trout’s future.