Sheehan: Trout's Peak Compares To All-Time Greats Like Mays, Mantle & Cobb
Christian Yelich hit .290/.369/.432 with 15 steals a year and strong outfield defense in his five seasons with the Marlins. He was a star back then, even if no one knew it because of the team for which he played.
After joining the Brewers in 2018, Yelich went on to win the National League MVP behind a massive second-half power surge, and he has continued to hit for power in 2019.
Through the end of June, Yelich had hit .328/.425/.704 with a major league-leading 29 home runs. He had tacked on 18 steals for good measure.
In the last calendar year, Yelich hit .343/.430/.704 with 54 homers and 30 steals. It’s an incredible stretch of play that could win Yelich back-to-back MVPs.
It’s also what Mike Trout does all the time.
Over that same stretch, Trout has hit .300/.454/.607, a slash line that doesn’t match Yelich’s, but is closer than it looks after accounting for each player’s home ballpark. Yelich’s weighted runs created plus—or wRC+, a park-adjusted offensive index—is 189 in that span; Trout’s is 180. Trout also edges Yelich in terms of defensive value. While Yelich plays all three outfield positions well, he’s primarily a corner outfielder. Trout, on the other hand, is a plus defensive center fielder.
Boil it down and we’re putting Yelich on the cover—and deservedly so—for playing like Trout for a year.
More to the point, Trout has been playing at this level since Yelich was a top 15 overall prospect. The best stretch of Yelich’s life has him as roughly a 10-win player over a 162-game span, according to the wins above replacement (WAR) calculations at FanGraphs.com. Trout already has two individual 10-win seasons, plus two others at 9.7 and 9.8 that could be reasonably rounded up to 10.
Trout has won American League MVP awards in 2014 and 2016. He has finished runner-up four other times, meaning he could have six MVP trophies without much exaggeration. He led the AL in WAR for five straight seasons from 2012 to 2016, and only in his injury-marred 2017 was he worse than one of the two best players in the AL.
In Trout’s career, the AL MVP has either been Mike Trout or The Guy Who Was About As Good As Mike Trout And Had a Better Story. This year, Trout leads the AL in WAR again, though the vagaries of voting and his mediocre teammates may cost him the MVP award.
In this, Trout looks more and more like Willie Mays. Mays was, statistically, the best player in the NL nine times from 1954 through 1965. Only in the first and last of those seasons did Mays win the MVP. There was always someone with a better story, someone with better teammates, someone more interesting to vote for than—yawn—the best player of his era.
Mays’ career numbers are shaped differently than Trout’s because of the eras in which they played and because Mays missed time due to military service, but the two are historically similar as center fielders with power and speed who were the best players in their time.
We didn’t have the Best Tools survey when Mays was patrolling Candlestick Park, but we do have it now. What’s impressive about Trout is the range of categories in which he has ranked first over the course of his career: best hitter, best power, best strike-zone judgment, best defensive outfielder, best baserunner and fastest baserunner. Like Mays, Trout does everything.
The best Mays comp, though, is this one: Mike Trout has been voted the most exciting player in the AL in every year of his career.
Great players have great talent, but they also work to get better every year. Trout’s arm has always been the weakest part of his game. He made improving it a priority after the 2014 season, and he has gone from seven total assists in three seasons to seven assists in 2015, 2016 and 2018 alone. Trout was struggling with high heat in 2014, leading to the highest strikeout total of his career. Now, he has an above-average contact rate. He was a poor basestealer in 2015, getting caught seven times in just 18 attempts. Since then, he had gone an efficient 84-for-99 on the bases.
In an era in which baseball players are largely judged based on October, Trout is under-appreciated. He has played in three playoff games with the Angels in his career, all back in 2014. Yelich played in 10 last season alone. Cody Bellinger, who is challenging Yelich for NL MVP honors, has played in more World Series games, 12, than Trout has played playoff games.
Judged based only on what he can control—his play—Mike Trout is the best young player in baseball history. No one has been more productive through the end of their age-27 season than Trout has, and by the end of the year he will have a significant edge on Ty Cobb and Mickey Mantle.
Neither Cobb nor Mantle nor Mays, however, played in the 2000s, the most difficult time for hitters in baseball history. Pitchers throw harder than they ever have before. They’re taller, releasing the baseball closer to home plate. They have pitches that previous greats never saw, not just modern inventions like the cut fastball, but things like “89 mph sliders” that would have seemed like witchcraft to previous generations.
Baseball has never been great about acknowledging what is obvious to observers of other sports, both team and individual: The players you’re watching today are the best who have ever lived. We elevate the heroes of the past and denigrate the stars of today, even though we can see the physical differences, and we understand the development of skills over time. It’s a stubborn blind spot, but one we need to begin seeing around to get at the truth.
Mike Trout, the best player of his era, is also the best baseball player ever.