Roughly a month ago, Mike Trout appeared headed towards history. On June 20, I took time out from gorging myself on lobster rolls and clam strips during my Cape Cod family vacation to put together a table showing the short list of players who reached 6.0 WAR before the All-Star break. After 74 games, Trout was on pace to finish at 13.8 WAR, the third-highest total for a position player in history, behind only the 1923 and 1921 seasons of Babe Ruth (15.0 and 13.9 WAR, respectively).
A funny thing happened on the way to the break, however: Trout fell into his first true slump of the year, and both Mookie Betts and José Ramírez have closed the gap such that the trio is in a virtual tie atop the leaderboard at 6.5 WAR. This is the first time since 1975 — as far back as our splits in this area go, alas — that three players have reached even 6.0 WAR by the All-Star break, though even that relatively recent history shows such a pace is nearly impossible to maintain.
Before I dig in, it’s worth noting that, while we generally refer to what transpires before and after the All-Star break as the season’s first and second halves, those are generally misnomers, since the pause in the schedule usually happens well after the 81st game of the season and at a slightly different point from year to year. So far in 2018, the average team has played 96 games, similar to the averages in 2013 (94) and 2014 (95) but well ahead of those in 2015 and 2016 (89 games) or 2017 (88 games). Thankfully, so long as we’re taking the trouble to prorate to 162 games, we can cope with this.
Since 1975, 16 players have reached at least 6.0 WAR by the All-Star break, though six of them — including this year’s trio, who are tied for third in first “half” WAR — had the benefit of their team playing at least 90 games by that point:
|Rk||Player||Team||Year||Team G||G||WAR Pre||Pace|
|6||Frank Thomas||White Sox||1994||86||86||6.4||12.1|
|7||Mookie Betts||Red Sox||2018||98||78||6.5||11.8|
|14||Jose Bautista||Blue Jays||2012||92||86||6.0||10.9|
Before we go further, I should caution that, throughout this table and those in the rest of this exercise, there are several instances of rounding that may cause differences of 0.1 WAR in displaying some of the sums, such as that of the pre- and post-break splits for Morgan. If your oxygen mask has not deployed to compensate for such anomalies, please press the orange call button above you and a flight attendant will assist you.
Morgan is the only player to reach 7.0 WAR by our cutoff, and somewhat remarkably, he did so while missing seven games, including three in a row at one point in early June after being struck on the shoulder (AP reports did not specify which one) by an errant pickoff attempt. In fact, only three of the above players played every pre-break game, including Trout, Thomas, and of course the consecutive games record-holder, Ripken. Bonds missed eight games in May 2004 alone, including two due to a sinus infection and five due to back spams. (The other appears to have been a routine off-day.)
As best I can tell, Betts is the only player here to serve a DL stint while still reaching the 6.0 level; he missed 14 games in late May and early June due to an abdominal strain. Because he’s produced his 6.5 WAR in just 78 games, he projects to finish ahead of both Ramírez (95 team games) and Trout (97). Note that, in calculating each player’s 162-game pace through the first “half,” I’ve prorated their WAR per individual game played across their team’s remaining number of games. For Betts, that’s 6.5 + 6.5/78 * (162-98).
Anyway, you can see that Trout’s pace has cooled off by 2.9 WAR relative to where he was projected four weeks ago. As Rian Watt noted on July 9, Trout sprained his right index finger sometime during the week of June 18 and was in enough discomfort that he spent eight straight games as the Angels’ designated hitter instead of playing the field, starting on June 19:
“In the 16 games after the injury moved him to DH, leading up to [July] 7th, Trout hit .176/.391/.275 with one home run in 70 plate appearances, after hitting .439/.535/.772 in the 16 games before that, with five home runs.
“His slump, in other words, was entirely consistent with a player who still possessed an elite approach at the plate but lacked the physical capacity to do his customary level of damage on contact.”
After finishing June with 6.2 WAR — he lost a click from the point where I checked in — Trout went 10-for-28 with a homer and six walks from July 7 to 15 to climb back to 6.5. Via our Last 30 Days split, which combines his ups and downs dating back to June 16, he has hit a very un-Trout-like but not-unproductive .276/.466/.368 with two homers, a 22.7% walk rate, a 134 wRC+, and 1.0 WAR — in a virtual tie for the 34th-best hitter during that span with a streaking J.D. Martinez (.347/.396/.634, 175 wRC+) and four other players. That’s a very respectable 6.0-WAR pace over a full season.
While Trout was slumping, both Betts (.380/.488/.630, 200 wRC+, 2.2 WAR) and Ramírez (.327/.441/.684, 194 wRC+, 2.3 WAR) were surging — and still are, as both have a higher wRC+ over the past 14 days (210 and 248, respectively) than over the last 30. Ramírez is virtually tied with Alex Bregman (.351/.430/.748, 220 wRC+) for the highest WAR in that 30-day span, and he’s still got a very good chance to post the highest seasonal WAR for a third baseman — if the Indians don’t trade for one and shift him to second base to replace Jason Kipnis, who has an 84 wRC+ this year but is at a more robust 126 since June 1. Betts is making up for lost time; his 1.5 WAR over the past 14 days is his own claim to splitsville fame.
The future for this year’s trio is unwritten, but of the 13 players from 1975 to 2017 who reached the 6.0 WAR threshold by the break, how many of them do you think were actually able to maintain (or improve) their first-“half” pace? Exactly one, and well, let’s go to the big board:
|Rk||Player||Year||Team G||G||WAR Pre||Pace||WAR Post||Final||Dif|
In the season during which he hit a record 73 homers, Bonds actually improved upon his pre-All-Star pace, and not only did he nearly do so as well the following year, he owns the top four spots here. In order, his 2002, 2001, and 2004 full-season WARs are the top three since 1975, followed by the above ones of Morgan, Ripken, and then Bonds’ 1993 edition, from his first year as a Giant and as a home-run leader (46, to go with 29 steals), en route to his third NL MVP award.
Below Bonds, the drop-offs get significantly steeper, with eight of the 13 falling shy of their midsummer marks by 1.6 to 2.8 WAR. Henderson was the only player to slide by at least two wins and still finish with a double-digit WAR. Note that the most dramatic dip owes to circumstances beyond on-field performance: Thomas’s great 1994 season was of course curtailed by the players’ strike after just 27 post-break games. Given that, it seems perfectly reasonable to exclude him from the averages, which for the other 12 seasons show roughly a 1.5-win slowdown.
If we were to apply that average to our current trio, here’s where they would finish. I’ve also included our rest-of-season Depth Chart projections (an average of Steamer and ZiPS) for a second estimate (again a caution about rounding):
By either method, that’s quite not so historic, with just one player reaching the 10-win threshold. The last time there were two such players was in 2002, with Bonds (12.7) and A-Rod (10.0). The only other time it happened in the post-1960 expansion era, with its 162-game schedules, was in 1961, with Mickey Mantle (10.3) and Norm Cash (10.2), and it’s happened just one other time since World War II, with Stan Musial (11.1) and Lou Boudreau (10.9) in 1948.
As with so many other areas of baseball statistics, all of this should serve as a cautionary tale not to get too attached to such blistering paces as those of Betts, Ramírez, and Trout even while we acknoweldge their chase. Regression may not be as inevitable as death and taxes, but in a long season, players cool off, get banged up, and otherwise miss their marks. If they didn’t, we’d be rewriting the record books every year, but the suspense in following along, and in appreciating greatness, is well worth the effort.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.