For the third time in four years, Mike Trout finished as a runner-up MVP. Trout had a compelling case, but Josh Donaldson was a deserving winner. Even if you think Trout should have won, you’re probably fine with Donaldson winning. More than one guy can deserve it, after all.
Regardless, the outcome of an award vote doesn’t change what Trout’s achieved through his first four seasons. And what Trout’s done through his first four seasons is unprecedented. Already, he’s arguably accomplished more than any player in history through his age-23 season. Already, he’s had a top-10 all-time four-year peak, and those are the only years we’ve seen him have. The next question, naturally, is a biggie. Don’t lie — you’ve thought about it. Even if you’re a skeptic, it’s a thought that’s crossed your mind, if even for a fleeting moment.
“What if this guy is the best that’s ever done it?”
What if? Never hurts to wonder. Could Trout be the greatest? If he ends up as the greatest, what would that even take? What would that career look like? What could that career look like?
The all-time leader in position player Wins Above Replacement, according to our leaderboards, is Babe Ruth, at 168.4 WAR. Let’s have a little fun.
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Trout’s career currently stands at 38.5 WAR, by our model. That already places him 256th all-time in the modern era for hitters, ahead of the entire careers of Hall of Famers Roy Campanella and Pie Traynor and baseball legends Roger Maris and Kirk Gibson. But that’s not good enough. No, 256th isn’t first; we’re envisioning a world where Mike Trout goes out on top.
The Mickey Mantle comparisons are alive and well, but you hear a lot of Willie Mays too. Mays played from age 20 until age 42. Trout debuted at 19, but he didn’t play his first full season until 20. Keeping the Mays comparison going, we’ll say Trout plays until he’s 42, as well.
Rather than look into a crystal ball to see the future of Trout’s career, let’s instead look to the past. For each year of Trout’s career, let’s subjectively assign him a particularly Troutian real-life season by a real-life player that happened at that same age. For example, Trout’s age-25 season is Sal Bando’s age-25 season. Then, for each season, we’ll use historical league averages to translate the actual stats to a modern-day equivalent.
The only rules of this exercise are as follows:
- No Bonds, no Ruth
- No duplicates
- Mike Trout ends up as the Greatest Of All Time
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- Age comp: Mike Trout, projected 2016
- WAR: 9.2
- Translated numbers: .307/.410/.585, 37 HR, 175 wRC+
We start things off not with a historical player comp, but instead what we have available to us here at the site. This is Mike Trout’s 2016 Steamer projection. The big picture here is that one of the most accurate publicly available player projection systems pegs Mike Trout’s true talent level at age 24 as a nine-win player with a near .300/.400/.600 slash line. It’s important to remember that these projection systems are typically conservative. What we see is a median projection. Median projection as in, there’s room left for improvement. Improvement. This is simply the base with which we begin.
- Age comp: Sal Bando, 1969
- WAR: 7.7
- Translated numbers: .283/.372/.547, 36 HR, 154 wRC+
Yet, in Trout’s age-25 season, he regresses. His true-talent level may be a nine-win player, but there’s got to be some give and take, right? For the first time in his career, Trout posts a WAR below eight. For the first time in his career, Trout posts a wRC+ below 165. The batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage: all career-lows. Still nearly an eight-win player.
It’s the end of the 2017 season, and Mike Trout now ranks 119th all-time in career hitter WAR at the age of 25, having surpassed the likes of Todd Helton, Vladimir Guerrero and Jim Rice in the past calendar year.
- Age comp: Mickey Mantle, 1958
- WAR: 8.8
- Translated numbers: .295/.426/.595, 46 HR, 187 wRC+
Now in his age-26 season, Trout is entering the years in which most hitters throughout history have tended to hit their peaks. That may be the craziest thing about what Trout’s already done — we haven’t yet seen his hypothetical “peak years.” In 2018, Trout begins to realize those typical peak years and lives up to those Mantle comparisons, replicating Mantle’s age-26 season. Trout posts career-highs in homers and wRC+, though the average, OBP and WAR have all been done before.
At 64.2 career WAR, Trout has now compiled a Hall of Fame-worthy resume by his age-26 season. The best is yet to come. Trout now ranks 75th all-time, having leapfrogged Alan Trammell, Roberto Alomar and Ernie Banks.
- Age comp: Carl Yastrzemski, 1967
- WAR: 11.1
- Translated numbers: .335/.423/.689, 60 HR, 194 wRC+
On last Friday’s episode of Effectively Wild, hosts Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh coincidentally discussed Trout’s future and provided what turned out to be several particularly relevant quotes for this exercise.
Miller noted that, despite all four of Trout’s seasons to date having been roughly equal in terms of overall value, he’s curiously resembled four seemingly separate players. There’s been all-around speed-and-defense Trout, walks Trout, strikeouts Trout and, most recently, slugging Trout. Miller asked Lindbergh to declare his favorite version. After initially answering “all-around Trout,” Lindbergh continued:
“I kind of like the 40-home run hitter Trout, too. Like, I’m curious to see how far that can go. When he gets a little older, is he going to add even more power? Is he going to be a 50-homer guy? I’m fascinated to see where he goes next.”
“You’re right. If you put him in a park that boosted his power a bit and if the era comes back a little to a more neutral or more hitter-friendly era, this guy is potentially a 60-home run hitter. Which, nobody even saw the 30s coming.”
At some point, Trout is going to have his trademark season. It’s possible that it’s already happened, but that wouldn’t be any fun. Instead, it happens in the mythical age-27 season. Trout has Carl Yastrzemski’s trademark Triple Crown year, which translates in modern day to a .335 batting average and 60 homers. The 194 wRC+ will go down as his career-high, which is still three points lower than what Bryce Harper did in 2015.
Trout is now at 75.3 career WAR, all but securing his place in Cooperstown by the age of 27. He ranks 32nd all-time, one spot below Ken Griffey Jr. and two spots ahead of Johnny Bench. His career still has another 15 years.
- Age comp: J.D. Drew, 2004
- WAR: 8.6
- Translated numbers: .291/.412/.538, 29 HR, 162 wRC+
Trout begins to receive a poor man’s version of the Barry Bonds treatment, getting pitched around to the tune of J.D. Drew’s 18.3% walk rate from 2004. Trout’s “held” to just 29 home runs, but he’s issued the free pass a career-high 161 times. The Bonds treatment was never expected to stop him. It was a merely a means to divert the damage.
- Age comp: Nelson Cruz, 2010
- WAR: 4.9
- Translated numbers: .317/.406/.588, 23 HR, 170 wRC+
Everyone’s nightmare comes true: Trout falls victim to injury for the first time in his career. No one’s invincible. In early August, Trout is hit with a fastball on the hands, breaking a wrist. He misses the remainder of the season. Like Nelson Cruz in 2010, Trout’s still able to post nearly five wins in 108 games due to an extremely hot first half, but we’re given perhaps our first reminder that Trout is human after all.
- Age comp: Lenny Dykstra, 1993
- WAR: 6.8
- Translated numbers: .292/.400/.484, 22 HR, 143 wRC+
Still recovering from the wrist injury, Trout gets off to a dreadful first half in the inaugural year of his 30s, leading many to question whether the inevitable decline from greatness was near. He still makes the All-Star Game on popularity alone, but the numbers aren’t there; he’s barely an above-league average hitter by the break. A strong second half saves his season and restores hope, but the wrist still zaps his power for much of the year and he finishes the season with career-worsts in slugging percentage, homers and wRC+. Still roaming center field and providing value with his speed, Trout is able to post a seven-win season, but it’s now been three years since he was the best player in baseball.
The career WAR leaderboard now has Trout placed 17th, between Yastrzemski and Eddie Mathews, with 95.6 WAR.
- Age comp: Willie Mays, 1962
- WAR: 10.5
- Translated numbers: .294/.367/.618, 53 HR, 163 wRC+
The wrist injury now well behind him, Trout again reclaims his spot as baseball’s consensus best player, posting double-digit WAR for the final time in his career by having Willie Mays’ age-31 season. Trout’s resurgence comes thanks to a new hyper-aggressive approach — a far cry from the early, more patient Trout years. He posts baseball’s highest first-pitch swing rate, ambushing pitchers early in the count to rack up a league-high 31 homers by the All-Star Break. By the time pitchers adjust to Trout’s free-swinging approach, much of the damage has already been done. He posts a career-low walk rate of just 8.4%, but slugs 50+ homers for the second and last time in his career.
Trout cracks 100 career WAR during this season, becoming just the 14th hitter in the modern era to do so. Frank Robinson and Jimmie Foxx rank beneath him in the 100-WAR club, with Rickey Henderson and Mike Schmidt next in line. With 445 homers by his age-31 season, people begin wondering whether Trout can end up as the game’s all-time home run leader.
- Age comp: Jackie Robinson, 1951
- WAR: 9.0
- Translated numbers: .326/.399/.544, 25 HR, 155 wRC+
Trout continues his aggressive approach adopted the year prior — 2023 — but this time it results in fewer homers and more singles and doubles. Trout’s .326 average is his highest since 2019, but he slugs just 25 homers and posts a 155 wRC+, pedestrian for his standards.
Down goes Henderson, Schmidt, Mel Ott, Mantle and Alex Rodriguez. Trout’s top-10 all-time four-year run from way back in the early 2010s has now turned into a top-10 all-time career. 115 WAR. Only seven names separate Trout from the Babe.
- Age comp: Lonnie Smith, 1989
- WAR: 8.1
- Translated numbers: .315/.411/.576, 29 HR, 166 wRC+
Ho-hum. An eight-win season at age 33. If Lonnie Smith could do it, why not Mike Trout? He is going to go down as the Greatest of All Time, after all.
His 29 homers leave him with 499 at the end of the year. He surpasses Lou Gehrig’s career WAR, and enters the next season with 123.2 WAR under his belt. And then there were six.
- Age comp: Jim Edmonds, 2004
- WAR: 8.3
- Translated numbers: .288/.395/.608, 39 HR, 168 wRC+
By now, Trout’s speed and defense have noticeably declined, and age 34 is his final season in center field. Still, the bat remains. He homers in his first at-bat of the year for number 500. Thirty-eight more bring his career total to 538 — 17th all-time and two more than Mantle.
Eight more wins means Trout usurps Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams. Mike Trout is now fifth all-time in career WAR, trailing only Ruth, Bonds, Mays and Hank Aaron. This marks the final eight-win season of Trout’s career. It marks the final seven-win season of Trout’s career, too.
- Age comp: Chipper Jones, 2007
- WAR: 6.9
- Translated numbers: .320/.401/.578, 29 HR, 163 wRC+
Trout is now a 35-year-old, bat-mostly left fielder, but he can still play. He may no longer be the game’s elite, but, like Chipper Jones in ’07, he’s still near the top.
Hank Aaron now rests a spot below Trout on the all-time WAR leaderboard. The Mount Rushmore of Baseball now displays the faces of Ruth, Bonds, Mays and Trout.
- Age comp: Roberto Clemente, 1971
- WAR: 6.5
- Translated numbers: .342/.364/.546, 17 HR, 148 wRC+
Taking a page from his old teammate Albert Pujols‘ book from a decade prior, Trout continues his late-career aggressive approach, this year taking it to an extreme. Trout’s elite bat-to-ball ability lets this approach work, and he hits a career-best .342 despite a lack of speed or power. The wRC+ is in a three-year decline, but Trout remains among the game’s best hitters at the age of 36.
He still trails Mays on the career WAR leaderboard, with Ruth and Bonds several good years away.
- Age comp: Mike Schmidt, 1987
- WAR: 6.1
- Translated numbers: .283/.371/.534, 34 HR, 139 wRC+
The three-year wRC+ decline culminates in a career-worst figure of 139, though Trout overhauls his swing to take advantage of his new friend, the Green Monster. Trout sells out to the pull-field with increased loft on his swing, and is able to muster 34 homers at the ripe age of 37, just like Raul Ibanez in 2009.
Trout has overtaken Mays. He has the third-highest career WAR in MLB history. He hits his 600th career homer shortly after the All-Star Break, and finishes the season with 618.
- Age comp: Joe Morgan, 1982
- WAR: 5.2
- Translated numbers: .281/.391/.456, 18 HR, 143 wRC+
The homers over the Green Monster turn into doubles off the Green Monster and Trout posts the final 4+ WAR season of his career.
That’s 156.4 career WAR. Fewer than 10 wins separate Trout and Bonds. Just 12 to the Babe.
- Age comp: Darrell Evans, 1986
- WAR: 3.8
- Translated numbers: .238/.346/.453, 33 HR, 121 wRC+
Entering the season with 636 career homers, Trout has become determined to be the all-time home run king. He sells out for power completely, batting just .238 with a career-worst 121 wRC+, but he slugs 33 more dingers and passes Mays for fifth all-time. Now a three- to four-win player, Trout is far from the game’s best, though he’s still a well above-average starter.
Trout joins Ruth and Bonds in the 160 WAR club. By this time, everyone knows Trout will hang on as long as possible in pursuit of becoming the all-time home run leader.
- Age comp: Dave Winfield, 1992
- WAR: 3.8
- Translated numbers: .288/.370/.528, 37 HR, 140 wRC+
The power sell-out continues. Trout is able to add 37 more homers to his resume, becoming just the fifth player in history to hit 700, but it’s the final time he hits 20 in a single season and it’s also the best wRC+ over his final three years.
A total of 706 home runs and 163.8 WAR. Still trails Ruth and Bonds in each category.
- Age comp: Carlton Fisk, 1989
- WAR: 3.4
- Translated numbers: .293/.353/.514, 18 HR, 129 wRC+
For the first time in his career, the end appears near for Mike Trout. He’s still swinging for the fences, but the power just isn’t there anymore. He also misses time here and there with various ailments, and he’s able to hit just 18 homers.
He does pass Ruth in homers, finishing the year with 724, and Bonds in WAR, at 167.2, but there’s not much time left.
- Age comp: Stan Musial, 1963
- WAR: 1.2
- Translated numbers: .258/.327/.430, 14 HR, 98 wRC+
In the final season of Mike Trout’s legendary career, we see him as a below-league average hitter for the first time since he was 19. But he plays until the end, giving it everything he’s got. He’s able to muster just 14 home runs, and he ends the season with 738 lifetime.
Realizing that he still needs more than 40 homers to surpass all-time home run king, Alex Rodriguez, Trout gives in to his body’s aches and pains and calls it quits. That last season, though? That last season was worth 1.2 wins. Exactly what Stan Musial did when he was 42. Exactly what Trout needed to match Babe Ruth’s career total. Trout and the Babe each call it a career with 168.4 WAR as a hitter. Hidden decimals give Trout the number one spot on the leaderboard. Mike Trout ends his career as the greatest player of all-time.
|2017||25||S. Bando ’69||0.283||0.372||0.547||36||154||7.7||55.4|
|2018||26||M. Mantle ’58||0.295||0.426||0.595||46||187||8.8||64.2|
|2019||27||C. Yastrzemski ’67||0.335||0.423||0.689||60||194||11.1||75.3|
|2020||28||J. Drew ’04||0.291||0.412||0.538||29||162||8.6||83.9|
|2021||29||N. Cruz ’10||0.317||0.406||0.588||23||170||4.9||88.8|
|2022||30||L. Dykstra ’93||0.292||0.400||0.484||22||143||6.8||95.6|
|2023||31||W. Mays ’62||0.294||0.367||0.618||53||163||10.5||106.1|
|2024||32||J. Robinson ’51||0.326||0.399||0.544||25||155||9.0||115.1|
|2025||33||L. Smith ’89||0.315||0.411||0.576||29||166||8.1||123.2|
|2026||34||J. Edmonds ’04||0.288||0.395||0.608||39||168||8.3||131.5|
|2027||35||C. Jones ’07||0.320||0.401||0.578||29||163||6.9||138.4|
|2028||36||R. Clemente ’71||0.342||0.364||0.546||17||148||6.5||144.9|
|2029||37||M. Schmidt ’87||0.283||0.371||0.534||34||139||6.1||151.0|
|2030||38||J. Morgan ’82||0.281||0.391||0.456||18||143||5.2||156.2|
|2031||39||D. Evans ’86||0.238||0.346||0.453||33||121||3.8||160.0|
|2032||40||D. Winfield ’92||0.288||0.370||0.528||37||140||3.8||163.8|
|2033||41||C. Fisk ’89||0.293||0.353||0.514||18||129||3.4||167.2|
|2034||42||S. Musial ’63||0.258||0.327||0.430||14||98||1.2||168.4|
* * *
This has been nothing more than a silly, fun thought experiment. I’m aware of how absolutely insane it is. It’s crazy!
But, is it?
It is. But, hey, sort that table by seasonal WAR real quick. Two of the top four seasons have already happened. The fifth is Trout’s 2016 projection. Number seven has already happened, too. We didn’t ask Trout to do much more in a single season than what he’s already done four times. We didn’t even ask him to do anything that hasn’t been done before! All of these seasons have actually happened, most of them by players far inferior to Mike Trout. He even suffered a season-ending injury at 29! He doesn’t have to have a Bonds season, a Ruth season, a Williams season, a Gehrig season or even an Aaron season. Hell, we even gave him a Dykstra, a Smith and a Cruz in his prime years and still found a way for him to come out on top.
It’s absurd, I know. Never gonna happen! Like, no way. But, be honest. For a brief second, you considered it, didn’t you?
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.