I Wanna Be Like Mike (Trout)

It’s amazing to write about baseball through the lens of a singular player like Mike Trout. The sheer totality of his excellence is fun in a way that just wouldn’t be true if you looked at all of his skills individually. Trout is an above-average outfielder, sure, but that isn’t all that fun by itself. He has great plate discipline — so too, though, does 2019 Jason Heyward, and he doesn’t spark the same kind of joy as Trout. No, the fun is that there’s basically no category you can come up with where Mike Trout isn’t good.

This got me to thinking: would it be fun to have a player who was like Trout, except not to quite the same degree? I don’t mean in the broad player value sense — in a way, every player in baseball is just a worse version of Trout. No, I mean someone who’s good at everything across the board in the same way that Trout is — just, a little less.

Trout hits for power, so our mystery player will need to hit for good (but sub-Troutian) power. Scratch both Joey Gallo and Jose Altuve from the list. They have to have an excellent eye at the plate and be judicious with their swings; sorry, Javier Baez, but the ride ends for you here. They need to be an above average baserunner, but not the best of the best — J.D. Martinez and Trea Turner both fall at this hurdle.

To work out this highly unscientific study, I started with stats from 2017-present for everyone who qualified for the batting title in at least one of the three years. This lets me cast a wide net without picking up someone whose prime isn’t happening now. First, I looked for players who were worse than Trout in a few categories: ISO, OBP, SLG, BsR/PA, BB%, and K%. (At this point in the search, I learned that Trout has a higher ISO than Aaron Judge, and I mean, wow.)

Next, I filtered out anyone who was below-average in any of those categories. Nelson Cruz made it this far, but his baserunning misadventures rule him out. Yoan Moncada is incredibly fun, but you can’t strike out 30% of the time and be Trout-ian. Aaron Judge doesn’t make it for the same reason. Just like that, the mini-Trout cohort is down to eight players. I didn’t say it was going to be easy to fit so many different categories.

Already, we’ve whittled this down to a pretty talented group of players. The average wRC+ in this group is 136, with a .272/.375/.510 triple slash line. To remove more names, we’ll have to dive into some aesthetic preferences. First, I removed everyone who was below average at their primary defensive position. I considered removing everyone further down the defensive spectrum than Trout is, but I decided that someone playing a really smooth first base could be Trout-esque, but a butcher in the outfield probably wouldn’t be. So long, Rhys Hoskins and Matt Carpenter.

To rule out the next batch of not-Trout-enough batters, I took a detour into the building blocks of plate discipline. To me, you see, Mike Trout’s genius at the plate goes further than just the fact that he walks a good amount and doesn’t strike out. That’s obviously great, but the way he does it is what makes Trout most fun to watch. Trout basically doesn’t swing at pitches outside the strike zone. His chase rate is annually one of the lowest in baseball. At the same time, when he does swing, he makes an above-average amount of contact; he’s Mike Trout, after all. He’s good at everything.

Add those two factors up, and Trout has an enviable swinging strike rate — it’s not quite the best in baseball, but it’s close. Here we leave Michael Conforto, Kris Bryant, and Cody Bellinger — maybe at this time next year, all three of these dynamic young hitters will merit another look, but for now there’s too much swing-and-miss in their profiles. For a slightly different reason, Paul Goldschmidt is also out — he’s borderline by swinging strike rate, but swings so much more frequently than Trout that I’m ruling him out on a technicality.

For those of you counting at home, eliminating Goldschmidt gives us a winner. Only one player remains in our Trout-ian gauntlet — a multi-dimensional threat with speed, power, and patience, though less of each than Trout. Where would the fun be in revealing this player right away, though? Instead, reader, let’s make it interesting. Mike Trout has a 185 wRC+ from 2017-2019. Our mystery player clocks in at 138. Let’s regress Trout’s numbers 55% of the way to league average to see what Trout-like stats might be at a 138 wRC+ level. Then, it’s time to play a guessing game.

Before we run the stats, I’d like to point out that this is extremely non-scientific. The pages of FanGraphs are home to some rigorously-conducted studies of sustainability and player value. This is not one of those studies. This is Fun With Math, Mike Trout Edition. On to the data! One of these players is Mike Trout, only worse by 55% relative to average in every batting category. One is our mystery player:

Two Mystery Batting Lines, 2017-2019
Player BA OBP SLG ISO BB% K% BsR/600 PA
Player A 0.276 0.381 0.510 0.233 13.5 20.4 2.2
Player B 0.291 0.390 0.485 0.194 12.8 22.4 3.5

Now, both of these players are great! There’s no shame in either line. Which one, though, is Trout? One has an on-base advantage. One has a little more power. Both are clearly better than average at everything, though neither overwhelmingly so in any one area. Just to muddle things up a little more, let’s fold in some plate discipline stats. This time, we’re only regressing half of the numbers. Contact rate and swinging strike rate are fairly unambiguous in terms of what you want — a higher contact rate and lower swinging strike rate are better. Swing rates aren’t quite so clear, so I’ll leave those numbers alone. Remember, as always: no science is being done here.

Mystery Players, Continued
Player O-Swing% Z-Swing% Contact% SwStr%
Player A 20.4 60.0 80.5 8.5
Player B 20.5 61.1 79.0 8.1

Do you have a guess? The two lines are strikingly close, which is a good thing given the aim of this project. You’re welcome to think about it for a moment before coming up with a guess, but honestly, it’s probably going to be hard. If I’m doing my job, these lines shouldn’t give one player away too obviously. Here is a GIF of Trout giving a thumbs up (another plus tool) to watch while you ponder.

Alright, fine, you want answers. Player A, the .276/.381/.510 line, is regressed Trout. That’s right: even pushed 55% of the way towards league average, Mike Trout slugs over .500. He’s a baseball freak, remember? Regressed Trout has a higher 2017-2019 ISO than Christian Yelich and Michael Conforto; a higher OBP than Alex Bregman and Matt Carpenter. 45% of Mike Trout is an All-Star every year.

That just leaves our mystery player. Who has all the stat-sheet-explosion goodness of Trout, just with a little less awesomeness packed into each stat? If Mike Trout is 10 pounds of baseball skill in a five-pound bag, who’s seven pounds stuffed into the same bag? Well, I have a confession to make. The timeframe in this study wasn’t picked randomly. I had a sneaking suspicion as to who the answer would be, and he burst onto the scene in 2017; hence the 2017-present window on statistics.

Who is mini-Trout? None other than Tommy Pham, the do-everything Rays outfielder. Steals and home runs? Pham’s got you. Walks and defense? Check. The whole package isn’t Trout-level, because no one is that good, but the value accrues in a decidedly Trout-y way. Miguel Cabrera, Josh Donaldson, Bryce Harper, and Mookie Betts have all made runs at the throne and fallen short of passing Trout. Pham may never reach that stratosphere, but he has all those guys beat when it comes to being like Trout in the broadest sense.

Perhaps the best part about this comparison is the ways in which Pham and Trout are different. In this case, though, I’m not talking about on the baseball diamond. As we’ve already covered, there’s not much to distinguish them stylistically there. No, I’m talking off the field. Trout is soft-spoken; Pham is outspoken.

Both of them made contract headlines this offseason — Trout signed a record extension to remain with the team he’s always played for, while Pham won an arbitration dispute against the Rays. Rob Manfred bizarrely called Trout out for not marketing himself enough; Pham, meanwhile, publicly wished that more fans would show up at the park to see the Rays market themselves.

But don’t let these diverging paths blind you to the fundamental similarity between the two. Every offseason, Mike Trout seemingly eliminates a shortcoming in his game. Can’t hit high fastballs? Give him an offseason. Is his defense slipping? Not anymore. Trout is a devoted student of the game, and he’s matchless when it comes to correcting any flaws, however small.

One look at Tommy Pham’s offseason activities will tell you all you need to know about his own devotion to the game. He’ll buckle himself into a harness for insanely fast treadmill bursts. He’ll play winter ball in the Dominican to work on his swing. He’ll run sprints with LeVeon Bell to work on his quickness. If it might make him better at baseball, Tommy Pham is there for it.

At the end of the day, no one is Mike Trout. His overarching and wide-ranging greatness is truly without match. If you want to watch an All-Star-level player with a Trout-like game, though, you’re in luck, because there’s exactly one of those in baseball. If you wish Trout was a little more quotable, even better: Tommy Pham is the entertainment, both on and off the field, that you’ve been craving.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Cave Dameron
4 years ago

The correct answer here is Nick Senzel.