Mike Trout, Four Years In

We are living in a golden age of youthful, historic talent, especially among position players. This was the case even before 2015, when the likes of Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa and Francisco Lindor — all 23 years old or younger — joined the party. Previously, the Cubs had run out a slew of young stud position players on a daily basis, and Manny Machado and Bryce Harper have been around enough to truly be called veterans at this point. All of these greats all reside in the shadow of the best young player of them all, however: some guy named Mike Trout.

With a little luck, or perhaps some better judgment among voters, Trout could very well be celebrating an unprecedented fourth consecutive MVP award right about now. He’s got one of those on the mantle, along with three relatively controversial second place finishes. While I did predict in an ESPN Insider article this past March that Josh Donaldson would win the 2015 AL MVP, there is no doubt that, if I had a ballot, I would have slotted the Blue Jay third sacker on the second line, behind the Angel center fielder.

How great is Trout, and where might all of this be headed? Let’s take a somewhat unorthodox look at his first four seasons relative to some of the game’s all-time inner-circle superstars, and see where he fits in.

As I have occasionally done in the past on these pages, I’m going to tick off some statistical purists. I am fully aware that when you are working with standard deviations, or z-scores, you technically shouldn’t be adding them together. However, summing the number of standard deviations above league average is a pretty informative way of evaluating the elite tier of performers in a given population.

I have gone back to 1901 and measured the number of standard deviations above/below league average in on-base and slugging percentage (OBP and SLG, respective) for each MLB regular. Then, I summed those relative OBP and SLG scores over each player’s career, obtaining an ordered list of the players who have accumulated the most offensive value in the game’s modern era. This is not a good way of measuring the talent of players in the league average range; an average performer, after all, would come up with a score of zero.

There are, however, 359 players who have accumulated 10 or more standard deviations (OBP and SLG) above league average over their careers, from #1 Barry Bonds (54.26 standard deviations above league average OBP plus 48.93 standard deviations above league average SLG = 103.19 total standard deviations above MLB average production) to #359 Don Mincher (5.22 + 4.81 = 10.03). There are no park or positional adjustments; this is just a pure measure of relative offensive production that has the side benefit of splitting a player’s value into its separate OBP and SLG components.

Of those 359 players with a career value above 10, 38 are currently active. Of those 38, 17 have been qualifying MLB regulars for 10 seasons or more. Another 12 have been qualifying regulars for eight or nine seasons. The other nine, in order of current ranking on this list, are as follows.

Active Leaders, OBP and SLG Production After <7 Years
Joey Votto 7 18.7 12.1 30.8 69
Mike Trout 4 9.3 9.4 18.7 161
Andrew McCutchen 7 10.8 7.6 18.4 170
Paul Goldschmidt 4 7.7 7.3 15.0 241
Carlos Gonzalez 5 4.0 9.9 13.9 266
Giancarlo Stanton 5 4.0 8.8 12.8 285
Buster Posey 5 6.4 5.4 11.8 307
Josh Hamilton 7 3.2 8.4 11.6 311
Bryce Harper 4 5.2 5.5 10.7 341

Of that group, only Gonzalez, whose numbers are heavily altitude-inflated, is anything resembling a fluke. What stands about Trout is how quickly he has climbed this list, with so little experience, at so tender an age. Think about this for a second: by this measure, he has already accumulated the 13th greatest amount of cumulative offensive value of any active player. In four seasons.

The 12 players ahead of him are (with select numbers): Albert Pujols (15 years., 52.6 CAR PRD, #18 rank), Alex Rodriguez (18, 51.4, #19), David Ortiz (19, 47.4, #24), Miguel Cabrera (13, 46.8, #25), Votto, Matt Holliday (11, 26.3, #80), Fielder, Mark Teixeira (12, 22.7, #110), Joe Mauer (12, 21.9, #117), Braun, Tulowitzki and Jose Bautista (12, 19.0, #156). The biggest takeaway here: Mike Trout played the 2015 season at age 23, while every other active player currently ranked ahead of him was 30 or over in 2015.

How fast is Trout climbing this list? After the 2013 season, he was not yet among the (at that time) 349 players with 10 or more combined standard deviations above league average OBP and SLG; he ranked #360 overall. In 2014, he jumped 96 spots to #264, and in 2015, vaulted another 103 spots to #161. He is, plain and simple, a freight train. If he were to post the equivalent of his 2015 season again in 2016, Trout would be banging on the door of the all time Top 100, in only five seasons. Of the top 100 players, 96 have recorded at least 10 qualifying seasons, none of them fewer than seven.

Basically, what all of this is saying is, obviously, that Mike Trout is a truly historic talent. How historic? Using this statistic, let’s take a look at the most comparable 23-year-olds and four-year regulars to Trout in the game’s history.

Career Leaders, OBP and SLG Production Through Age 23
Ty Cobb 23 5 10.8 13.8 24.6 176
Ted Williams 23 4 11.6 11.4 23.0 190
Mike Trout 23 4 9.3 9.4 18.7 173
Mel Ott 23 5 7.9 8.2 16.1 157
Mickey Mantle 23 5 5.8 8.5 14.3 155

Pretty heady company. Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Mel Ott and Mickey Mantle, by any measure, are clear inner-circle Hall of Famers. Not only did they accumulate the most career offensive value using this metric through age 23 of any major leaguers ever, they all also went on to finish in the top-10 in career value. Williams is #2, and Cobb, Mantle and Ott follow at #4, #8 and #10, respectively.

It’s also instructive to look at each player’s three-year peak period using this metric. All of Trout’s retired brethren reached further heights after their age 23 seasons. Cobb’s peak came earliest, at ages 22-24, and was the #5 peak period (8.6 + 9.6 = 18.2) of all time. Next came Mantle, in ages 24-26, the #6 peak period (8.7 + 8.8 = 17.5) of all time. Williams and Ott both peaked at ages 28-30; Williams had the #3 (10.4 + 10.8 = 21.20), and Ott the #38 (6.9 + 6.6 = 13.5) peak period of all time.

As we speak, Trout’s three-year peak period runs from 2013 to 15 (i.e. ages 21-23) and stands as the #27 peak period (7.2 + 7.4 = 14.6) of all time. History tells us that this ranking is likely to move higher, but even if it doesn’t, Trout has an excellent chance of eventually outdistancing every currently active player on this list, including the Pujolses and A-Rods. As funny as this might sound, those guys just aren’t in Trout’s league.

It’s interesting to note that the OBP and SLG components on both a career and peak basis through age 23 are almost equal parts OBP and SLG-based. Williams is the most OBP-focused, Mantle the most SLG-focused. Well-rounded offensive dominance takes an awful long time to wane. It’s also notable that 60 years elapsed between Mantle and Trout without any 23-year-old accumulating so much offensive value. And a third observation: besides Trout, the others are left-handed or switch-hitters. We’re talking about the most accomplished 23-year-old righty hitter of all time. A rare talent, indeed.

You’ll note that Williams and Trout only required four seasons to accumulate so much offensive value above league average, while it took the other three a fifth season. Let’s change the dynamic just a little and measure Trout against all other four-year regulars, regardless of age:

Career Leaders, OBP and SLG Production Through 4 Years
Babe Ruth 26 4 11.5 16.8 28.3 231
Ted Williams 23 4 11.6 11.4 23.0 190
Frank Thomas 26 4 11.3 10.4 21.7 184
Nap Lajoie 29 4 8.9 12.2 21.1 188
Joe Jackson 26 4 9.2 10.4 19.6 185
Stan Musial 25 4 8.5 10.5 19.0 173
Johnny Mize 26 4 7.9 10.9 18.8 173
Mike Trout 23 4 9.3 9.4 18.7 173
Ty Cobb 22 4 7.5 10.4 17.9 168

Trout’s a little farther down this list (eighth), but the company is just as exclusive. Nap Lajoie’s inclusion is a little misleading: it includes his first four seasons in the modern era, beginning in 1901, rather than his first four years as a regular, from 1897 to 1900, which weren’t nearly as stellar as a whole. Yup, another inner-circle Hall of Famer who, upon further review, doesn’t belong in Trout’s class.

Most of the players on this list are at least two years older than Trout, a key two years in which additional power tends to develop. I honestly don’t think that Frank Thomas, Joe Jackson, Stan Musial or Johnny Mize would have dominated the major leagues from ages 20 to 23 the way Mike Trout has. Babe Ruth is a different story. He was busy pitching at a near elite level at Trout’s age, a fact that is truly difficult to process, no matter how many times I try.

Again, notice the uncanny balance between the OBP and SLG components on the above list. True offensive greatness occurs when you master both distinct facets of creating runs: getting on base and advancing runners, including one’s self, around the bases.

Going into 2015, I actually saw some potential for near-term offensive trouble for Trout. His K rate spiked dramatically in 2014, as did his fly ball rate. In recent seasons, players who hit more fly balls than grounders have seen their overall performance decline the next season. The 15 AL players with the largest fly ball/grounder disparity saw their cumulative OPS+ plunge from 118 in 2013 to 92 in 2014.

The 22 MLB players with the largest disparity saw their OPS+ drop from 114 in 2014 to 104 in 2015. Players driving that 2014-15 decline included Rene Rivera, Adam LaRoche, Mike Zunino, Brandon Moss, Chris Carter, Yan Gomes and Steve Pearce. Mike Trout was part of this group, and he bucked the trend, with his OPS+ increasing from 167 to 176. He was not in the excess fly ball group in 2015. In addition, his strikeout rate declined, and his opposite field rate increased. All systems would appear to be go heading into 2016, with no red or even orange flags in place.

Let’s step back for a second and survey the landscape. Throughout this article, we have focused solely on Trout’s raw offensive output relative to the league. The guy plays in a pitcher’s park — we didn’t give him extra credit for that, nor for the fact that he plays a bunch of games each year in Seattle and Oakland, two other hitter graveyards. We didn’t take into account his significant defensive value. We only took his speed into account to the extent it affects his batting output. Despite all of that, the few player comps we came up with were invariably names like Cobb, Williams, Ruth, Mantle, etc.: near-unanimous Hall of Famers one and all.

You can come at the force of nature that is Mike Trout from a number of angles; I did so one way today, August Fagerstrom in another yesterday. All roads lead to the same conclusion, however: we are all fortunate to be witnessing the peak stages of what is likely to go down as one of the truly greatest position player careers in baseball history.

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8 years ago

No offense, but isn’t this something like the 4th “Hey, Trout is really, really good. No, seriously, really good. Like historically good. Really good.” article in the last couple weeks?

Rex Manning Day
8 years ago
Reply to  Anon

You say that like it’s a bad thing.

8 years ago
Reply to  Anon

Mike Trout isn’t going to play baseball forever. Let’s celebrate that he’s playing while we can.

8 years ago
Reply to  Anon

I just tweeted the same. Good grief.

8 years ago
Reply to  Anon

Yeah, let’s have more articles about lesser players on teams that don’t really matter.

Geez. People complain about Mike Trout articles. People complain if there’s too many cubs, Cards, Red Sox, Yankee, Blue Jay, Royals, articles.

Or maybe it’s just people like to complain about everything.

Either that or they really do want to see more articles about players no one really knows about because there’s nothing unique or special about their performance.

Aren’t the rash of Mike Trout articles as a direct result of him not winning what could/should have been his 4th straight MVP award? Seriously, the guy could have won his 4 straight MVP award to start his career. That is nuckin futz! There’s really not enough words to describe how awesome that is … so, we get multiple articles trying to use numbers to get us to understand it.

It’d be like complaining that there’s too many Golden State Warrior or Steph Curry articles in the NBA right now. Wanna know why that is? Greatness.

8 years ago
Reply to  CircleChange11

Everyone and their sister knows how great he is. There are other really good players in the game. We get it. He’s great. Future hall of famer.

8 years ago
Reply to  raygu

Look at what the articles are about ….

– How Mike Trout could end his career as the WAR leader?

Ok, who else could such an article be written about?

At this point, Mike Trout isn’t a real baseball player …. he’s an idea. An idea that allows us to entertain the possibilities of human limitations in baseball performance.

To be flippant about it, he’s baseball’s version of chuck norris. Chuck Norris can divide by zero. Chuck Norris has counted to infinity … twice. Chuck Norris doesn’t read books … he stares them down unti9l he gets the information he wants. and on and on. Chuck Norris is no longer Chuck Norris.

The articles are basically about just how good a baseball player could be during their career, and Mike Trout’s name gets used because well, Mike Trout has had the best 4-year start of a career ever … in history.

So, for those of us that grew up hearing about Willie mays and Mickey Mantle as if they weren’t really humans, but gods reincarnated into baseball players … and not having a player like that during the 70s/80s … until Griffey Jr … Trout provides an opportunity to compare to those guys and he’s actually better, earlier. I think it is worth pointing out.

I would ask, “What other interesting players and/or aspects would you like to read about?” and “Is anyone else interested in that?”

8 years ago
Reply to  raygu

Yeah, I don’t always agree with Circle, but I’m with him on this one… I feel the same way about Kershaw. There can never be too many articles about either.

8 years ago
Reply to  raygu

I asked my sister if she knew how great Mike Trout was. This is her response: “I don’t know who that is.”

More Anonymous
8 years ago
Reply to  Anon

Imagine discovering baseball and becoming an avid fan in the late-30s and 40s. You are just at that perfect era to realize the historic nature of Ruth… just after he stopped being historic. You ask your parents if they ever did anything *other* than watch Ruth play, and they have to answer that question.

When Trout retires, we (and the next generation of fans) will have to ask ourselves why we *didn’t* spend more time goggling over his performance, putting together Trout highlight reels, or moving heaven and earth to get tickets when the Angels play the local team. It’s not like this is the 4th “hey guys, Hector Rondon is an unappreciated talent” post. It’s not even the 4th “Troy Tulowitzki is a pretty good infielder” post. Trout is a name that will be spoken along side Ruth for as long as baseball endures. And he’s entering his prime in front of our eyes. As far as I’m concerned, ALL the posts on fangraphs could be about him and it wouldn’t do him justice.

8 years ago
Reply to  More Anonymous

Sadly I didn’t watch that much of 2001-2004 Bonds, despite ample opportunities to do so.

8 years ago
Reply to  Anon

I for one approve of Troutgraphs.

8 years ago
Reply to  Anon

Yeah, let’s get more articles about Ryan Flaherty please.

Actually, a great Notgraphs post would be getting Flaherty to be the career WAR leader.