FanGraphs loves Mike Trout. FanGraphs has always loved Mike Trout. FanGraphs isn’t unique in this regard — Mike Trout is the best player in baseball, and, generally speaking, people are aware of that. But FanGraphs is the home of WAR, and it’s by WAR that Trout dominates the competition. Trout is a frequent subject of articles. Trout is also a frequent subject of search queries. He’s commonly atop the list of the most-searched players.
It makes sense. Machado and Harper have been two of the most desirable free agents in the history of free agents. Both players are 26 years old, and both players are among the best at their respective positions. Both players are among the best players, period. For that reason, the Padres just signed Machado for $300 million. Harper and Scott Boras are looking to top that number. Machado’s contract is already setting a free-agent record — or at least it will, once it’s official. There shouldn’t be any more significant obstacles.
Machado and Harper are great. We’ve written plenty about them, because they’re great. You’ve repeatedly been looking them up, because they’re great. But, remember how Trout is also great? Trout is so great he’s been as good as Machado and Harper combined. I am not making that up, and this is not some manufactured hot take. The numbers are just sitting right there.
I am not the first person to notice this. I am not even the first person *at FanGraphs* to notice this. Here’s a comment from several weeks ago by FanGraphs user NetflixnRichHill:
Here’s a fun fact about these young free agent phenoms, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado: together, 2012-2018, they’ve produced 60.9 WAR. Over that same time, Trout has produced 64.0 WAR. I didn’t know where else to put this.
Right. It’s the truth! And to illustrate the truth, I’ve prepared some graphs. Going back to 2012, here are the year-to-year WAR numbers posted by Trout, Machado, and Harper:
Between 2012 and 2018, each player has played seven seasons. Together, that’s 21 player-seasons in all. I sorted the 21 player-seasons by WAR, and Trout has the top four. He also has seven of the top eight. Trout’s worst season has been better than Machado’s best season. Here now is a very similar plot, only with Machado and Harper added together:
There’s the one big peak, of course. That’s from when Harper won the National League MVP. Hasn’t happened since. Nothing close to that has happened since. Harper’s WAR in 2015 was 9.3. His second-best WAR has been 4.8. You already knew all this, but, this spring, Trout has talked about his desire to be more consistent. Relative to certain other star players, he’s as consistent as one can possibly be.
It’s one thing to look at WAR, and it’s another, similar thing to look at WAR per 600 plate appearances. So here are adjusted versions of the two plots above:
Nothing too different there. Here’s Trout against Machado and Harper combined:
Again, as you can see, big peak in 2015. That stands out as the anomaly. On a per-PA basis, Trout was better than the two players combined in 2012, 2014, 2016, 2017, and 2018. In 2013, he fell short by less than one win.
The advantage of tables is that they can put numbers together. Up there, you see all the individual seasons. Here’s a comparison table stretching back seven years:
|Harper + Machado||—||130||5.1||290.4||34.2||60.9||9.1|
As correctly noted in the excerpted FanGraphs comment, Trout leads Harper + Machado in total WAR. He’s just a little behind in WAR/600. And, you know, as we think about the present and future, it’s no longer relevant what happened ages back. Most forecasting leans most heavily on the most recent three years. So this is a 2016 – 2018 player comparison:
|Harper + Machado||—||128||-1.7||133.7||-2.8||26.3||8.0|
Trout is exactly tied with Harper + Machado in total WAR. Move over to WAR/600, and Trout pulls ahead by almost one full win. Look at some of the other columns. Trout has been the far superior hitter. He’s been the far superior baserunner. He’s played good enough defense at a premium position. In fact, let’s linger on that for a second.
Last spring, Trout’s goal for himself was to improve in the field. He was coming off a year where his numbers weren’t what he wanted them to be, so he worked to make himself a better center fielder. The result? According to Defensive Runs Saved, Trout improved by 14 runs. According to Ultimate Zone rating, he improved by eight runs. According to Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric, he improved by ten outs. Trout did exactly what he set his mind to, at an age where most players are defensively declining. And, oh, Trout the hitter was also better than ever.
In 2017, at the plate, Trout finished with a 181 wRC+. That was, at that point, a career high. He followed that up in 2018 with a wRC+ of 191. That’s the new career high. For two years in a row, Trout has walked as often as he’s struck out, while hitting for career-best power. So I’d urge you to scroll back up to look at Trout’s year-to-year WAR/600 marks. The projections all think Trout is due for a bit of a decline. You can’t blame them; what kind of human could continue to keep this up? The projections aren’t trained to deal with players so exceptional. By WAR/600, last season’s version of Trout was the best one yet. The best player in the world improved. At some point, he won’t be able to keep doing that, but I don’t know why that point would be soon. Trout is older than Harper by only 14 months. He’s older than Machado by only 11 months. He’s exactly one day older than Yandy Diaz, who’s joined the Rays as basically a prospect. By every indication, Mike Trout is very much in his prime.
The “prime” argument is a big reason why Machado could fetch $300 million. It’s a big reason why Harper might fetch $300 million. Players so good and so young are almost never free agents, and so, when they are free agents, they’re deserving of a fortune. Trout’s not a free agent, but he is two years away from the end of his existing contract. The Angels have had at least internal discussions about offering an extension. I don’t know if Trout will want to be extended, but I know it’s going to be hard to find the right terms. And it’ll be hard, because I don’t know what you’re supposed to do with a player like this. Machado is signing for a record-setting contract. Harper is looking to sign his own record-setting contract. And, combined, those two young stars have been about as valuable as one Mike Trout. I’m not sure if Mike Trout will always be underrated. But for at least the next while, he’s a virtual lock to be underpaid.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.