Mike Trout’s Inevitable Decline by Dan Szymborski March 6, 2020 Time is the ultimate badass. No matter how great you are, no matter how amazing you are at planning, time always wins in the end. And so it is in baseball as in other things. Mike Trout is, in many ways, the reigning king of baseball, that rare player who enters every season as the nearly-undisputed best in the game. Trout is no longer the young phenom and will turn 30 in just under 18 months, the threshold past which your baseball youth is symbolically gone. Young talent debuts every year while Trout inches closer and closer to retirement, and the day will come when he’s no longer baseball’s clear best. Just being the best player projected coming into the season is practically enough to ensure your baseball immortality. I went back to the start of the modern era (1901) and collected the top WAR projection for every season, instructing ZiPS to calculate a Marcel-like method for the seasons prior to 2003, when the ZiPS projections did not exist. This is a quick way to demonstrate Trout’s dominance compared to other elite players in baseball history: Top WAR Projection, 1901-2020 Season Name 1901 John McGraw 1902 Cy Young 1903 Cy Young 1904 Honus Wagner 1905 Honus Wagner 1906 Honus Wagner 1907 Honus Wagner 1908 Honus Wagner 1909 Honus Wagner 1910 Honus Wagner 1911 Ty Cobb 1912 Ty Cobb 1913 Ty Cobb 1914 Ty Cobb 1915 Tris Speaker 1916 Eddie Collins 1917 Walter Johnson 1918 Ty Cobb 1919 Ty Cobb 1920 Ty Cobb 1921 Babe Ruth 1922 Babe Ruth 1923 Rogers Hornsby 1924 Babe Ruth 1925 Babe Ruth 1926 Rogers Hornsby 1927 Babe Ruth 1928 Babe Ruth 1929 Babe Ruth 1930 Rogers Hornsby 1931 Babe Ruth 1932 Babe Ruth 1933 Babe Ruth 1934 Jimmie Foxx 1935 Jimmie Foxx 1936 Lou Gehrig 1937 Lou Gehrig 1938 Lou Gehrig 1939 Mel Ott 1940 Joe DiMaggio 1941 Joe DiMaggio 1942 Joe DiMaggio 1943 Ted Williams 1944 Charlie Keller 1945 Stan Musial 1946 Snuffy Stirnweiss 1947 Hal Newhouser 1948 Hal Newhouser 1949 Ted Williams 1950 Ted Williams 1951 Stan Musial 1952 Jackie Robinson 1953 Jackie Robinson 1954 Stan Musial 1955 Duke Snider 1956 Duke Snider 1957 Mickey Mantle 1958 Mickey Mantle 1959 Mickey Mantle 1960 Ernie Banks 1961 Willie Mays 1962 Mickey Mantle 1963 Willie Mays 1964 Willie Mays 1965 Willie Mays 1966 Willie Mays 1967 Willie Mays 1968 Ron Santo 1969 Carl Yastrzemski 1970 Carl Yastrzemski 1971 Bob Gibson 1972 Fergie Jenkins 1973 Johnny Bench 1974 Bert Blyleven 1975 Joe Morgan 1976 Joe Morgan 1977 Joe Morgan 1978 Mike Schmidt 1979 Mike Schmidt 1980 Mike Schmidt 1981 George Brett 1982 Mike Schmidt 1983 Mike Schmidt 1984 Mike Schmidt 1985 Cal Ripken 1986 Rickey Henderson 1987 Wade Boggs 1988 Wade Boggs 1989 Wade Boggs 1990 Wade Boggs 1991 Rickey Henderson 1992 Barry Bonds 1993 Barry Bonds 1994 Barry Bonds 1995 Barry Bonds 1996 Barry Bonds 1997 Barry Bonds 1998 Barry Bonds 1999 Barry Bonds 2000 Pedro Martinez 2001 Pedro Martinez 2002 Randy Johnson 2003 Barry Bonds 2004 Barry Bonds 2005 Barry Bonds 2006 Alex Rodriguez 2007 Albert Pujols 2008 Albert Pujols 2009 Albert Pujols 2010 Albert Pujols 2011 Albert Pujols 2012 Clayton Kershaw 2013 Mike Trout 2014 Mike Trout 2015 Mike Trout 2016 Mike Trout 2017 Mike Trout 2018 Mike Trout 2019 Mike Trout 2020 Mike Trout There are a couple of oddities in there, mostly caused by the difficulty of projecting a player who missed seasons due to war service, but otherwise it’s a Who’s Who of the Hall’s inner circle. I’d wager that in 50 years, all but two of these players will be in the Hall of Fame, with Charlie Keller likely on the outside, and Snuffy Stirnweiss certainly so. (If I’m still around in 50 years to test this prediction, I also wager I’ll be a very shouty, curmudgeonly 91-year-old.) In terms of the number of years at the top of the heap, Trout’s eight seasons already puts him in third place in modern baseball, behind only Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds. In terms of uninterrupted reigns, Trout’s eight consecutive seasons ties Bonds’ 1992-1999 stretch, meaning that if he has the top projection entering 2021, he’ll have earned his spot as the giocatore di tutti giocatori in baseball. Top WAR Reigns, 1901-2020 Name Reigned Years Barry Bonds 11 1992-1999, 2003-2005 Babe Ruth 10 1921-1922, 1924-1925, 1927-1929, 1931-1933 Mike Trout 8 2013-2020 Honus Wagner 7 1904-1910 Ty Cobb 7 1911-1914, 1918-1920 Mike Schmidt 6 1978-1980, 1982-1984 Willie Mays 6 1961, 1963-1967 Albert Pujols 5 2007-2011 Mickey Mantle 4 1957-1959, 1962 Wade Boggs 4 1987-1990 Joe DiMaggio 3 1940-1942 Joe Morgan 3 1975-1977 Lou Gehrig 3 1936-1938 Rogers Hornsby 3 1923, 1926, 1930 Stan Musial 3 1945, 1951, 1954 Ted Williams 3 1943, 1949-1950 Carl Yastrzemski 2 1969-1970 Cy Young 2 1902-1903 Duke Snider 2 1955-1956 Hal Newhouser 2 1947-1948 Jackie Robinson 2 1952-1953 Jimmie Foxx 2 1934-1935 Pedro Martinez 2 2000-2001 Rickey Henderson 2 1986, 1991 So, yeah, Mike Trout is really good. He’s essentially lapped the bus test at this point, meaning that if he was hit by a proverbial bus (why are we only hitting players with buses?), the 10-year eligibility requirement for Hall of Fame induction would be waived and he’d be easily ticketed to Cooperstown. He wouldn’t even just be barely limping across the threshold, either; if any player can ever make an inner-circle claim based on a decade, Trout is that guy. Now, when will Trout finally be overthrown as the best player entering a season? Whether by injury, declining performance, or one of baseball’s newest young phenoms establishing their own cases for immortality, it will happen. In fantasy circles, you can argue that this may have already happened this year. Peruse some lists of average draft position and Ronald Acuña Jr. is going first in more drafts this season than Trout. For a more specific estimate, I unleashed ZiPS on this question. And what a meta question it is, since I’m projecting projections! I ran the projections for all the top players in baseballs’ projections to estimate the probability of the players entering the given season with the best projection in baseball. This paragraph may have set a record for the use of the word “projection.” Top Projection…uh…Projections, 2021-2029 Year Top % 2nd % 3rd % 4th % 5th % 2021 Mike Trout 58.7% Francisco Lindor 9.7% Juan Soto 7.5% Mookie Betts 5.2% Cody Bellinger 4.1% 2022 Mike Trout 32.6% Francisco Lindor 11.7% Ronald Acuña Jr. 10.1% Mookie Betts 8.9% Juan Soto 8.0% 2023 Mike Trout 23.3% Ronald Acuña Jr. 16.4% Francisco Lindor 10.6% Juan Soto 9.1% Mookie Betts 8.0% 2024 Ronald Acuña Jr. 18.8% Mike Trout 16.1% Juan Soto 10.2% Francisco Lindor 9.0% Cody Bellinger 7.2% 2025 Ronald Acuña Jr. 13.9% Mike Trout 11.6% Juan Soto 9.1% Cody Bellinger 8.9% Francisco Lindor 8.6% 2026 Ronald Acuña Jr. 13.7% Juan Soto 10.5% Wander Franco 9.5% Cody Bellinger 9.1% Francisco Lindor 7.2% 2027 Ronald Acuña Jr. 14.3% Juan Soto 12.0% Cody Bellinger 9.4% Wander Franco 6.5% Gleyber Torres 6.4% 2028 Ronald Acuña Jr. 13.3% Juan Soto 12.8% Cody Bellinger 7.9% Wander Franco 7.1% Gleyber Torres 7.1% 2029 Ronald Acuña Jr. 12.2% Juan Soto 11.2% Wander Franco 7.0% Gleyber Torres 6.9% Cody Bellinger 6.5% Quite obviously, these probabilities are only for players who are currently in professional baseball. ZiPS does not know if there’s some 12-year-old out there who’s going to go Soto on the league in 2028! ZiPS projects Trout as the favorite to enter the season with the top projection in baseball for three more seasons, with only a single year in which he’s better than a coin flip. Yup, ZiPS likes Wander Franco as much as the scouts do. By the year 2029, Trout’s age-37 season (should he be bound by the constraints of spacetime like other humans), Trout’s only a one-in-100 shot to still have the best projection in baseball. In one sense, Trout’s future has already been surpassed in the rest-of-career projections. Ronald Acuña Jr. and Juan Soto passed Trout in the 2019 projections, the first time anyone has beat him since 2012. Trout had typically lapped the field, with only a few players coming close at times: Carlos Correa, Bryce Harper, and then Francisco Lindor. As of this year’s projections, Trout now ranks sixth in rest-of-career wins, behind Acuña, Soto, Lindor, Cody Bellinger, and Gleyber Torres. And there are many other players within five wins of catching the Angels center fielder: Ozzie Albies, Bo Bichette, Vlad Guerrero Jr., Jack Flaherty, Alex Bregman, Gavin Lux, Wander Franco, and Walker Buehler. So enjoy Mike Trout while he’s at the top of baseball because that day will pass and then never be again. His nearly casual excellence might sometimes feel a bit boring since it seems so effortless, but you’ll miss it when it’s gone. Valar morghulis.