Mike Trout’s Inevitable Decline

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.

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Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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TwinPeaks
Member
TwinPeaks

If Trout is hit by a bus, that bus is going to need a lot of repairs. This chart does seem pretty reasonable to me. Trout’s got a really good shot of being the best player in baseball for a couple more years. After that, it’s gonna be dicey. But you never know; part of me thinks Trout’s still got another gear in there, and that we’re going to see a Godzilla-sized monster season from him in the next few years.

J.D. Martin
Member
Member
J.D. Martin

His wRC+/wOBA both went down but last year Trout posted his best xwOBA, xwOBACON, and Barrel% of his statcast career (2015 onwards). It might already be here.