The transition from the regular season to the playoffs inevitably leaves us with a stripped-down cast of the game’s best players, but this is getting ridiculous. After a week in which NL MVP candidate Christian Yelich was lost for the year with a fractured kneecap, Javier Báez was ruled out for the remainder of the regular season due to a fractured left thumb, and both Byron Buxton and Shohei Ohtani elected to undergo season-ending surgeries, we’ve now lost Mike Trout as well. The best baseball player on planet Earth will undergo surgery on his right foot later this week, according to the Angels, bringing to a premature end yet another remarkable season.
Trout had not played since making a pinch-hitting appearance on September 7, a day after he took an early exit from a game due to what was termed “right toe discomfort.” Two days later, he underwent a cryoablation procedure (the insertion of hollow needles filled with cooled, thermally conductive fluids) to alleviate a Morton’s neuroma, an inflamed nerve located between the bones at the ball of the foot. The condition is more common among women than men because of the way high heels put pressure on the toes or the ball of the foot, but any kind of repetitive, high-impact activity can cause it, particularly when tight shoes are involved.
Trout had been dealing with pain in the foot for nearly a month, according to the Los Angeles Times’ Maria Torres. Said the 28-year-old center fielder after the cryoablation, “Once it flares up, it doesn’t go away. It calms down at night and when you do baseball activity, it flares up again… This procedure today, they say it helps it.”
Trout was only expected to miss a few games in the wake of the procedure. He was slated to DH on Friday but was scratched from the lineup after experiencing further discomfort when putting his cleats on, and ruled out for Saturday as well. He hoped to play on Sunday, but those hopes were dashed prior to the game. Per MLB.com’s Rhett Bollinger:
After testing out the foot by running before Sunday’s game against the Rays at Angel Stadium, the decision was made to undergo the season-ending procedure.
“Tested the foot again, wasn’t getting any better. Kind of exhausted all non-surgical possibilities,” Angels manager Brad Ausmus said. “It was just unplayable. And it’s not just the playing. Walking around in shower shoes in the clubhouse was hurting him. If you go back three weeks, it would flare up and go away, flare up and go away, but now we’re at a point where it flares up and does not go away.”
…The upcoming procedure removes the nerve so that it won’t be an issue going forward. Trout will have it at some point next week and it carries a recovery time of roughly two weeks.
“He definitely wants to play,” Ausmus said. “Even going back to less than 24 hours, he felt like [Sunday] might be the day. But I think when he woke up this morning and came out here and tested it, he realized it’s not a pain he can deal with. He performed at a very high level, and I think he understands that at this point, forcing himself on the field with a neuroma in his foot wouldn’t be productive.”
With the Angels entering Sunday at 67-82, having clinched their fourth straight sub-.500 season, there wasn’t much Trout could do to help their cause, though he certainly could have put the finishing touches on own his case for a third AL MVP award. He’s never led the league in homers, but he currently holds a 45-44 edge over the Royals’ Jorge Soler. More secure are his current league leads in on-base percentage (.438 to Alex Bregman‘s .420), slugging percentage (.645 to Nelson Cruz’s .622), wRC+ (179 to Bregman’s 164), and WAR (8.6 to Bregman’s 7.4); by Baseball-Reference’s version, the margin is a bit tighter (8.3 to 7.5) but still substantial.
The shame of it is that this is now Trout’s third straight season marred by injuries and what-ifs. While he didn’t officially hit the injured/disabled list the way he did in 2017 (when he was limited to 114 games due to midseason surgery on his left thumb) or ’18 (when he was held to 140 games by a bout of right wrist inflammation), his 134 games is fewer than he played even in his 2012 rookie season, and he’s now averaged just 129 games over the past three seasons, missing about 20% of games overall. As with last year, his performance prorates to a 10-WAR season, but he couldn’t stay on the field long enough to reach that threshold, as he did in 2012 and ’13 — two of the four times it’s been done by a player since 2005 (Mookie Betts in ’18 and Buster Posey in ’12 are the others).
Will it be enough for MVP? The precedents exist, both for players on sub-.500 teams and for those with abbreviated seasons. Six players, including Trout himself, have won the hardware a total of seven times while toiling for teams with losing records:
|Player||Team||Year||Team W-L||Win %|
|Cal Ripken Jr.||Orioles||1991||67-95||.414|
Despite two wins in the past three years for players on sub-.500 teams, I think the sample size is too small to conclude that the tide has really turned here. For what it’s worth, despite the Trout-less Angels’ victory on Sunday, their .453 winning percentage is still lower than the 2016 team’s. Meanwhile, nine non-catcher position players from the post-1960 expansion era have won the award while playing 140 games or fewer in a non-strike season:
|Mookie Betts||Red Sox||2018||136|
The problem for Trout, if indeed there is one, is that no player overlaps the two lists, and in fact everyone from the second list played for a team that reached the postseason. Near-perfect attendance doesn’t seem to matter to the voters if a player’s absence isn’t stopping a team from playing into October.
Recently, FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine built a model to estimate the chances of a league WAR leader winning the MVP when his team was significantly worse than that of the second-ranked player on a much better team (as is the case for Bregman this year). If we prorate Bregman through the remainder of the season (7.9 WAR), Trout would have a 0.7 WAR advantage while playing for a team with a 196-point deficit in winning percentage. Interpolating Paine’s table, the model estimates about a 28% chance of Trout winning the award, rising to 32% if the Angels could somehow trim the winning percentage gap to 180 points.
To be sure, Bregman has a reasonable case for the honor, though anybody who goes beyond evaluating the candidates’ individual merits to suggest that Trout shouldn’t win because the Angels are still nowhere near the playoffs even with his dominance had damn well better also concede that the Astros, who lead the A’s by 7 1/2 games, could just as easily have won the AL West title without Bregman’s contributions. Likewise for the Yankees, who lead the AL East by nine games, and DJ LeMahieu, whose 5.0 WAR doesn’t even put him in the same ballpark as Trout and Bregman but whose clutchiness (in the form of an admittedly impressive .390/.437/.559 showing in 136 PA with runners in scoring position) has given him traction in some quarters, a few of which are occupied by trolls. LeMahieu’s RISP line is good for an impressive 164 wRC+, but guess who has hit .297/.489/.670 for a 184 wRC+ in 133 PA with runners in scoring position? Mike F’ing Trout, that’s who (Bregman has hit a comparatively ho-hum .250/.365/.524 for a 128 wRC+ in that context, not that anyone should really dwell upon it). As for more comprehensive measures of situational performance, Trout is third in the majors in WPA (5.62, behind Yelich’s 7.86 and Cody Bellinger’s 5.99) and second in WPA/LA (7.22 to Yelich’s 7.65). Bregman and LeMahieu are respectively 14th and 26th in the former (4.31 and 3.57) and fourth and 28th in the latter (5.87 and 3.44), not that anybody who’s seriously pushing LeMahieu is basing their argument on so esoteric a stat as context-neutral wins.
Anyway, either the voters will give Trout his due or they’ll take the opportunity to screw him again, and the debates will far outlast the season. If I ever cross paths with Dave Egan in an afterlife, I’ll give him a piece of my mind about leaving Ted Williams off his 1947 AL MVP ballot.
While the book is closed on Trout’s 2019 season save for the voting, we can marvel at the man’s progress towards Cooperstown. I’ve been tracking his progress with regards to my Baseball-Reference WAR-based JAWS system, and despite the premature end to his season, he’s attained one more milestone. His 8.3 bWAR stands as his sixth-best season, supplanting his 6.6 WAR from 2017 within his seven-year peak score, which at 65.5 WAR ranks third among all center fielders behind only (ahem) Willie Mays and Ty Cobb. With that and his career total of 72.6, he’s nosed ahead of Ken Griffey Jr. to take over the number five ranking in JAWS:
|Rk||Name||Career WAR||Peak WAR||JAWS|
|6||Ken Griffey Jr.*||83.8||54.0||68.9|
|Avg of 19 HOF CF||71.1||44.5||57.8|
*Hall of Famer. Note discontinuity in rankings after top 15.
That’s remarkable, particularly considering that he hasn’t officially reached the minimum 10 seasons required for election to the Hall. He’ll do that next year, hopefully on Opening Day; for the purposes of Hall qualification, one game is enough to equal one season, so his 2011 cup of coffee is no handicap in that department. Not that he’s anywhere close to done, but as we stare out the window and wait for spring, the return of Mike Trout will be one more thing to welcome.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.