We’ve Reached Peak Mike Trout, Again

Last week, Mike Trout celebrated his 28th birthday, and here at FanGraphs, Craig Edwards baked a cake, so to speak, by using some yardsticks to measure Trout’s career to date without considering Wins Above Replacement. As Craig noted here, and as Ben Lindbergh said similarly at The Ringer, WAR and Trout have become rather inextricably linked during the span of his career. The metric’s ability to estimate value in the field and on the bases as well as at the plate has helped us appreciate the completeness of Trout’s game and accelerated our understanding of the breakneck pace at which he has carved out a spot among the very best in history.

With roughly six weeks to go in his age-27 season, Trout already has the highest WAR of any player at that stage. By FanGraphs’ version, his 72.9 WAR is 4.1 ahead of Ty Cobb, while by Baseball-Reference’s version, his 72.1 WAR is 3.1 ahead. Trout has done this despite having reached 120 games played in just six seasons thus far, though by this time next week, he’ll have reached that modest plateau a seventh time.

Less than 15 months ago, before Trout had even turned 27, I noted that he had matched the bWAR-based JAWS standard among center fielders — the average of the Hall of Famers at the position — moving into eighth place in those rankings. Since then, he’s climbed up to sixth, with a clear shot to surpass Ken Griffey Jr. for fifth before the month ends. Perhaps more impressively, this week he climbed past Mickey MantleExtra! Extra! Millville Meteor Overtakes Commerce Comet! — to take over sole possession of third place in seven-year peak (65.2), with Thursday night’s 4-for-4 showing against the White Sox, featuring his 40th homer of the season (one short of his career high, set in 2015) breaking what had been a tie that had lingered for a few days. Here, have a dinger:

Trout’s current bWAR — I’m referring to that version for the rest of this piece, unless otherwise indicated — of 7.9 makes this his sixth-best season by that measure; he surpassed his thumb injury-shortened 2017 campaign (6.6) a few weeks ago, and his full-season “dud” of 2014 (7.6) in the past week. He’s on pace to add another 2.5 WAR between now and the end of the season, which would make this his fourth season of at least 10.0 WAR. Only Babe Ruth (nine), Rogers Hornsby and Willie Mays (six apiece) have more. Unlike the other two center fielders whom Trout still trails in peak score — Mays (73.7) and Ty Cobb (69.2) — Mantle put up all seven of his most valuable seasons in his 20s, though he did win his third and final MVP award in 1962, at the ripe old age of 30. Four of Mays’ five most valuable seasons — ranging from 10.5 to 11.2 WAR — came from ages 31-34 (the 1962-65 period), while Cobb’s most valuable season (11.3) was his age-30 one in 1917. Here’s the leaderboard:

JAWS Center Field Leaderboard
Rk Name Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
1 Willie Mays* 156.4 73.7 115.0
2 Ty Cobb* 151.0 69.2 110.1
3 Tris Speaker* 134.1 62.3 98.2
4 Mickey Mantle* 110.3 64.8 87.6
5 Ken Griffey Jr.* 83.8 54.0 68.9
6 Mike Trout 72.1 65.1 68.6
7 Joe DiMaggio* 78.1 51.0 64.5
8 Duke Snider* 66.4 49.9 58.1
Avg of 19 HOF CF 71.1 44.5 57.8
9 Carlos Beltran 69.6 44.4 57.0
10 Kenny Lofton 68.3 43.4 55.9
11 Andruw Jones 62.8 46.5 54.7
12 Richie Ashburn* 63.9 44.5 54.2
13 Andre Dawson* 64.8 42.7 53.7
14 Billy Hamilton* 63.3 42.7 53.0
15 Jim Edmonds 60.4 42.6 51.5
22 Larry Doby* 49.6 39.6 44.6
23 Kirby Puckett* 51.1 37.6 44.4
27 Max Carey* 54.0 32.9 43.5
28 Earl Averill* 48.0 37.3 42.7
38 Earle Combs* 42.5 34.3 38.4
39 Edd Roush* 45.3 31.5 38.4
44 Hack Wilson* 38.9 35.8 37.3
46 Hugh Duffy* 43.1 30.9 37.0
117 Lloyd Waner* 24.1 20.3 22.2
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
JAWS is the average of a player’s career WAR and his peak WAR (best seven seasons at large).
*Hall of Famer. Note discontinuity in rankings after top 15.

Since JAWS is an average of career and peak WAR totals, any serious Hall of Fame candidate who has already reached the point of contributing to his peak total can gain significant traction on a positional leaderboard, as a player’s best seven seasons are effectively double-counted. Trout’s aforementioned pace would raise his peak score to 67.5 and his career WAR to 74.6, for a JAWS of 71.1, putting him solidly ahead of Griffey in the career JAWS rankings. Under that scenario, he would need something on the order of a 9.4 WAR season next year — pedestrian by his standards! — to surpass Cobb for second in peak score, which, wow.

Inspired by a tweet from @JRV71, what follows here is a look at some other players besides Trout who are currently padding their peak scores – plus one who isn’t, but still deserves mention in this context.

Zack Greinke (70.5 career WAR/47.3 Peak WAR/58.9 JAWS)

The 35-year-old righty, whose next victory will be the 200th of his career, has pitched to a 3.08 ERA (12th in the majors) and 3.28 FIP (10th) while making his sixth All-Star team and moving from the rebuilding Diamondbacks to the powerhouse Astros, greatly improving his chances of pitching in a World Series for the first time. Thanks to his total of 5.2 WAR — including 0.9 from the offensive side, via a .271/.300/.583 batting line with three homers in 54 PA — he has surpassed last year’s 4.9 WAR as his seventh-best season. In doing so, he’s also overtaken former teammate Clayton Kershaw for the active lead in JAWS, and is now 1.6 points below the Hall of Fame standard. The pair rank 35th and 36th, respectively.

Augmenting his value via offense is nothing new for Greinke. He’s accumulated 5.1 career WAR in that department, a total that ranks 45th among all pitchers, but well behind the all-time leader, Hall of Famer Red Ruffing (13.5), not to mention the top DH-era Hall of Famer, Tom Glavine (6.8). If there’s a negative to the trade as far as his Hall chances go, it’s that his limited number of opportunities to bat while playing for an AL team will slow him down in that department. Maybe A.J. Hinch can use him as a pinch-hitter.

Justin Verlander (68.2/46.6/57.4)

Verlander’s latter day revival continues. Despite allowing a career-high 1.6 homers per nine, he’s contending for that elusive second Cy Young award for the fourth straight season. He currently leads the AL in ERA (2.82), and is third in both strikeouts (217, leaving him 77 short of 3,000 for his career) and WAR (5.1). By that measure, this is his sixth-best season, surpassing 2017 (4.5) and 2010 (4.4) and boosting his peak score to 46.7, 3.2 wins below the average of all Hall pitchers. His 57.4 JAWS — 4.5 higher than when I checked in roughly 51 weeks ago, on the occasion of his 200th win — now ranks 46th among all pitchers and is virtually tied with 2019 inductee Roy Halladay (64.3/50.6/57.4) in the rankings. While still 4.1 points shy of the standard for starters, I believe that the tipping point has been reached; he’s already more likely to wind up in Cooperstown than not, and appears primed to push into no-doubt territory over the next couple of years.

Max Scherzer (59.9/48.2/54.0)

Though he’s started just once since July 6 due to a back strain, Scherzer leads the NL in both bWAR (5.4) and fWAR (5.7) as well as FIP (2.09), strikeouts (189), strikeout rate (35.3%), and K-BB% (30.7%). Meanwhile, he’s third in ERA (2.41), the only category of those mentioned where he doesn’t have some edge on Hyun-Jin Ryu (though some voters will inevitably care about wins, and he trails the Dodger lefty, 12-9). All of which is to say that right now the just-turned-35-year-old righty appears to have a legitimate shot at a fourth Cy Young award, something only four other pitchers (Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Steve Carlton, and Greg Maddux) have accomplished. Even with a slight negative in terms of batting WAR, Scherzer’s combined total of 5.3 is his seventh-highest, 1.0 ahead of his previous seventh-best (2012), pushing his peak score to second among active pitchers behind Kershaw (49.6). Even with “only” 168 career wins to this point, he’s looking more and more like a sure-fire Hall of Famer with every passing month of dominance.

José Altuve (37.6/36.0/36.8)

Altuve’s just 29 years old, but with six All-Star appearances, three batting titles, a Gold Glove, an MVP award, a World Series ring, and a lot of black ink, he already scores a 124 on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor, where 100 is a likely Hall of Famer and 130 “a virtual cinch.” It has not been a banner year for the second-sacker, but since returning from a nearly six-week absence due to a left hamstring strain on June 19, he’s hit a sizzling .347/.390/.614 with 13 homers and a 165 wRC+ across 218 PA, lifting his season line to .303/.364/.555 (143 wRC+).

Like many players on the sunny side of 30, Altuve has some low-hanging fruit among his peak seasons. For as modest as his current 2.8 WAR is, it’s his sixth-best total, surpassing his 2012 and ’13 seasons (1.4 and 1.0 WAR). While he’s still a ways off from the standards for second basemen (69.4/44.4/56.9), merely getting to 4.0 WAR this year and, say, 5.0 next year would push his peak score to 40.9, past Ian Kinsler (40.4) for third among active second basemen behind Robinson Cano (50.5) and Dustin Pedroia (42.4). Kinsler’s declining offense, Cano’s PED suspension, and Pedroia’s knee — not to mention Chase Utley’s retirement with “only” 1,885 hits — leaves no obvious Hall candidate among active second basemen. It’s up to Altuve to fill that void.

Mookie Betts (39.8/39.8/39.8)

While it’s not quite a Trout-like pace, Betts is climbing the right field charts rapidly. The peak standard for right fielders is 42.1, and even with “just” 4.6 WAR this year (sixth in the league), his sixth in the majors, Betts already has 39.8 career WAR. Not only will he add to that this year and next, merely by the latter being his seventh season, but his 52-game, 2.3 WAR 2014 season should be easily surpassed by mid-2021. Supposing he merely finishes this season at 5.0 WAR and matches that in each of the next two, he’d have a seven-year peak total of 47.9, which would surpass Hall of Famer Harry Heilmann (47.1) and place him ninth at the position in that category, well above the standard; his 49.0 JAWS would rank 22nd, just below newly-minted Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero (50.3). Like Trout, by his 30th birthday, he’s likely to look like an odds-on Hall of Famer.

Honorable Mention

Clayton Kershaw (67.7/49.6/58.6)

The 31-year-old three-time Cy Young winner is currently amid something of a revival, with a 1.40 ERA, 2.11 FIP, and 33.5% strikeout rate over seven starts since the beginning of July, and no less than six innings in each of his 21 starts. Even so, his 3.3 WAR to date places this as just his 11th-best season (out of 12 total), and prorating only takes it to 10th-best; the number for him to beat and begin chipping into his peak score is 5.2. Nonetheless, the 31-year-old three-time Cy Young winner’s shadow already hangs over all of the aforementioned pitchers because as noted, his 49.6 peak score is the highest among those active and just 0.3 below the standard. He’s 1.9 points away from surpassing the JAWS standard as well, something quite likely to happen next year.

While there are multiple active players who are above the JAWS standards at their position (Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols) or at least the peak standards (Buster Posey, Joey Votto), none of them have made much progress this year; the highest WAR among that quartet is Votto’s 1.2, which is kind of depressing. I’ll save a look at those players, and others for whom 2019 has been something of a bump in the road (hello, Andrelton Simmons) for another day.

We hoped you liked reading We’ve Reached Peak Mike Trout, Again by Jay Jaffe!

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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.

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sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

What would Trout need to surpass Mays’ peak score?

kbpms2
Member
kbpms2

Well let’s assume that he gets to 10.5 this year. Then his 4 highest seasons will total 41.7 WAR. He would need 3 seasons averaging 32 WAR, so 3 more seasons just a rounding error better than this one is likely to be. Difficult but not unreasonable for Trout.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

This, and jrogers below, make me think I’ll take the under on him passing Mays in peak value. But since he also has a non-zero chance of being the second-most-impressive position player ever since integration, that seems like a reasonable qualifier.

jrogers
Member
Member
jrogers

I was just considering that. He could pass Mays at the end of 2020 if he averages 12.1 WAR this season and next.
If he had 7 seasons all equal to his career-best (10.5), he’d be just 0.2 short.

Adam C
Member
Adam C

Average 12.1 WAR over two seasons?? Only three players have ever generated 12.1 bWAR in a single season (Ruth 3x, Yastzemski, and Hornsby)

Careless
Member
Careless

Generally speaking, “Only three players have ever generated 12.1 bWAR in a single season ” makes a suggestion sound ridiculous, but this is a Mike Trout thread. Merely improbable.