I know it sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. Mike Trout, the best player in the history of baseball, is underrated.
The seven-time All-Star selection, two-time MVP, and six-time Silver Slugger is underrated.
Mike Trout is the highest-paid player in the game of baseball. He just inked a 12-year, $430MM contract extension. That money doesn’t do justice to just how good he’s been.
Perhaps you think that this is simply an overreaction to Trout’s hot start. You’re not wrong in that Trout has started hot—he’s triple-slashing .366/.571/.780 with 5 home runs and nearly four times as many walks (17) as strikeouts (5) through 15 games—but this is anything but an overreaction. I think we’ve seen something of a “LeBron Effect” with Trout in that he’s been the best player for so many seasons, that people take it for granted at this point. I’m making it my mission to show you that even though Trout is the best player in baseball, he isn’t getting enough love.
The Millville Meteor’s Beginnings
Michael Nelson Trout was selected by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim with the 25th overall pick in the 2009 MLB draft. He signed for a bit over one million dollars, far below the reported price tag. I’m sure that the 22 teams that passed on him are still kicking themselves to this day.
Trout impressed immediately in his professional debut, triple-slashing .352/.419/.486 with 8 extra-base hits and 13 steals over 44 games across two levels in 2009.
After the 2009 season, Baseball America ranked Trout the #85 prospect in all of baseball. He put that ranking to shame in 2010, slashing .341/.428/.490 with 10 long balls and 56 swipes over 131 games across Class A and high Class A. That’s all it took for Baseball America—and the rest of the baseball world—to get the message: This kid was going to be good.
BA moved Trout up to #2 overall, behind fellow young phenom Bryce Harper, following the 2010 season. The rest is history. Trout, at the ripe old age of 19, went straight from Double A to the big leagues, skipping over Triple-A entirely. His cup of coffee was rather uninspiring—he hit .220/.281/.390 with five homers, four steals, and a 30:9 K:BB ratio. Not exactly auspicious, but the power and speed combination was evident from the get-go.
Entering 2012, Bleacher Report picked Mike Trout to finish third in AL Rookie of the Year voting to Yu Darvish and Matt Moore. Grantland picked Yu Darvish to win the award over Matt Moore, saying, “The battle between Darvish and the Rays’ Matt Moore could make for one of the most exciting Rookie of the Year races in years.”
The 2012 MVP Race
By the midpoint of the 2012 MLB season, Mike Trout had essentially locked up the AL Rookie of the Year award. At the All-Star break, Trout led all AL rookies by over two and a half wins; the next-closest mark was that of Rangers rookie Yu Darvish, who had accrued 2.0 fWAR at the 2012 break. And Trout wasn’t just on top of the rookie leaderboard, he led all AL players in fWAR at the All-Star break.
Forget AL Rookie of the Year. Trout had his sights set on winning MVP.
Trout continued to lay waste to MLB pitching in the second half of 2012, triple-slashing .312/.401/.565 with 18 homers and 23 steals. According to Fangraphs’ DEF metric (fielding runs saved plus a positional adjustment), he was also the best defensive centerfielder in the AL over the entire season.
When all was said and done, Trout finished his rookie season with a slash line of .326/.399/.564, 30 home runs, a league-leading 49 steals, 21 defensive runs saved, and 10.1 fWAR. Not too shabby for someone who still was not able to legally have a celebratory beer after his stellar season.
The AL MVP race was essentially a referendum on advanced statistics versus back-of-the-baseball-card stats. Miguel Cabrera boasted the lead in each of the three triple-crown categories, homers, batting average, and runs batted in, while Trout led in categories that traditionally carried less weight such as on-base percentage, wRC+ (an advanced metric that amalgamates total offensive contribution, click here for more) walk rate, stolen bases, and defense. Cabrera, despite accruing nearly three fewer wins above replacement than Trout, took home the award due to his flashy triple-crown totals. The sleight began the uphill battle for Trout to prove that he was not only the best player in baseball, but one of the all-time greats.
Newsflash: Mike Trout is Very Good
From 2013-2018, Mike Trout made baseball look easy. He became just the third player in the history of baseball to lead his league in WAR in five consecutive seasons (2012-2016). The other two were Babe Ruth (2026-2031) and Walter Johnson (1912-1916). Those two are #1 and #2 all-time in WAR.
Remember that wRC+ metric I mentioned earlier? If you don’t know what it is, it’s a scaled statistic (100 is league average) that tries to quantify all of a player’s contributions with one number. Every one point above 100 means that player was 1% better than league average. From 2013-2018, Mike Trout’s wRC+ was 175, 30 points better than any qualified hitter during that time frame. And that’s over a time frame of six seasons. For reference, Chipper Jones, Hank Greenberg, Roberto Clemente, and Vladimir Guerrero never even compiled one full season with a wRC+ above 175. Trout did it over a period of six years. If that does not give you an idea of just how good he has been over the first seven full seasons of his career, I don’t know what will. Not only can Trout’s numbers kick it with the all-time greats, they can overshadow them.
Over the first seven seasons of his career, Trout has won two MVPs, finished in the top two in voting four other times, and come in fourth once: 2017, when he played just 114 games. Jose Altuve, Aaron Judge, and Jose Ramirez, the three guys who finished ahead of Trout this year, all played at least 33% more games than he did and Francisco Lindor and Mookie Betts, both of whom played a full, healthy season, finished behind him. In 2017, Trout led the league in OBP, SLG, and wRC+. The only reason he didn’t win MVP was because his counting stats were not quite there, but that speaks volumes to just how underrated he was. Trout actually produced more fWAR than Jose Ramirez during the 2017 season (remember, WAR is a counting stat, so more games played generally means higher totals) despite playing in 38 fewer games.
The most impressive part about Trout’s career, in my opinion, is that he seems to be getting better every season. His OBP has improved every season since 2014 and currently sits at .571, which would be the best mark since Bonds’ .609 in 2004. Remember: Bonds was on steroids that year. Mike Trout is not.
Additionally, Trout has gotten more selective at the plate, making it more difficult for pitchers to pitch to him. In every season since 2014, he has improved his swing-and-miss rate and his walk rate. Trout has 710 career walks, third-most in baseball since his debut, and 12th among all active players. Each of the 11 players ahead of him have been in the league for at least two more full seasons than him.
On top of this, his 66.5 fWAR since his debut is first by a mile. The gap between Trout’s 66.5 and second-place Buster Posey’s 47.4 during that time frame is greater than the gap between Posey’s mark and 21st-place hitter Justin Upton’s 29.7.
Trout is also a monster when it comes to conventional numbers. His 245 homers since his debut in 2011 are the fourth-highest mark behind Edwin Encarnacion, Nelson Cruz, and Giancarlo Stanton. His 190 stolen bases rank tenth, between the 207 of Jacoby Ellsbury and the 187 of Carlos Gomez. Trout’s 804 runs are first in that time period and his .418 OBP is second only to Joey Votto’s.
The Big Picture
He’s already the only player in the history of baseball to post three seasons of 10+ rWAR or more before age 27, and his WAR total as of today already makes him an average Hall of Famer. Trout could probably hang up his spikes to pursue meteorology, another passion of his, and still get serious consideration for the Hall of Fame.
Trout’s BB/K of 3.4 this season, meaning that he averages 3.4 walks per strikeout, is 53rd-best since the end of WWII among all qualified players. That’s better than 99.4% of seasons since then, and the best mark since Bonds’ 2004 mark of 5.66. Once again, I’d like to add that Barry Bonds was on steroids that year. Mike Trout is not.
Perhaps the craziest thing about Trout is that it’s entirely possible he hasn’t even peaked yet. Here we are, a little under three weeks into a new season and Trout boasts the highest WAR per game of any major league hitter. He’s already six times more likely to win the AL MVP than anyone else, an award the league isn’t giving out for another seven months. There’s only one word that can appropriately describe that fact: nuts.
Statistically, he’s on pace for the best numbers of his career: 50 home runs, 170 walks, 120 RBI, 110 runs, and a .366/.571/.780 triple-slash. It’s likely that Trout won’t reach any marks because they extrapolate his current performance out to 150 games, but the fact that these are feasible marks for the 27-year-old makes his performance all the more insane.
And to top it off, Trout can enter the top-100 all-time in rWAR by posting just 3.5 rWAR this season, something he is on pace to do by the first week of May.
All of this begs one final question: what do you do when you’re watching one of the greatest—and perhaps most underrated—players of all-time in his prime? Sit back and enjoy the show.
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