For the remainder of the 2012 season, I’ll take a weekly look at one Angel’s recent performance and how it relates to their overall season and, in some cases, the fortunes of the team. This week, our focus lies on CF Mike Trout.
Let’s first put Mike Trout’s 2012 season in a vacuum. We’ll separate it from the MVP talk, Miguel Cabrera, the Angels’ disappointing finish and simply consider the numbers. WAR? 10.7. OPS+? A league-leading 171. Defensive runs saved? 21. Home runs? 30. Steals? 49. Batting, slugging, on base? .326/.399/.564.
Age? 20. 21 by the end. A rookie.
Mike Trout became a stat-head darling toward the end of 2012 for the very reason that traditionalists should love him. He’s a 5-tool player, displaying incredible skills in all aspects of the game while grinding it out everyday. He robbed four home runs this season and hauls around the bases like a Ferrari. He’s a lazy beat writer’s dream player, really, a classic All-American story, a kid from a depressed mill town in Jersey, a mill town called Millville, the son of teachers. The Natural. Yeesh even this article is turning into a newspaper puff piece. Back to the numbers before I start calling him the next Eckstein…
What Mike Trout accomplished in 2012 matches the highpoints of the greatest stars in major league history. From a peak standpoint, Mike Trout doesn’t project to be the next Mays, the next Mantle, the next A-Rod. He’s already there. He’s reached the sort of rarified level of dominance scouts would never dare project. I mentioned Trout’s 10.7 WAR. Do you know what Willie Mays’ peak was? 10.9, achieved in his 52 home run-1965 season. Trout played like Mays in his peak. Willie Freakin’ Mays.
As Mike Trout reached the top of prospect lists in 2010 and especially the end of 2011, I started considering what kind of player he would be. Who was Mike Trout’s template? He carried a unique set of skills difficult to match, that strange combination of high average, speed, and CF defense, mediocre power but a good eye. Nobody quite matched up, but the closest example to Trout’s skill set seemed to be Willie Mays. I figured, take Mays, cut his home runs in half, and you’ll get Trout. Since Mays with 15-25 home run power meant a 6-8 win type of player, I was excited at the prospect. And with Trout’s size (a compact 220 pound frame), he carried power potential that could see him reaching a Mays-type level after half a dozen years in the league. Essentially, I saw him as a great player who’s ceiling was superstardom should the home runs increase.
A 1 for 11 start to 2012 hampered Trout’s rate stats for a few weeks, but 30 games in his numbers were exactly as I would have expected: A .303/.366/.521 line with 5 home runs and 8 steals in 30 games. Consider the missed time in April and Trout looked like he’d finish the season as a 25-40 man with plus defense and an OPS+ well above average. The power encouraged me more than anything, since Trout only cracked 23 home runs in 286 minor league games; with the Angels, he seemed ahead of his projected power run.
Trout took off from there, going from ROY sure thing to MVP candidate with an absurd .392/.455/.804 July that included 10 home runs and 9 steals. He reached a rate stat peak after a 3 game set with Texas, ending July 22nd with his numbers at .357/.412/.603. Some bABIP regression and continued issues with high strikeouts mixed in with the 162 game blues caused Trout to slump a bit toward the end of August. In a 30 game stretch from August 25th to September 27th, he put up a .243/.351/.374 line before a last-week hot streak redeemed his overall numbers a bit.
The relative slump didn’t matter much, though. Trout peaked in the middle of the season, not the beginning, so I never got the impression that pitcher’s suddenly broke through an early facade. Besides, Trout’s walk rate improved from around 10.5% in July and August to a stellar 14.8% in September/October. Despite a K rate that reached 26% in his final month, Trout’s added patience suggests that his approach at the plate remained solid. He added some selectivity and it’s easier to cut down on k’s then it is to add walks. Despite a .289 batting average that final month, Trout’s .400 OBP matched his overall season total, an excellent mark in any situation but especially for a leadoff hitter in a pitcher’s park. Trout also righted the ship in the Angels’ final week, with a .440/.517/.920 line and a pair of home runs, a nice sign moving forward.
Going back to Willie Mays, Trout’s 30 home run finish brought his power numbers close to the peak level of Mays. Both men played in environments that suppressed power (Mays in Candlestick Park), giving them value beyond their face statistics. 1958 is the year Mays was closest to Trout in terms of stats, with 29 home runs, a league leading 31 steals, and a .347/.419/.583 line that produced a 165 OPS+. Mays didn’t strike out as much as Trout (few players did in the 1950’s and early 1960’s) but he generally drew 65-80 walks a year, in line with Trout’s 2012. As he entered his 30’s, Mays value remained astronomical, though his steals fell off and his power increased, especially relative to the falling run totals in the league. Trout’s more in line with the Mays of the mid-late 50’s, a high average speed demon with 35 home run power (Trout projects to about 35 homers with a full 2012). Mays also saved 15 runs a year in the field during his best runs, furthering the immense value produced by his bat and legs. Trout, with 21 DRS, matched Mays’ career high and his 10.7 WAR overall would tie Mays’ 2nd highest single-season mark.
Trout’s biggest obstacle, as Mike DiGiovanna notes for the L.A. Times, will be moving forward, repeating his work. What separates Trout’s 2012 from Willie Mays’ 1958 is age. Mike was 20, Willie was 27. Mays’ first dominant 10 WAR season overall came at the age of 23; in his rookie season at 20, he matched plus defense and a 120 OPS+ to produce a 3.6 WAR before military service knocked him out of commission for nearly 2 years. Regardless, Trout has him beat at the moment. He also has Mickey Mantle, another point of comparison, trounced. Mantle put up a 1.3 WAR at 19 and then stayed around 6 for 3 years before a 9.2 at 23. Gehrig, Ruth, DiMaggio, Williams, Bonds, Griffey…no position player reached Trout’s level at such a young age. The difficulty with projecting Trout’s future (more so than most speculation) comes due to the lack of precedent. Dwight Gooden is the only player to top Trout at age 20 and his flameout involved a host of factors Trout’s likely to avoid. Like drugs. And Mel Stottlemeyer screwing around with his approach. And Darryl Strawberry. And drugs.
Trout has broken the typical arc of major league stardom. We expect something resembling promise, success, all-star, MVP, sustained greatness, decline, retirement. Players can certainly peak at young ages, but their early downfall usually relates to exploited holes in their plate discipline (Jeff Francoer), regression we can now predict (Eric Hinske), and/or injuries (Pete Reiser, the Mike Trout of 1941).
During this season, I’ve taken a look at various Angels and tried to track their trends using past numbers to predict the future. Usually, it isn’t especially difficult because despite the “You Can’t Predict Baseball” slogan, we can find a mean and expect a regression toward it*. Trout’s mean is Willie Mays’ mean. It’s Ted Williams’ mean. It’s better than Hank Aaron’s mean. He’s reached such a ludicrous apex of performance that the best I can do is say “He’ll probably repeat it few times, get a little better, have an off year, a 13 WAR season, an injury-marred season…Then he’ll slow down and retire. Probably be somewhere in the all-time top 50 overall.”
*Unless you’re the Orioles.
BABIP is usually my focal point with hitters, trying to see if they’ve been getting lucky or screwed over a period time that yields unlikely results. At first, Mike Trout’s .383 bABIP looks alarmingly high (average is .300ish). We can take the .383 and think of bloop singles and 9-hop grounders and line drives that never found a glove through sheer luck and expect a significant decline in batting average next season, right?
Well, not necessarily. In fact, I’d expect Trout’s bABIP to often exceed .350 provided his power and walk number remain strong. His minor league bABIPs were often above .400, .423 in rookie ball, .420 in low A, .390 in AA, and .403 in his brief run at AAA this season. Trout’s immense speed works to his offense’s advantage in 3 ways: Base running, obviously, beating out infield hit, again obviously, and also pressuring the defense. His ability to drag bunts might force the infield in, limiting their range on hard grounders. His ability to hit hard grounders might force the infield back, opening up an expanse of grass for dropping one down. The outfield can’t play in because of Trout’s power so, unlike most leadoff hitters, he has plenty of open ground in the shallow outfield.
Ichiro Suzuki has a high lifetime bABIP, .347, with 3 seasons above .380. Trout has far more deep power than Ichiro, more than anyone else with comparable speed. Again, it’s difficult to compare Trout’s bABIP to other contemporary players because his skill set is so different. I suppose the one prediction I can make regarding Trout’s future is that he’ll be unique, the one player who displays his set of attributes. Mays or not, he’s someone special to watch.