The impending resumption of major league baseball means the start of Trout Watching season. Mike Trout, aka the best player in baseball (and the best young player in baseball history for that matter), is a beacon of consistent excellence. Witnessing his record-breaking performance is one of the most enjoyable aspects of modern baseball.
To recap: nobody has more Wins Above Replacement (WAR) than Trout through their age-24 season. Not only that, but just 201 position players in MLB history have produced more WAR than him in their entire careers.
Ted Berg of USA Today has tracked Trout’s procession through the WAR leaderboard, noting that the Millville Meteor surpassed 32 Hall of Famers (hitters and pitchers) in career WAR this last season alone. And while that list contains some impressive names – Hoyt Wilhelm, Jim Rice and Phil Rizzuto – they tend to be at the lower end of the Hall of Fame spectrum. By another measure, however, Trout has already bested some of the all-time greats.
Wins Above Average (WAA) differs from Wins Above Replacement in a way that should be apparent by the name of the statistic: while WAR compares a player to a hypothetical replacement player from the minor leagues, WAA evaluates a player based on how much better they are than the average major leaguer. A player can accumulate WAR by turning up and not disgracing themselves; achieving a positive WAA requires a much higher level of play.The career of Pete Rose illustrates the differences between the statistics. Rose ranks 40th on the career WAR leaderboard among hitters, in part due to the sheer length of his career. But Rose was rarely an above average player in his later years. In his final decade in the majors Rose was worth 7.9 WAR, but negative 11 WAA (or 11 Wins Below Average). As a result he is only 125th on the position player WAA list, 85 places below his placing on equivalent WAR leaderboard.
By contrast, Sandy Koufax – a player with a brief career but who pitched the majority of his innings at a high level – ranks 80th in pitching WAR, but 58th in pitching WAA.
Which brings us to Mike Trout. As previously noted, Trout is 202nd in career WAR among position players. But by virtue of playing at an elite level for his whole career to date, he is 78th in position player WAA.
Last year alone he surpassed 30 Hall of Fame hitters in WAA, including recent inductees Iván Rodríguez and Tim Raines. Tony Gwynn, Mike Piazza, Reggie Jackson, Carlton Fisk, Yogi Berra, Roberto Alomar, Willie McCovey, Andre Dawson and Ernie Banks are all players that Trout eclipsed in career WAA in 2016.
It is true that players tend to lose WAA in the latter stages of their career, the cachet of their name guaranteeing playing time despite waning production. But Trout is just 25 years old; for now, the only way is up. Immediately above him on the WAA leaderboard are the likes of Ron Santo, Home Run Baker, Hank Greenberg, Robin Yount and Paul Molitor.
If Trout accumulates four Wins Above Average next season he’ll have passed those players, in addition to Frank Thomas, Jackie Robinson, Sliding Billy Hamilton, Brooks Robinson and Gary Carter among others. Given that Trout has averaged 7 WAA per season, 2017 could also see him pass the likes of Luke Appling, Ozzie Smith and Barry Larkin.
Trout is already ninth in career WAA among center fielders, sitting above Carlos Beltrán, Andruw Jones and Duke Snider. By the end of 2017 he’ll likely have passed Kenny Lofton and the aforementioned Hamilton, with Ken Griffey Jr. and Joe DiMaggio next in his sights.
A reminder that Mike Trout is 25.
It’s no secret that Trout is great – the best of his era and the best of his age in any era. That his brief career has arguably been more outstanding than the entire careers of some all-time greats, however, is truly astonishing.
*Featured image is 2016 Topps Now card 106
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