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When Mike Trout Became the Best
A retrospective on the uncertainty of player evaluation
In retrospect, what is the timeframe in which it was reasonable for a knowledgable baseball person to decide that Mike Trout was the best player in baseball? As in, when your reaction to hearing “Mike Trout is the best player in baseball" would have shifted from a scoff and an eyeroll to mere skepticism; and when “Mike Trout isn’t the best player in baseball” would have gone from defensible contrarianism to unserious trolling.
A few weeks ago I was loading the dishwater before bed and got lost down the sort of mental rabbit hole that you find yourself in only when you really let your mind wander. Somehow my half-conscious landed on a memory from my first SABR Analytics Conference. It was spring 2013. I was a junior in college, and at that point in my life just getting to talk with an MLB team employee felt like a novelty. One day at lunch, a new friend who worked in a front office teased a mind-blowing piece of inside-baseball knowledge: Their models said Miguel Cabrera was better than Mike Trout.
If you were a baseball fan in the early 2010s, you likely remember these debates. In 2012, Trout’s first (nearly) full season in the big leagues, he was doing things that few players in MLB history had ever done before, let alone at age 20. Despite spending most of the first month of the season in the minors, he rated as far and away the best player in the American League according to both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement (WAR) models — essentially a holistic estimate of a player’s impact on their team’s record. Unfortunately for Trout, his historic rookie season coincided with Cabrera becoming the first hitter in 45 years to win the AL Triple Crown (meaning he led the league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in). The arguments over that year’s Most Valuable Player award, which spilled over into the following season as each slugger hit for even more impressive numbers in 2013 than he had in 2012, became perhaps the highest-profile proxy battle in the sport’s now-decadeslong tension between (to use an oversimplified but common framing) traditional player evaluation and modern analytics.
The old-schoolers won the day: Cabrera took home MVP honors in both 2012 and 2013, as the voters of the Baseball Writers Association of America valued the numbers on the back of the baseball card over the metrics you’d have to calculate with a spreadsheet. (These were hardly the only times I’ve disagreed with the BBWAA’s decisions.) But I was sure that the people who knew best — the ones inside the game who made a living working with baseball data, the people whose careers I was so driven to emulate — were fully pro-Trout. Until I suddenly learned that they weren’t, which absolutely blew my mind.1
This memory inspired the thought experiment at the top of this page. So I asked Sam Miller, perhaps the foremost baseball-metaphysics writer of our time, for his take. He was kind enough to write an essay-length response, which he published last week at his terrific Substack, Pebble Hunting. Once you read Sam’s piece, you’ll understand why my instinct was to run this by him instead of just writing about it myself.2
Still I haven’t been able to put the thought out of my head, and I figured these questions were open-ended enough that there was room for multiple people to take cracks at them. So I sat down to write what I thought would be a quick response of my own and 3,000 words later, well, here we are.
The premise presupposes that there was a time when Trout was arguably the best player in baseball, followed by an extended period when he was unquestionably the best player in baseball. (When, or perhaps if, he lost that title is also an interesting topic, but we’re going to set that aside for the moment.) So really this thought experiment contains two separate questions:
When did it become plausible to say Mike Trout was the best player in baseball?
When did it become implausible to say Mike Trout wasn’t the best player in baseball?
As well as an implied bonus question to validate your answers to the previous two:
When did you decide Mike Trout was the best player in baseball?
What fascinates me about this retrospective analysis is that forces you to confront the tension between results and process, the blurry line separating a shrewd visionary from a lucky broken clock. A scout who saw Trout’s emerging tools when he went 3-for-5 for the Salt Lake Bees on Opening Day 2012 and declared him the best player on the planet would have looked prescient in retrospect, but bestowing such a title on a minor-leaguer would have strained contemporaneous credulity. On the other hand, the sabermetric lens through which Trout’s accomplishments were best appreciated also emphasized the importance of large sample sizes and the likelihood of regression to the mean. As strange as it sounds now to be worried about BABIPs for literally Mike Trout, in a time when exit velocities were not universally accessible it wouldn’t have been totally ludicrous to wonder if his .383 BABIP as a rookie or even his .376 in 2013 were sustainable.3
Does it really matter when reasonable people could have started and ceased to come to the same conclusion? Probably not. But I have my answers, and if you’re still reading this, I assume you’re interested to hear them.
When did it become plausible to say Mike Trout was the best player in baseball?
That it took the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim 20 games to call Mike Trout up from the minors is one of the most-humbling stories in baseball history. The Angels famously had an outfield logjam that year and Trout had missed most of Spring Training with health issues, so the fact that he started the 2012 season in Triple-A wasn’t necessarily a reflection of his perceived talent.4 But then it took the Angels 20 games (in which Trout hit .403 with a 1.091 OPS) to promote him! No one in the world was better-positioned to evaluate Trout’s abilities than his own team. They had evaluations from their scouts, game reports from their coaches, and their internal video and analytical systems at their disposal. It still took them almost a month to go through with what in retrospect should have one of the easiest decisions an MLB team has ever made. Baseball is hard.
If it took Trout’s own employers 20 games to see that he was ready for the big leagues, I set 20 more games as the earliest I would even entertain for recognizing him as the sport’s singular talent. Indeed, his 20th MLB game of the 2012 season was an auspicious one: On May 20, 2012, Trout went 3-for-4 with a homer and two walks, runs, and steals. (The Angels still lost, 3-2, making this perhaps the earliest identifiable precursor of a Tungsten Arm O'Doyle game.) His 1.026 OPS after reaching base five times that afternoon was the best he would have all year. Yet that early in the season there were seven hitters with at least (and up to twice) as many plate appearances whose OPSes were even higher.
As of May 20, Josh Hamilton was on pace for 75 home runs. David Wright was hitting .412. Trout hadn’t even been the unambiguous best hitter in his own lineup given Mark Trumbo’s hot start. It was clear by then that Trout was a special player. But the contemporaneous numbers create a logical trap for proclaiming him the game’s premier star, which I call the Bryan LaHair Quandary: Either one of the greatest flash-in-the-pan players in recent memory ranking as a Top 4 hitter in baseball meant it was too early in the season to make grand declarations about player rankings; or the sample size was large enough to take seriously, and the ostensible best player in baseball couldn’t outhit a guy who was a few months away from washing out of the league.
The next narratively satisfying checkpoint I came up with was 40 games into the 2012 season. Not just because it’s a multiple of 20, but because it matches the number of MLB games he appeared in in 2011. Trout wasn’t bad in his abbreviated big-league debut (let alone for a kid who debuted at 19), yet his production was nowhere near the heights he would achieve less than a year later. As of June 11, 2012, his track record as a baseball demigod was as long as his tenure of being merely pretty good for his age. From then on, his career numbers were defined primarily by his post-apotheosis era.
Here the case for Trout starts to come into focus. He had moved into the Top 5 in FanGraphs’ WAR despite playing a third fewer games than the names around him, and was arguably within the margin of error of the MLB lead.
In the intervening weeks, Hamilton’s home run pace slowed by half, Wright hit .253, and LaHair turned back into a pumpkin. Meanwhile the Angels’ boy wonder was tied for the highest three-week fWAR in the game.5 If you bought then that this was the real Trout, that he was immune to the specter of regression that looms large over near-every unproven hotshot who takes the league by storm for a month or two at a time, there was no one else you could point to who was clearly playing better. It would have been a flimsy argument, but it puts us into the realm of agreeing to disagree.
There’s a nicely tidy story here for Trout’s trajectory, too. In the first half of this second stretch — i.e., Games 21 through 30 — he fell into a mini-slump, batting .203 with a .633 OPS through the end of May. Perhaps the league was figuring him out? Then the calendar turned to June. Trout opened the month by reaching base 26 times in 10 games with five extra-base hits and seven steals, good for a .500 average and a 1.232 OPS. In his 40th game of the season, Trout went 2-for-4 with a homer, a walk, and two steals. He scored or drove in every Angels run in a 3-2 nail-biter win over the crosstown-rival Dodgers.
So far as I can tell, the official attendance of 50,559 that night at Dodger Stadium comprised the biggest crowd Trout had ever played in front of. Surely a few of them left Chavez Ravine thinking they’d just seen the best player in baseball. Who could have blamed them?
When did it become implausible to say Mike Trout wasn’t the best player in baseball?
As I started mulling over these questions, I thought this would be the harder end of the timeframe to define. Would I have to dig through archived projections to find when the last holdout model acknowledged Trout’s supremacy? Flip through splits and heatmaps to log potential nitpicks in his game over time? Trace the trajectories of other best-player claimants to chart when Trout clearly surpassed them? Then I realized there was a simple, satisfying answer staring me right in the face.
By the end of the 2012 season, a loud segment of the baseball community was shouting from the rooftops that Trout was the best player in the sport. The BBWAA saw it differently: Of the 28 members (two reporters per team; the Astros hadn’t moved from the NL yet) who voted for the AL MVP that year, representing some of the most-knowledgable and -influential voices in sports media, just six put Trout at the top of their ballots. In 2013, after another year of remarkably similar arguments, Trout actually lost ground in the MVP race. Fewer voters ranked him first (five) than left him out of the top two altogether (six).
The upshot was that, by the morning of November 13, 2014, a certain segment of fans and media had been holding Trout up as the best player in baseball for three full years with nothing to show for it. The arbiters of the game’s highest honors had twice considered his case, and twice they had resoundingly rejected him as the top player in the American League, let alone the whole sport. You can quibble with the wisdom of the voters’ choices and argue the semantics of best vs. valuable — I’ve done both — but so long as Trout was a perennial MVP runner-up, we have to acknowledge the potential for reasonable doubt.
Then the 2014 MLB awards were announced. Not only was Trout finally named the AL MVP, but the vote was unanimous. Every member of the 30-person body that had twice spurned him now put him at the top of their ballot. At that point there could be no serious dissent. From then on — we’ll call it the next day, November 14, to accommodate folks who read about the MVP results in their newspaper’s sports section — anyone who doubted Trout’s supremacy simply didn’t know ball.
When did I decide Mike Trout was the best player in baseball?
It’s common for sports fans to track their lives through the ages of the players they watch. You probably remember the first time you saw an player at the highest level who’s younger than you are. It takes time to get used to hearing concerns about an athlete your age being old and or a rookie saying they grew up idolizing a still-active player. I’m told it’s a humbling experience when the last big-leaguer older than you finally hangs up his cleats. (Bartolo Colón recently shooting down rumors of his official retirement bought a lot of people some time.)
Mike Trout and I share a birthday: He’s exactly a year older than me. As he started climbing up prospect lists and reaching significant MLB milestones, I remember constantly thinking, a little less facetiously than I’d like to admit, that I had a year to match my life’s accomplishments up against his. So when I was home from college for the summer and the Angels were in town to play the Guardians, I wasn’t just excited to see Trout, the exciting young phenom. I was anxious to see Trout, my very poorly chosen anthropomorphic barometer for how I was progressing in my own life.
July 3, 2012. Zach McAllister, who I was convinced was a breakout star in waiting, struck out Trout in the first at-bat of the game. Some superstar! He evened it out with a base hit a couple innings later. But I’ll never forget what Trout did his next time up. Stepping in in the fifth with one out and runners on second and third, Trout quickly fell behind 0-2. He fouled off a couple pitches and worked the count full. It seemed like he knew he would get the pitch he wanted eventually. Then, in the eighth pitch of the at-bat, he did.
The moment remains very vivid in my memory. I was walking through the Progressive Field concourse to say hello to a friend’s mom, and when Trout stepped into the box I found a vantage point just up the right-field line from home plate. I can still feel myself smirking when McAllister got up 0-2; my eyebrow raising as I watched a 20-year-old hitter hang in there with two strikes with as much poise and confidence as a 20-year veteran; and my jaw dropping as the ball flew literally out of the park.
In that moment, Trout didn’t seem like an athlete. He felt like a force of nature. An inevitability. And on that warm summer night, I knew that I had never seen a player like that before.
That Mike Trout was the best player in baseball for many years is one of the least-controversial opinions in the sport’s history. Yet even this glaringly obvious fact rests on a mountain of subjectivity and ambiguity. While I would suggest the timeframe of June 11, 2012 to November 14, 2014 as the acceptable window to recognize Trout’s singular greatness, even those rigid parameters still contain nearly two and a half years’ worth of reasonable disagreements. And if the path to such a clear consensus belief can be that varied — if even people with professional expertise in sabermetrics thought Cabrera deserved to be the MVP over Trout — perhaps we all ought to approach such sports debates with more humility.
Or we can just appreciate the joy of watching a game and witnessing something, or someone, that redefined what greatness means to you. It was July 3, 2012 when I realized Mike Trout was the best player in baseball. When did it happen for you?
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In retrospect, that not every team’s internal models had Cabrera over Trout was already public knowledge, but I hadn’t heard that at the time.
If for some reason you are not already a Pebble Hunting reader, I can’t recommend Sam’s work highly enough. It’s one of only two Substacks for which I am a paid subscriber, and if you can’t spare the $6 a month I’d urge you to at least sign up for his free posts.
To be fair, they weren’t: Trout’s BABIP in the ten years since has settled in at .338. Amazingly, he compensated by walking more and hitting for more power such that he became arguably an even better hitter despite fewer balls falling for hits.
Service-time considerations presumably weren’t a factor either unless the Angels planned to keep him in the minors until around the All-Star Break.
Please do not use 20-game rolling WAR for rigorous player analysis.