Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
November 26, 2012
BASEBALL: Has Mike Trout Peaked Already? Maybe.

David Schoenfield asks a provocative question: is Mike Trout's Rookie of the Year and MVP runner-up season in 2012 as good as he will get? After all, he's unlikely to improve much as a fielder or base thief. Schoenfield thinks Trout can still get better as a hitter - for most 20-year-olds, that's not even a question mark, but most have more room for improvement:

I think it's possible. He has a walk rate of 10.5 percent -- while above the AL average of 8.0 percent -- could improve, boosting his on-base percentages over .400, even if he's more .300 hitter than .330...

What about power? Trout wasn't projected as more of 20-homer guy coming up, so the 30 home runs was a big surprise, especially in a tough home run park. According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, eight of Trout's 30 home runs were "just enough" -- a figure that wasn't near the league-leading figures of Miguel Cabrera (16) and Adrian Beltre (15). Trout's home run percentage on fly balls was 21.6 percent, which ranked 15th in the majors among those hitters with 300 plate appearances. Remember, as fast as is he, Trout isn't a small guy, at 6-1 and over 200 pounds. He's bigger than Mays or Hank Aaron.

Let's look at some history. Trout's headline-grabbing number is 10.7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) at age 20. You can't really study a player like that systematically, because he's essentially a sample size of one. Counting only non-pitchers, only 2 other players have cleared 8 WAR at age 20 - Alex Rodriguez and Al Kaline, a list that grows to 5 if you include 21 year olds (Rogers Hornsby, Rickey Henderson, Eddie Mathews). If you compare Trout to players with 10-WAR seasons, the youngest comps are Ted Williams at age 22, and Willie Mays, Ty Cobb and Eddie Collins at age 23. Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle and A-Rod all did it at 24, Hornsby and Babe Ruth at 25 (Ruth only really put in his first full-time season as an outfielder at 24). And of those, if you look at players with 10.5 or more WAR ate age 25 or younger, the only guys on the list with Trout are Mantle (twice) and Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb, and Hornsby once each, all of them at 24 or 25. Rare air to be listed with any of these guys, let alone atop a club exclusive to those names.

But to at least get some historical perspective, let's loosen the criteria.

Of the ten previous players to clear 10 WAR in a season for the first time by age 25, four never topped that season again, and three of those never topped 10 WAR again; only three (Ruth, Hornsby and Mays) cracked 10 WAR more than two more times (the "10+Yrs" column refers only to subsequent seasons):

PlayerAgeWARCareer HighAge10+ YrsdWARHoF?
Mike Trout**2010.7N/AN/AN/A2.1Active
Ted Williams#2210.110.7272-0.9YES
Willie Mays#2310.310.93452.0YES
Ty Cobb2310.111.13020.4YES
Eddie Collins2310.12302.8YES
Lou Gehrig2411.5241-0.2YES
Mickey Mantle2411.011.12520.5YES
Jimmie Foxx2410.2240-0.1YES
Alex Rodriguez**2410.12402.3Active
Babe Ruth2511.613.7287-0.5YES
Rogers Hornsby2510.612.02841.3YES

#-Lost seasons to military service

If you expand the field to players who reached 9 WAR for the first time by age 25, you get 19 players. 7 of the 19 never topped that season, although besides Arky Vaughan all of those were the 24 and 25 year olds. 9 of the 19 went on to have at least 3 more seasons of 9 or more WAR:

PlayerAgeWARCareer HighAge9+ YrsdWARHoF?
Mike Trout**2010.7N/AN/AN/A2.1Active
Alex Rodriguez**209.210.12431.7Active
Rogers Hornsby219.712.02873.5YES
Ted Williams2210.110.7276-0.9YES
Ty Cobb229.511.1304-0.7YES
Eddie Collins229.410.12321.3YES
Stan Musial*#229.310.82710.7YES
Willie Mays#2310.310.93462.0YES
Cal Ripken239.811.33013.5YES
Mickey Mantle239.211.12531.1YES
Arky Vaughan239.12300.6YES
Shoeless Joe Jackson$239.09.3241-0.1Ineligible
Lou Gehrig2411.5244-0.2YES
Jimmie Foxx2410.2241-0.1YES
Tris Speaker249.82410.4YES
Babe Ruth249.713.72890.2YES
Barry Bonds259.511.63652.5Not Yet
Adrian Beltre**259.32502.5Active
Terry Turner259.22505.4No

#-Lost seasons to military service
*-1st 9-WAR season vs war-depleted competition
$-Banned from baseball in mid-career

As you can see, I included here as well, under the heading dWAR, the player's defensive Wins Above Replacement, to see if players whose defensive value was a big part of scaling these heights were more or less likely to repeat. At the extreme end you have Terry Turner, who made this list on a fluke defensive season for the 1906 Indians (the defensive stats of Nap Lajoie's Indians are a whole separate historical controversy). That said, the guys with some significant defensive value, like Trout, do seem to have been more likely to re-appear on the list, even guys like Hornsby and Bonds who were no longer valuable defensive players by the time of their best offensive seasons.

Stretching this to players who reached 8 WAR before age 25, you get a total set of 40 players, and almost half of them never matched the first season when they reached that level:

PlayerAgeWARCareer HighAge8+ YrsdWARHoF?
Mike Trout**2010.7N/AN/AN/A2.1Active
Alex Rodriguez**209.210.12471.7Active
Al Kaline208.08.22610.4YES
Rogers Hornsby219.712.02883.5YES
Rickey Henderson218.79.82621.3YES
Eddie Mathews218.02110.3YES
Ted Williams2210.110.7277-0.9YES
Ty Cobb229.511.1305-0.7YES
Eddie Collins229.410.12351.3YES
Stan Musial*#229.310.82750.7YES
Dick Allen228.52210.3No
Cal Ripken228.011.33022.2YES
Joe DiMaggio#228.08.62610.4YES
Willie Mays#2310.310.934102.0YES
Mickey Mantle239.211.12541.1YES
Arky Vaughan239.12310.6YES
Shoeless Joe Jackson$239.09.3241-0.1Ineligible
Reggie Jackson238.82300.1YES
Ken Griffey jr.238.59.52620.9Not Yet
Albert Pujols**238.49.4296-0.8Active
Joe Cronin238.02302.7YES
Andruw Jones**238.02302.7Active
Lou Gehrig2411.5246-0.2YES
Jimmie Foxx2410.2243-0.1YES
Tris Speaker249.82450.4YES
Babe Ruth249.713.728100.2YES
Ron Santo248.69.62720.8YES
Johnny Bench248.52402.4YES
Willie Wilson248.32402.2No
Ralph Kiner248.1240-0.1YES
David Wright**248.12401.4Active
Bobby Grich248.02403.9No
Ryne Sandberg248.02402.0YES
Barry Bonds259.511.63682.5Not Yet
Adrian Beltre**259.32502.5Active
Terry Turner259.22505.4No
Will Clark258.5250-0.1No
Hank Aaron258.49.1275-1.1YES
Snuffy Stirnweiss*258.18.22612.5No
Joe Medwick258.1250-0.5YES

#-Lost seasons to military service
*-1st 9-WAR season vs war-depleted competition
$-Banned from baseball in mid-career

Stirnweiss was a dominant player in 1944-45 who was merely ordinary when the real ballplayers returned from the war. Grich and Andruw Jones, like lesser versions of Turner (though better players over their careers), were pushed to these heights by unusually valuable glovework.

Mike Trout is a highly unusual player; we just don't have much precedent for a guy this good, this young, with this broad a base of skills and some of them (like his defense and base stealing) so well-polished already. You can compare him to Mays, Mantle and Cobb, but almost by definition you can't project a player to have that kind of career. What we can say is that players who have MVP-caliber seasons at age 25 or younger (1) tend, more often than not, to go on to great careers but (2) tend, as often as not, to never have a better season simply because it's hard to put it all together like this at any age.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 1:00 PM | Baseball 2012-14 • | Baseball Studies | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

Hey Crank, ok analysis, but you forgot to wave your magic wand over these stats to unskew them.
Trout is definitely toast.

Posted by: con2 at November 26, 2012 5:18 PM

Crazy that Fred Lynn only had a 7.1 WAR during his unbelievable rookie '75 campaign (age 23), while also winning a gold glove.

Posted by: RW at November 28, 2012 1:09 PM

People want to knock WAR and I'll admit that I can't clearly explain it to others, but going backwards it seem to reach results we can look at and say "Yeah that makes sense." WAR may be goofy, but it still validates Babe Ruth as best ever. Any new age stat needs to pass that test.

Posted by: Largebill at November 28, 2012 11:36 PM

I'm irritated by how the Trout-doubters keep screaming about WAR like it's the only argument presented for Trout's value as a player, as opposed to the ridiculous number of traditional measures by which Trout had a historically great season (for *any* player, never mind a 20 year old), not to mention the less exotic sabermetric measures (129 runs scored in 139 games? Insane). Yes, he could shatter an ankle tomorrow or develop some sort of anxiety disorder or a blue bolt from the heavens could vaporize him--but *right now* his numbers say he's the best overall player in MLB--the only question is whether (barring one of the above disasters) he can continue at that level or improve further and quickly put his name on the list of contenders for Greatest of All Time.

Posted by: M. Scott Eiland at December 1, 2012 5:57 AM


Good to see a baseball column again.

From the title, the first name that came to name was Fred Lynn and, from a quick "eyeball" of the stats at baseball reference, Lynn's and Trout's rookie numbers are remarkably similar (Lynn was 23, significantly older; but there has been more expansion and other chnages in the game in the past 37 years). The similarity of the numbers gave me pause when considering all the Trout has so historic rhetoric.

Looking at the rest of Lynn's career, he did have one other eyar approaching his rookie year, 1979 when he was 27. Either way, seeing what Trout can do next year and beyond will be fascinating.

Is there a "Marvin Miller HoF: Yes or No?" column in the works

Posted by: Magrooder at December 3, 2012 10:03 AM

Trout does well in any metric, but WAR seems to make him stick out more than usual.

I think the point is that he really only has to stay at this level to enter discussions of the immortals.

Miller probably belongs in for his overall impact on the game, although while he was good for the players, I think his legacy for the game as a whole was very mixed. Of course, the Hall just elected three guys who have all been dead since the 1930s. They'll get to him eventually. I think Miller of all people would understand that a guy who took his kind of posture would not get honored while alive by his old antagonists.

Posted by: Crank at December 4, 2012 12:05 PM

No single season number is particularly likely to represent a player's actual ability with any great precision, regardless of age. There will always be outliers - good or bad - that you need more data to smooth out. Career peaks are generally outliers for the player, particularly any year that really stands out from the rest. Similarly, any WAR result over 10 screams outlier - using baseball reference as a source there have only been 9 seasons > 10 for a hitter since they have full data in 1974.

So really what you're trying to balance is his expected developmental gains vs how much of 2012 was a fluke. A Rod is an interesting comparison - a 9.2 WAR year at 20, didn't beat that until his 10.1 career peak at 24 and only managed to match it once more at 31.

I expect Trout will beat his oWAR more than a few times, although not for 3-4 years. His DWAR number he may beat a few more times before he turns 30, but D tends to peak younger than O. With that, he's a reasonable bet to break 10.0 WAR again, which is pretty amazing actually, but I think 10.7 is a real stretch - only Bonds (2) and Ripken have actually done it in the last 40 years.

Posted by: phwest at December 10, 2012 4:18 PM

I keep coming back to ARod in my mind. There has always been a way in which ARod has seemed to be a disappointment, as unreasonable as that is. The key to that is his age 20 season - when you see that 9.2 WAR number as a 20 year old, you start thinking - wow, what is his ceiling? He's a once-in-a-lifetime player! But he never quite managed it, never pulled off a Bonds-style string of 10+ WAR years where it was so obvious who the best player was.

Trout is a great player, and barring some horrible misfortune is likely to have a great career. But the thing is, if he runs off a string of 10+ WAR seasons during the next 10 years he will be that once-in-a-lifetime player. And as good as he is, the odds still favor something less than that.

Posted by: phwest at December 10, 2012 4:38 PM
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