Michael Nelson Trout is the greatest baseball player you, I or anyone has ever seen play. I say that with complete sincerity and in no way meant to be hyperbolic. Depending on your age, the likelihood of the greatest player ever in a sport that is 150+ years old playing in your lifetime seems slim but he hasn’t even reached his prime years and has not finished below 2nd in MVP voting in his young 5 year career. Baseball twitter has written extensively on the subject of Trout’s greatness more eloquently and statistically-based than I could hope to, so I won’t here. This writing will attempt to not devolve into a Trout love fest, but I make no promises. I want to focus on something I’ve been looking forward to since my 5/6th favorite person in the world tragically tore the UCL in his thumb sliding head first into second base; his return and the challenge that awaits him.
When Trout left the ballpark in late May with an apparent injury the baseball world waited with baited breath. Then we found out about the tear, we all cried as the first DL stint of his amazing career took him when he somehow appeared to be getting better and then we came to terms with our bleak Troutless lives. That time is gone now and now we get to see Trout attempt to imitate the Freeze and beat someone who has been given as sizable lead, hopefully with better results. The race in this case is for the most WAR in the American League. Wins Above Replacement, is an attempt to measure a player’s true value with adjustments for position, league, and era with the goal being to assign a value with which we can compare all players. WAR is somewhat of touchy subject between sabermetric and more traditional baseball communities but it’s value should not really be questioned. The validity of a stat is usually how well it backs up what we see. By WAR the best players of all time currently, due to Trout’s youth, are Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, and Willie Mays. There’s a reason you have probably heard of those guys regardless of your level of baseball fandom and they are all where they should be by this measure. Trout will join and pass them just like he has all but 6 active major league players.
When Trout went down around 5 weeks ago, the incredible Sam Miller at ESPN made a bold prediction that Trout would still win the MVP, I independently concurred. Though WAR and MVP are two different things one would think if he can somehow overcome these odds there is almost no way the BBWA can deny him the A.L. MVP, unless there’s a stupid triple crown winner again. WAR is a counting stat meaning the more a player is on the field and not actively hurting their team they are gaining value. By the time he takes the field Mike Trout will have missed 6 weeks and should have no chance at leading this statistic however currently he stands only 17 spots and two fWAR away from the top, which equates a good month for him. Essentially this accomplishment will mean that Trout is so much better than everyone else he can put up the same amount of value in ⅔ the time.
The problem is the current WAR leader is the ‘biggest baseball boy,’ Aaron Judge. Leaving out pitchers, (because the translation between position players and pitchers is weird) after Judge is a cast of recurring MVP candidates Jose Altuve, Mookie Betts, Carlos Correa, Paul Goldschmidt, and Justin Turner. After the incredible showcase Judge put on in the Home Run Derby he is everyone’s favorite baseball player right now. Like Griffey did for wearing caps backwards before him he inspired a whole generation to want to punish baseballs with extreme prejudice. Even I, a noted Yankees hater, who thinks Judge looks like a Bond villain can not deny his talent and the amazing season he has already put up so far. Because of what Judge has done watching this "second half" chase really fun to watch.
Based on Fangraph’s WAR calculation Mike Trout currently stands at 3.4 (number one when he went out) and Judge is at 5.5. I did not think Judge would be anywhere near that number even two months ago. It is a huge lead, seemingly insurmountable but this is Mike Trout. The updated projections from Dan Szymborski’s ZIPs system predicts Judge will end the season near 7.4 and Trout 6.4, just fractions behind the three people between him and Judge. Again after missing almost two months of the season this alone would be an incredible feat but given the circumstances even second place in WAR should warrant him an MVP award win but it won’t. He has been denied MVP multiple times when he was far and away the best player in the league so I don’t see a path to the award without winning this statistic and even then the BWAA is going to try and find a way to give it to the guy from New York with the high traditional stats.
There are a few ways we can squint and see Trout win this:
Aaron Judge suffers from the infamous HR Derby hangover and falls apart for the rest of the season. The hangover doesn’t exist, but that will not stop this narrative if he does stumble down the stretch.
Judge gets hurt. Nothing can hurt him have you seen the guy?
Judge finds out how much of a bitch regression to the mean can be. He is running a .426 BAbip(Batting Average on Balls in Play), the league average is typically around.300. BAbip for a single player with no track record is not very telling in either direction but is something worth considering. Also, given how he hits the crap out of the ball this may not matter with Judge particularly but it’s not nothing.
He has been picking on some especially bad pitching staffs in his division; Blue Jays and Orioles and they should regress positively just as he will negatively.
As Miller stated, Trout should be relatively healthy even though his thumb has been surgically repaired, he took a month off. So while everyone is dragging in late September/October he should still be fresh and putting up his usual mid season numbers
“If Trout played the final 70 games at that level, he'd produce 4.9 second-half wins, and 8.2 for the season.”
- Until his injury Trout was putting up his best season yet. If he is somehow able to sustain the level he was playing before the injury he should be able to at least catch the field. An 8.2 WAR is unlikely but he may not need to reach quite that high. His pace when he was healthy in the first half shows it’s not completely out of the question.
The hard thing to confidently predict about what could be Trout’s first repeat MVP, though he should have 5 by now, is how much of a wild card Judge is. He has no worthwhile sample size to use for predictions. In an industry that has become all about projections Judge is a big question mark right now. This is past performance vs the great unknown, with the added intrigue of The Yankees fading and the Angels somehow staying afloat in the Wild Card mix, along with all other A.L. teams.
Being a huge baseball fan, I would normally be tracking the leaderboards and standings anyway but this is going to be a special kind of fun to watch. The kind of accomplishment that may be a definitive moment of the greatest baseball career ever. If Trout pulls this off it’ll be like watching a half season long version of The Block. Even if he doesn’t, MIKE TROUT is back! Who says baseball is boring? Oh right all the standing around, carry on.