The Historic Squander of Mike Trout
No team has played as badly during their inner-circle Hall of Famer’s 8-year peak as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
The awful news Wednesday that Mike Trout has been diagnosed with a “pretty rare” and possibly permanent back condition puts an exclamation point on a fact Angel fans have been reluctant to admit: The best days of Major League Baseball’s best player were already behind him.
Oh sure, he can still hit like an absolute monster: .286/.396/.605 for an adjusted OPS+ of 173 since the beginning of 2020, tied with Bryce Harper for second-highest in the bigs, and just behind Juan Soto’s 176. But even before his current trip to the injured list and dreadful diagnosis this week, the Millville Meteor just hasn’t been able to stay healthy, missing nearly half his team’s games over that span. He’s no longer a reliably good defensive center fielder (though his numbers were up this year), and he’s gone from stealing 49 bases his rookie year to just 4 total over the past three years.
In other words, he’s still been great, just mortal. Which allows us to appreciate anew what an otherworldly beast the man was during his tragically truncated prime.
From 2012 to 2019, from ages 20 to 27, his first full eight seasons in the show, Mike Trout won three Most Valuable Player awards, finished second four times, and fourth the other. He led the league in OPS+ six times; runs, on-base-percentage and Wins Above Replacement (WAR) four times apiece; walks and slugging percentage thrice; plus once each in RBIs, stolen bases, and total bases.
Trout’s average season during that period was .308/.422/.587, 178 OPS+, 31 doubles, 6 triples, 35 homers, 110 runs, 92 RBIs, 99 walks, 24 stolen bases (against just 4 caught stealing), 10 HBPs and just 7 ground-ball double plays. The man averaged 9.0 WAR per season during a stretch when only two other position players—Bryce Harper and Mookie Betts—achieved that even once (Betts did it twice).
For those unfamiliar with WAR, a stat that has the benefit of being comparable across eras, the following no-doubt Hall of Famers never had a single season as high as 9: Frank Robinson, Eddie Mathews, Al Kaline, Chipper Jones, Johnny Bench, and Derek Jeter. Trout’s eight-year run is on a statistical plane inhabited only by the innermost circle of Cooperstown.
Only 19 players have had an eight-season stretch averaging as many as 8 WAR, let alone 9. (I won’t be mad if you include in the group #20 on the list, Joe Morgan, with his 7.8 average from his insane 1970-1977.) Trout’s 9.0 ranks 11th, behind leader Babe Ruth (11.2—and yes, I adjusted to 162-game seasons, since we’re not savages here), then your basic all-time Murder’s Row: Willie Mays (10.2), Rogers Hornsby (9.8), Lou Gehrig and Honus Wagner (9.6), Ted Williams and Ty Cobb (9.5), Trout lookalike Mickey Mantle and Eddie Collins (9.3), and Stan Musial (9.2).
Just behind Trout in highest average WAR over eight consecutive seasons are generational greats Barry Bonds (8.9), Tris Speaker (8.8), pre-Angels Albert Pujols (8.7), Mike Schmidt and Hank Aaron (8.6), Nap Lajoie (8.2), and finally Jimmie Foxx and Alex Rodriguez with 8.0.
Looking at those names underscores what a privilege it has been to witness all-time greatness in real time, and what a sadness it is that he’ll likely be fighting through a bum back from here on out. But it also brings to mind what no member of an obnoxious fanbase fails to remind Angels fans whenever the subject of Trout comes up. Just how, exactly, did you squander such a talent?
Because I am that kind of Angel fan (i.e., self-hating, and easily drawn toward statistical rabbit holes), I decided to compare how the Angels did during his peak to the records of the teams of those other 18 all-timers during their very best eight-year runs. The results…are grisly.
From 2012 to 2019, the Angels were only 16 games over .500: 656-640 (82-80 on average), for a winning percentage of .506. They finished in first place just once (2014; after which they got swept in the playoffs), second place just once, and were otherwise a second-division team, finishing 10 or more games behind in five seasons. No other player’s primary team came close to such futility.
Lou Gehrig’s Yankees during his 1927-34 peak played .628 ball and won three World Series. Eddie Collins’ A’s and White Sox during the second-baseman’s best run played .628 ball and won three World Series. Yes, this was the Olden Times, and those guys played on stacked teams, but the median team winning percentage on this list is .565. Ted Williams might be famous for never winning a ring, but during his war-interrupted 1939-49 stretch, the Red Sox played .592 ball and won a pennant (wasn’t easy being in the Yankees’ league). Barry Bonds, too, never won a World Series, but during his 1997-2004 monster run the Giants made the playoffs four times, won a pennant, and averaged 92 wins a year.
Of all the winning percentages of teams during these all-timers’ peaks, only A-Rod’s teams’ .492 is lower than the Trout-era Angels. But even that’s misleading—Rodriguez left as a free agent to miserable Texas after five years of the (talent-rich) Seattle Mariners making two postseasons and playing .521 ball. (They won 116 games the year after he left.) In terms of pure squanderosa of a once-in-a-lifetime asset, no one approaches these Angels.
There are books to be written as to the most blameworthy culprits in this organizational crime (I might recommend the Angels chapter in the 2014Baseball Prospectus annual, coff coff). And there are also fine homework assignments in exploring the also-run status of Ty Cobb’s teen Tigers and the previous decade’s Cleveland Naps, to say nothing of the overstocked 1958-65 Giants, who couldn’t convert Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda and Gaylord Perry into anything more shiny than a single pennant.
But for now, let’s pour a 40 out for the done-zo prime of a phenomenal ballplayer, wasted so spectacularly by a relentlessly mediocre franchise.