Ten years ago Thursday, Mike Trout got his second call to the majors. In his first stint with the Los Angeles Angels — 40 games as an injury replacement in 2011 — he hadn’t set the world on fire. This time, he did that and more.
Dominating across all facets of the game at just 20 years old, Trout sowed the seeds of a grand reconfiguring of the baseball landscape. By August, he had so captivated the sport that a mythologizing Sports Illustrated cover story accepted a wild premise as fact: The Salt Lake Bees’ opening day center fielder was the best player in baseball.
Legendary Oakland A’s executive Billy Beane said as much in the story, noting that he went through the box score every day to check Trout’s performance. “And you’ve got to go to so many categories,” he said, “that it takes a while.”
Indeed, Trout wound up batting .326, hitting 30 homers and stealing 49 bases. He also led the league in OPS+ — which takes on-base-plus-slugging percentage and adjusts it for park and era — and in the comprehensive value metric Wins Above Replacement that also factored in his stellar defense and baserunning.
But Detroit Tigers star Miguel Cabrera had made a bolder statement in a narrower, more familiar segment of the box score, winning the first Triple Crown in over 40 years. When the season went into the books, Trout may have been the best player, but Cabrera was the American League MVP. Pitting a hallowed achievement and traditional stats against more comprehensive but more complicated sabermetric measurements, the 2012 AL MVP debate has never really ended.
Ever since, Trout has been more measuring stick than man. He’s the best player in baseball as a default setting. Each year, a star or two surges through the best summer of his life and emerges as a challenger to Trout. More often than not, the challenger exits with the award or the bold-faced number. The next year, they fall back to the pack and Trout remains.
As his body filled out, Trout has leaned even further into an optimized, holistic style of play that tends to defy the excitement-building stat chases, leaderboard races and career paces of yore. Trout has still never led the league in batting average, homers or hits, but his consistent mastery of the game has helped vault WAR and related advanced statistics from niche nerd concerns into mainstream baseball discussion.
Last week, his original foil reached the type of milestone that cements Hall of Fame cases and prompts glowing retrospectives. Cabrera got to 3,000 hits, and everyone collectively realized that neither Trout nor anyone else is likely to cross that threshold any time soon, that we may not have a preset trigger for our brains to celebrate the current generation’s brightest star or the many others he inspired.
So after 10 years of Trout, we’ve figured out that he’s special. What’s less clear is whether we have figured out how to appreciate it.
Why the 3,000-hit club won’t capture Trout
Being extraordinary at one thing is really, really fun. It just usually comes with sacrifices. Ichiro collected hits at a prodigious pace, but never homered more than 15 times in a season. Aaron Judge can hit 50 homers in a season, but probably won’t be winning any stolen base titles because real life Incredible Hulks just aren’t designed to move that quickly.
So while Trout didn’t beat Cabrera in those early MVP races, and still doesn’t win every time he’s deserving, his skills and the numbers that have risen to the occasion of quantifying them have proven explanatory. There are a limited number of opportunities to do anything in baseball, and being excellent at everything can have the effect of limiting your chances to accumulate eye-popping numbers in any one category. Every outcome, though, contributes to swaying the game one way or the other. This is why we haven’t seen repeats of the now wacky-looking years when, say, Juan Gonzalez won AL MVP with gaudy homer and RBI totals and not much else.
Breeding and selecting for players who chase that most optimal, least sacrificial version of themselves doesn’t necessarily sap enjoyment from the game — Juan Soto’s walks are appointment television — but it could soon leave us wanting for touchstone career achievements.
Take a look at where Trout really shines. Here’s where he stood in some big stat categories at the end of 2021 among all AL/NL players, minimum 4,000 plate appearances, since 1900.
By time in the majors, through 11 big-league seasons:
Hits: 359th, with 1,419
Homers: 41st, with 310
Steals: 173rd (tie), with 203
OPS+: 6th, with a 176
Baseball-Reference WAR: 11th, with 76.1
And by age, through age-29 seasons.
Because he reached the majors so young, Trout does better on the age-related leaderboards. And if we’re lucky, we’re only halfway through Trout’s career. Still, if he played full seasons from here on out and kept up his current pace of 179 hits per 162 games, he’d be about nine seasons away from the 3,000-hit mark. Especially given that his body has aged toward a more power-centric approach, he looks like a better bet for 500 homers, but even that club doesn’t feel exclusive enough to be Trout’s crowning achievement.
Creating a new milestone for a new era
Now, it may seem like the very last thing we need is a new stat to tout Trout’s excellence. But what if … that’s exactly what we need.
The 3,000-hit club has never been everything — Ted Williams isn’t in it because of his famous plate discipline and military service. WAR, meanwhile, makes for an impossible “milestone” stat for a variety of reasons. There’s not one agreed upon formula right now, it is updated with new research and evolving defensive metrics, and it can go backward with bad performance.
Now, a new “club” isn’t the only way to understand greatness with more era-specific context — indexed statistics are terrific and provide simple comparisons. Still, if contemporary baseball players are gauging success in different ways, we should at least consider lining those ways up with laudatory milestones. The same qualities that made Trout a perfect beacon of WAR’s inputs can also be partially translated for a counting stat.
Let’s say we combined the current total bases statistic — which only counts the bases accumulated through hits — with walks, hit by pitches and steals. Let’s also subtract the number of times a hitter grounds into a double play, since avoiding erasing another runner’s base is also significant.
If this were an actual statistic — let’s call it Bases — Trout would rank 11th all-time through age 29, and would have gotten there in far fewer games than any of those ahead of him. If we turn it into a rate stat — Bases per plate appearance — he’d be sixth, and possibly higher (three of the hitters ahead of him didn’t have double plays counted when they played).
The 6,000-base club would currently have 39 members compared to the 3,000-hit club’s 33. The 7,000-base club would have 12. Trout, who entered 2021 at 3,811 of our made-up Bases, would have a great chance at joining even the upper tier. Now, this isn’t a real proposal. There is undoubtedly a more complex, more statistically sound way to create an accurate portrayal of offensive contributions in counting form. And Trout would undoubtedly rank highly in that as well.
What is a real proposal: It might be time to start figuring it out.
Do we have time to adopt a new way of quantifying greatness and update a long-running collective mindset in the next 10 years? It sure doesn’t seem likely. But we would have scoffed at the notion on April 28, 2012, too.