Through no fault of his own, Mike Trout is on the outside, looking in at one of the most illustrious clubs in baseball.
This isn’t about Trout’s future home at 25 Main St., Cooperstown, New York. He will undoubtedly be awarded a plaque in the National Baseball Hall of Fame once he is eligible. This is about the Los Angeles Angels and thus, by affiliation, Trout. His 2012 Rookie of the Year Award and 2014, 2016, and 2019 Most Valuable Player Awards, along with All-Star selections and leaderboard-topping numbers every season, guarantee his inclusion among conversations debating the game’s greats. The one obstacle the Millville Meteor hasn’t obliterated is the postseason.
When focused on his inexperience in the postseason, it can be easy to overlook what Trout has obliterated. We’ve come to expect the league-leading statistics and mind-boggling feats. We know a quick glance at Trout’s Baseball-Reference page will display a plethora of bolded numbers signifying that he led the league, so we might glaze over the greatness. When we get hung up on the fact that he hasn’t become a postseason hero, we miss the forest for the trees.
Using Baseball-Reference’s version of age-based similarity scores, Trout’s career thus far mirrors two past players — Mickey Mantle and Frank Robinson. From age 21 to 28, the numbers Trout put up each season were most similar to those that Mantle and Robinson did at the same age.
Trout isn’t done yet of course, but he has already cracked the list of most valuable careers ever, according to bWAR. His 74.1 wins above replacement across 10 seasons is greater than some current members of the Hall of Fame amassed over their entire careers, including Kirby Puckett, Roberto Alomar, Derek Jeter, and most recently Reggie Jackson.
The company Trout keeps is the best of the best. But, all of these players — Puckett, Alomar, Jeter, Jackson, Robinson, Mantle — had one thing by the time they were 30 years old: a World Series ring.
The 2021 season is Trout’s 11th and, by the second half of the year, Trout will turn 30 years old. Through his first decade in Major League Baseball, only 3 of his 1,261 career games have been meaningful in October.
Since Trout’s debut, the Angels have won their division just once. Their 98-64 record in 2014 gave them the best record in all of baseball, but their thundering offense fell silent against the Kansas City Royals. The AL Wild Card winner swept the AL West champions and continued on to capture the pennant. Since that trio of disappointing postseason games, Trout and the Angels have struggled to bring their winning percentage to an even .500, much less come anywhere close playing another postseason game.
The Los Angeles Angels’ Acquisitions
Baseball owners generally have a reputation of being greedy and lately, multiple teams seem to make on-field production an afterthought, focusing their efforts on finding the line where they are at their lowest possible spending yet still keeping fans relatively satisfied.
The Angels’ owner Arte Moreno, though, doesn’t seem to pinch his pennies as tightly as other owners do. Instead, Moreno seems to close his eyes, make a wish, and toss his quarters into the fountain of free agents.
We’re well aware of the unfortunate long-term deals that the Angels handed out to Albert Pujols (10 years/$240 million) and Josh Hamilton (5 years/$125 million) when they were each 32 years old. But the irresponsible spending doesn’t stop there.
By the 2017 season, the Angels were paying eight players at least $9 million. Trout, earning $20 million, posted a bold 6.9 bWAR in an injury-afflicted season. The six players (Albert Pujols, Justin Upton, Brandon Phillips, Ricky Nolasco, Cameron Maybin, and Huston Street) who were paid a combined $92 million produced a total bWAR of 0.9. Hamilton, who last played 50 games with the Texas Rangers in 2015, was still owed more than $20 million.
Looking at that list of the 2017 Angels’ top earners, you’ll notice that only one of those names belongs to a starting pitcher. Their starting rotation had been dismal long before 2017. They had, at one point, prospects Patrick Corbin, Mike Clevinger, and Sean Newcomb, but they would quickly be traded away. At times, the Angels would acquire pitchers well past their prime with the hopes of injecting some life and luck into the floundering team. Chris Volstad, Mat Latos, Tim Lincecum, Doug Fister, and Matt Harvey were all acquisitions at one point.
To their credit, the Angels signed Shohei Ohtani before the 2018 season and Anthony Rendon before the 2020 season. What they didn’t do, however, was address their biggest issue: starting pitching. Coming into the 2021 season, the Angels have attempted to patch the hole with Alex Cobb and José Quintana.
Will it be enough? FanGraphs’ playoff projections give the Angels a 40% chance to sneak into this year’s postseason. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection system is a bit more optimistic, with playoff odds at 55%.
As Trout turns the page on one decade and begins another, it’s natural to wonder if he’ll ever get the chance to become a postseason hero and be crowned a champion.
If he gets to the end of his career without ever winning that final game, Trout is still in very good company: Ken Griffey Jr., Tony Gwynn, Ted Williams, and many more went their entire careers without winning a World Series.
Winning it all is, of course, the goal, but a career is not a failure if a player doesn’t win that final game. If we focus only on World Series rings, we cannot see the forest for the trees.