What We Didn’t Learn from Mike Trout

The things we missed out on, and hope for next year

For the past decade now, the offseason baseball economy has largely been propped up by Mike Trout analysis and fun facts. (Note to self, business idea: Mike Trout stat NFTs.) 

The best player by WAR through age “X” season. Only 25 players have ever hit 300 homers and 200 steals; Trout did it before age 30. Passed Ken Griffey, Jr, Derek Jeter, and Johnny Bench in career WAR. 

This season, unfortunately, hasn’t had the same opportunity for gawking. Trout has has been on the IL since May with a calf strain that has nearly constantly seemed excruciatingly close to healing or at the very least ready to test out on a minor league assignment.

However, the season is now closing down and with less than a month left it seems unlikely that Trout will return at all before the Angels decide to shut it down for the year with no real playoff aspirations to speak of.

It’s a lost season for Trout fans, and we can’t know what would have happened, so we’re left to idly wonder what a full season for Trout would have meant this year. Beyond that, the questions serve as a reminder of what’s possible to look forward to next season and hopefully it entails a return to greatness for Trout. These are some of the most pressing questions left unanswered from a largely Trout-less season in MLB.

 

Trout and Ohtani—Best Teammates Ever?

 

It’s still wild that the Angels somehow have two generational talents in their prime. We’ve become acclimated to it, but it’s worth remembering how surprising it was that Ohtani chose the Angels in the 2018 sweepstakes for his services. Up until this year, it was only glimpses of Ohtani’s potential greatness that was paired with a once-in-a-generation player in Trout. 

This year, however, Ohtani has put it all together, breaking records you didn’t even think to look up if they existed because no one has done them in so long. 

With Trout on the shelf for most of the season, we’re left to wonder what a full-strength Trout and Ohtani combination could have achieved. Would they have been one of the best duos in terms of WAR ever? Surprisingly, it’s possible. Pitcher List data scientist Justin Filteau was able to pull the all-time best teammate WARs of all time:

Team year Player 1 Player 2 Combined WAR
Yankees 1927 Babe Ruth: 13 Lou Gehrig: 12.5 25.5
Yankees 1928 Babe Ruth: 10.6 Lou Gehrig: 9.7 20.3
Yankees 1930 Babe Ruth: 10.7 Lou Gehrig: 9.6 20.3
Yankees 1931 Babe Ruth: 10.7 Lou Gehrig: 9.2 19.9
Yankees 1921 Babe Ruth: 13.7 Carl Mays: 6 19.7
Giants 2001 Barry Bonds: 12.5 Rich Aurilia: 7.1 19.6
Yankees 1923 Babe Ruth: 15 Joe Bush: 4.5 19.5
Browns 1886 Bob Caruthers: 10.1 Dave Foutz: 9.3 19.4
Giants 2002 Barry Bonds: 12.7 Jeff Kent: 6.7 19.4
Yankees 1926 Babe Ruth: 12 Lou Gehrig: 7 19
Mariners 1996 Ken Griffey Jr.: 9.7 Alex Rodriguez: 9.2 18.9
Red Sox 1912 Tris Speaker: 10.6 Joe Wood: 8.3 18.9
Cardinals 1948 Stan Musial: 11.1 Harry Brecheen: 7.7 18.8
Diamondbacks 2001 Randy Johnson: 9.9 Luis Gonzalez: 8.9 18.8
Red Sox 1946 Ted Williams: 11.8 Johnny Pesky: 6.9 18.7
Beaneaters 1884 Charlie Buffinton: 11.1 Jim Whitney: 7.6 18.7
Giants 2004 Barry Bonds: 11.9 Jason Schmidt: 6.6 18.5
Browns 1887 Bob Caruthers: 10.2 Tip O’Neill: 8.2 18.4
Athletics 1932 Jimmie Foxx: 11.3 Lefty Grove: 7 18.3
Yankees 1920 Babe Ruth: 13.3 Del Pratt: 4.9 18.2

 

It’s difficult to imagine anyone surpassing Ruth and Gehrig’s 25 combined WAR in 1927, but the rest of the list, while not a given by any means, seems surprisingly reachable for an all-time Trout and Ohtani season.

Through 133 team games, Ohtani has 7.2 fWAR (the best in baseball by almost a full win, it should be noted). Let’s assume in the best-case scenario, Ohtani keeps that same pace and ends the regular season with 8.8 fWAR.

In seasons where Trout has accumulated 600 plate appearances or more, he has averaged 9.4 fWAR, totaling 18.2 WAR, just equaling the 20th all-time teammate season of Babe Ruth and Del Pratt (lol) in 1920. 

As it happens, that 9.4 fWAR was the exact pace Trout was on when he left, with 2.3 wins above replacement in just 146 plate appearances. It would have been an historic achievement, but also the first time two teammates had each eclipsed 8 WAR in 20 years, and only the seventh pair of teammates to do so ever (Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig did so four times).

If, however, Trout was able to match his best-ever season (2013) with 10.2 WAR, Ohtani and Trout could have become the first teammates to notch 20 wins in a season since 1930, and the only non-Gehrig/Ruth teammates in history to do so! Out of respect for Angels fans reading, I’m going to completely leave out the question of whether they would have made the playoffs in such a season.

 

How High is too High?

 

I wrote in the offseason about Mike Trout’s extreme flyball tendencies and the impact on his BABIP. His fly ball rate had increased for four consecutive seasons, and at the same time actually eclipsed 50% in 2020. As I wrote then,

That’s unusual because since Trout entered the league, a player has exceeded the 50% mark in fly balls in a season only 12 times. Joey Gallo and Rhys Hoskins have each done it twice, and the rest of the list is primarily populated with slugging homer-or-bust types (e.g., Chris Carter, Brandon Moss). Those kind of fly ball-happy extremes typically aren’t exactly prevalent among the most valuable hitters in the game, but that’s analysis that applies only to mortals.  

In his limited 36 games this season, Trout had almost completely reversed that trend. His fly ball rate was down to its lowest level since 2012, and his BABIP was the highest of his career. Trout was also pulling the ball more than ever, and hitting it hard, with a career-high in hard-hit rate.

It’s too few games to draw any meaningful conclusions, but the early returns from 2021 would have been fascinating to watch throughout a fully healthy season. Perhaps Trout had reached the peak of fly ball productivity and instead decided on an approach that kept his power gains while still hitting the ball hard rather than in the air. We’ll have to wait until next year to find out.

 

Is He Done Stealing?

 

Trout’s phenomenal rookie season produced 49 stolen bases to go along with his 30 homers. After his stolen base totals declined each of the next 3 seasons, he bumped back up to 30 steals and was above 20 steals before coming down to 11 in 2019, and then just a single stolen base in the shortened 2020.

While Trout’s speed has never really dropped off in a meaningful way at all (he’s never dropped below the 94th percentile in MLB and this year was in the 97th in the early going), it was fair to wonder if his base-stealing days were behind him.

And in 2021, Trout had swiped just two bags before hitting the IL, good for an 8 steal pace over a full season. As we’ve seen though, Trout makes changes to his game regularly and goes through peaks and valleys with his steals.

After two straight seasons of declining stolen base totals, it was fair to wonder if this was a temporary trough or if his approach was just more a natural power hitter’s (albeit with world-class speed on the end of it). 

 

How is He Getting Better?

 

One of the remarkable things about Trout’s career has been his continuous improvement in various aspects of his game. Any criticism in the offseason seems to be a step behind Trout’s own offseason plan when he comes back to spring training eliminating that weakness from his game.

There are too few plate appearances from Trout to draw broad conclusions, but of particular interest has been his continuous adjustment to cutting down his swings outside the zone:

Almost every year, Trout has cut down the number of pitches of chases out of the zone. That’s not unusual as players age, but when paired with a refined approach that is hitting the ball in the air more and harder, as Trout seems to be doing, it could have multiplying effects on his overall production.

For a player like Trout, who has shown no real discernible decline in his speed or bat skills, his ability to further refine and recognize pitches is truly an encouraging sign for long-term hall-of-fame production.

Trout’s absence, unfortunate as it is, prompts how great he has been and what baseball is missing without him. When Trout does get healthy and return to full strength, we’ll have no shortage of reasons to watch.

Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Aaron Polcare (@bearydoesgfx on Twitter)

Sean Roberts

Sean Roberts is a contributor to Pitcher List and writes mostly about the Brewers at Sausage Racing Form. His work has been featured on Baseball Prospectus, the Hardball Times, and October. He's still getting used to the DH in the national league.

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