Believing in baseball stats often means being a buzzkill. That surprise team that’s off to such a fast and fun start? Well, look at their BaseRuns record, their cluster luck, their raft of one-run wins — there’s no way they can keep that up. That hitter who’s flirting with .400 in mid-May? Just look at those launch angles, that exit speed, that chase rate — nah, he’s not this good. That pitcher with the miniscule ERA? Look at the low BABIP, the lack of strikeouts, the so-so spin rate — sorry, but nobody’s buying it. Subscribing to sabermetrics means saying “sample size” and “unsustainable,” repeating “run differential” and “regression,” and, in lieu of making dramatic, went-with-my-gut predictions, linking to projections pages that report the results of thousands of simulations of the rest of the season.
Yes, sometimes the stats say that a team has been better than the standings suggest, or that a pitcher or hitter has had hard luck. And sometimes — fortunately, for anyone who hates the idea of predictable baseball — a team or player defies the projections for a full season, which is all the more exciting for its improbability. It’s rare, though, that the statistically inclined fan or media member gets to make the most sensational statement. Projections are based on probabilities and past precedents, and as much as we remember and celebrate the exceptions, sports are mostly mundane.
That’s what makes Mike Trout so special: He’s the one guy so good that even statheads hype him. Trout’s physical skills pass the eye test with ease, and even the basic stats sing his praises. But it takes advanced stats to reveal the depth and breadth of his greatness. Ever since the 2012 MVP race pitted Trout’s all-around excellence against Miguel Cabrera’s offense-based (and tradition-certified) Triple Crown, WAR has been Trout’s biggest backer, the only single stat that could quantify his contributions in the field, the batter’s box, and the base paths while stripping away the park, league, and era effects that might make him look worse than past players. It was WAR that fueled claims about Trout being the best ever — claims made not by clickbaiting columnists or ratings-chasers on shouty TV shows, but by writers accustomed to caveats and caution. And not because those claims made for eye-catching quotes, or because Trout was clutch a couple of times, or because he had a certain swagger, but because his performance fully supported the assertion. We could call Trout the best without being hyperbolic.
And that’s what makes it extra-deflating that on Sunday, Trout tore a ligament in his left thumb while sliding headfirst into second on a steal attempt. (He was safe, of course.) On Monday, we learned that the injury (Trout’s first ever to lead to a DL stint or sideline him in season for more than five days) will require surgery on Wednesday that will keep him out for six to eight weeks. Although the tear spoils the notion that Trout was invincible — no longer is his health record as pristine as his stats — there’s no reason to fear lingering physical effects. It’s possible, though, that it will discourage him from stealing (or the Angels from letting him steal) after he returns; as much as it adds to Trout’s legend that he can combine power with speed, his bat is so valuable without the steals that it might make sense to give him the stop sign more often.
Losing Trout for any extended period is devastating to the Angels, who entered Monday with a 26–27 record and (speaking of being a buzzkill) only a 10 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Baseball Prospectus. They’ll muddle through until his return with Cameron Maybin, Ben Revere, and the just-promoted Eric Young Jr., all of whom have experience in center but none of whom has experience as anything close to the best player in baseball. Maybin is an able replacement, as non-Trout alternatives go, but Revere and Young won’t hit like left fielders even if they’re platooned. They might not even hit as well as Trout would with one thumb.
In some respects, Trout’s absence isn’t so serious; the Angels were playoff long shots even with him, and a missing month or two in the course of what could be a two-decade career won’t rewrite the text on his Hall of Fame plaque. The biggest bummer for fans and Trout cognoscenti is the loss of what might have been a signature regular season by baseball’s best player. As I noted earlier this month, Trout had hit on a way to become even better, by pairing his power and contact skills with a refined sense of the strike zone.
Thanks to his increased aggressiveness against pitches over the plate, Trout was leading the league in almost everything and on pace for an 11-win year by FanGraphs WAR, which would have been not only a personal best, but the best by a hitter since Barry Bonds in the early aughts — and before Bonds, Joe Morgan in 1975. Only 12 hitters have reached the 11-win level, a total of 25 times, and it’s only getting harder to do so as the player pool expands and the quality of competition climbs. Trout was having a season that most fans haven’t seen since the peak of the PED era, and judging by the wave of tributes to Trout published over the past few weeks, the baseball world was finally waking up to what it was watching. For once, we could cite a player’s pace without irony; Trout’s stats seemed, yes, sustainable, though they wouldn’t have with anyone else. Now his progress is frozen at 47 games, and his pace will look less impressive with every day he’s away.
Back in March, my podcast cohost Michael Baumann and I played a preseason prop-bet game. Michael came up with 20 questions, one of which was, “Mike Trout has led the AL in [Baseball-Reference] WAR and finished no worse than second in MVP voting in each of his five full seasons — will that continue?” Used to playing the odds and being the buzzkill, I said no; although Trout is the best player in baseball, I couldn’t bring myself to bet on him beating the field yet again, given the vagaries of luck, health, single-season defensive ratings, and the writers’ MVP preferences. I would have been happy to have Trout prove me wrong. Instead, we’ve discovered that he’s subject to the same sad realities as the rest of us.