On Thursday night in Toronto, the Angels lost 7-5, sinking their record to 38-38. Like most of their losses, this one wasn’t Mike Trout’s fault. The star center fielder doubled, singled, walked, stole a base, and made a diving catch to cap a four-game set in which he went 4-for-5 with a homer in the opener, took Aaron Sanchez deep twice and drove in seven runs in the third game and, in between, was twice called the best player ever by Jays starter Marcus Stroman.
Nothing about Trout’s performance so far makes Stroman’s statement sound hyperbolic. With only 47 percent of his age-27 season behind him, Trout has already topped Ty Cobb and Mickey Mantle to become the all-time leader in WAR through that age. He’s hitting .302/.464/.653, with a tied-for-the-AL-lead 22 home runs and a major-league-leading on-base percentage, and he won’t turn 28 until August. At 70 career WAR and counting, he’s surpassing Hall of Famers every month. He’s also still evolving, refining the most minute flaws in his game as he fends off the latest challengers to his title as the sport’s supreme player.
Last spring, I wrote about Trout’s improvements in plate discipline and defense. This spring, he’s sustained the latter gains—Trout’s jumps on batted balls in center have been better in 2019 than in any earlier year on record—and doubled down on the discipline, which has made him impervious to almost every pitching approach.
For the third consecutive campaign, Trout has lowered his chase rate to a new seasonal low. Among qualified hitters, only the injured Andrew McCutchen—who’s out for the season and thus won’t be “qualified” for long—has swung at a lower percentage of pitches outside the strike zone in 2019.
The GIF below compares Trout’s swing locations in 2015—when he was great, but a little less selective—and 2019. The pretty colors confirm that these days, he rarely reaches outside the strike zone. Instead, he’s zeroed in on a swath of the vertical center of the zone. He offers most often at deliveries on the outer half of the plate, the region pitchers have been targeting in a vain attempt to stay away from his power.
In his superb rookie season, Trout struck out more than twice as often as he walked. The league as a whole has seen its strikeout rate rise by 3 percentage points since then, but Trout’s has decreased by 4.5 percentage points during the same span, and his walks have now outstripped his strikeouts by a wide margin. He’s been ahead in the count on more than a third of the pitches he’s seen this season, and ranks seventh in that category among the almost 300 hitters who’ve faced at least 500 pitches in 2019.
Trout’s willingness to let enticing pitches pass him by rather than play into pitchers’ hands has forced his opponents to throw him strikes. It’s either that or give him the Barry Bonds treatment, and the Bonds treatment probably didn’t make sense statistically even at the height of Bonds’s PED powers. (Trout does lead the AL with 11 intentional walks in 2019, but that was one week’s worth for Bonds, and most of Trout’s free passes this spring came before he had Shohei Ohtani and Justin Upton hitting behind him.) Consequently, the ultra-selective Trout we’ve seen since last season has drawn a higher rate of pitches in the strike zone than the average hitter, even though he’s done more damage on those pitches this season than all but a few other hitters.
Because he’s stopped swinging at the toughest pitches to hit but still attacks the fat ones—Baseball Savant says he’s swung at 80 percent of deliveries down the middle, his highest rate in the five-season Statcast era—Trout has also kept increasing his contact rates to new seasonal highs, even as the league’s contact rate has continued to decline.
That’s not the weak kind of contact. Trout is hitting his fewest grounders yet, and his highest percentage of batted balls in the optimal launch-angle range. Only Cody Bellinger has produced a higher quality of contact; if anything, Trout’s numbers look a little less good than they should in light of how well he’s hit the ball. There’s just no way to win when facing him: If you throw him a ball, he’ll take it, and if you throw him a strike, he’ll hit it hard. (He also sometimes hits the non-strikes hard.) A pitcher can place his faith in probability and hope Trout will spare him and punish the next arm up instead, but even the law of averages brings only so much solace in Trout’s case, considering that getting him out has basically become a coin flip.
Trout’s elite offense, coupled with his still-strong fielding and baserunning, has put him on pace for an 11-WAR season, which would be his best. On a per-plate-appearance basis, his performance since the start of 2018 has been his best yet, which is saying something for a hitter who had two MVP awards and three runner-up finishes by the end of his age-24 season.
Greg Morhardt, the scout who signed Trout, told me in 2015, “I was very fortunate when I drafted Mike that he exceeds expectations, because that’s who he is. He’s not the norm when it comes to hard work. … No scout can see all that stuff. You just evaluate the ability. You got a good kid and a good family, you hope he maximizes his ability. Mike did that. He did what he could do and then some.”
We’re still learning what “and then some” looks like. So that’s Trout: Already the best, and continually tinkering to sand off any remaining rough edges.
And then there are the Angels. For Trout’s team, .500 is familiar territory. The chart below shows the Angels’ distance from .500—that is, the difference between their win and loss totals—by game over the past two-plus seasons.
That’s a really narrow range. Since the start of 2017, the Angels—who finished 80-82 in each of the past two seasons—have never been more than 10 games above .500 or more than seven games below. The last time they topped 10 games over was July 28, 2015, and by the end of that season, they sported a negative run differential.
The Angels’ recent run of mediocrity is entering historic territory, if a team can truly make history by being stubbornly bland. These Angels are actually one of the .500-est teams of all time. In 2017, they finished 26 individual games with a .500 record, which tied them for the 10th-most times by a team in a single season. (The 2009 Twins hold the record, with 34.) But they did end all 162 of their games that season within five games of .500, a feat equaled by only two other teams, the 1998 Dodgers and the 2011 Blue Jays. (Those Jays also hold the two-year record for games at exactly .500, with 50 from 2011-12; the 2017-18 Angels tied for eighth with 41.)
From 2017-18, the Angels finished a combined 282 games within five games of .500, a total exceeded over a span of two seasons by only two other teams, the 2007-08 Jays (288) and the 2005-06 Rangers (285). And they still have a shot at the three-year record of 399 games, set by the 1991-93 Cubs. Through Thursday, the 2017-19 Angels are up to 353, so they’ll have to stay within five games of .500 for 47 of their remaining 86 to set a new standard for .500-ness. That amount of mediocrity seems well within reach.
Entering Thursday, the Angels had gone 571-525 in games that Trout had played since his first full season. That’s not bad, but given his greatness, it’s not impressive, either. According to Baseball-Reference, an otherwise average team, plus Trout, would have been expected to win 599 of those games, not 571. In other words, the Angels, sans Trout, have been a below-average team on the whole since his first full season. Sure enough, in the 113 Angels games since 2012 that Trout hasn’t appeared in, the Angels have gone 51-62. As FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine noted in 2016, “Mike Trout’s teammates don’t deserve Mike Trout.” Not much has changed since that summer, and Trout’s total for games played in the postseason—three—has been frozen since 2014.
Trout, of course, committed in March to a contract extension that will tie him to the Angels through his age-38 season. In theory, he was worth much more than he signed for, but despite the Angels’ struggles to surround him with a competent cast, he decided to stay and try to win where he was rather than chase higher playoff odds elsewhere. The Angels’ formerly fallow farm system has begun to bear fruit—FanGraphs ranked it 11th last month—and there’s reason to believe that brighter days are ahead for the franchise. For now, though, the Angels are a trio of riveting talents—Trout, Ohtani, and Andrelton Simmons—barred from October by proximity to a largely lackluster rest of the roster. Unfortunately for the Angels, Trout, unlike a fully operational Ohtani, can’t pitch.
Without much potential for playoff heroics, Trout is reduced to the status of a regular-season stat accumulator, albeit the best there’s ever been. We watch him to see how quickly he can hurdle long-departed players and how thoroughly he can trounce today’s. His adversaries aren’t the Astros, the Yankees, the Rays, or the Red Sox, but Cobb, Mantle, and whatever active individual dares to snatch his single-season WAR crown.
WAR-wise, Trout is on his sixth nemesis. In 2012 and 2013, Trout’s top competition was Miguel Cabrera, who trailed him by about five WAR across those seasons but brought home back-to-back AL MVP awards thanks to flashier traditional stats, including two batting titles and a Triple Crown. The passage of time tipped the scales further and further toward Trout; today, his first great rival is diminished by age and injuries, a barely league-average hitter who offers little value beyond the batter’s box.
In 2014, Trout ran uncontested, claiming all 30 first-place AL MVP votes. But in 2015, new challengers arose: In the NL, Bryce Harper matched him WAR for WAR, and in the AL, the Blue Jays’ Josh Donaldson came close. Because Toronto made the playoffs and Trout’s teammates let him down, the voters gave Donaldson the nod, and Trout settled for second place. Donaldson stayed in near-Troutian territory in 2016, but few players last long in that rarified air. At 33, Donaldson has been unexpectedly durable for the Braves, but both his bat and his glove have lost a lot of value. Harper, meanwhile, has been worth about 3.5 WAR more in the past three-plus seasons combined than he was in 2015 alone. Neither Donaldson nor Harper steals thunder from Trout today.
In 2017, Trout missed 46 games after midseason surgery to repair a torn thumb ligament, which took him out of the MVP running. José Altuve and Aaron Judge fought for the hardware, but neither seemed like a threat to topple Trout from his perch. Last year, though, Mookie Betts changed his swing and became the first player to beat Trout in FanGraphs WAR over a full season. Here was a worthy foe—and yet Betts has gone back to being merely very good in 2019, and is yet another antagonist outlasted.
Now, Trout has two new foils, both in the NL: Bellinger, and Christian Yelich, last year’s MVP. Yelich has slightly out-WARed Trout over the past calendar year, though he’s also played 16 more games. Over almost half a season in 2019, the two players have hit roughly as well as Trout, and their breakouts have been chronicled in article after article. They’re the new hotness, and they’ve both played at a level no one knew they could attain. Yet they haven’t been notably better than Trout, who leads Yelich in WAR this season and, by FanGraphs’ accounting, has pulled approximately even with Bellinger. Other All-Stars’ extremes are Trout’s regular routine.
Would anyone bet on Bellinger or Yelich being better than Trout for the rest of this season, or in 2020, or in 2021? The best any mere mortal has managed since 2012 is to briefly, perhaps, pull even with Trout before baseball’s perpetual motion machine, not even winded, blows by. Pitchers can’t conquer him. Other hitters can’t keep pace with him. The only obstacle Trout can’t surmount is that the Angels can’t make more of him.
Thanks to Rob McQuown of Baseball Prospectus for research assistance.