Mike Trout: Top-Ten Outfield

It’s not so much that we’re in the offseason’s dead period — we’re just in its waiting period. There’s a lot of life left, but there likely won’t be any breaths until we get to Masahiro Tanaka’s signing deadline, at which point several dominoes ought to fall. That’s two and a half weeks away, and for the time being there’s not much going on. Dave and Carson talked on the podcast about how the things being written about these days are Tanaka and the Hall of Fame. As a change of pace out of desperation, I’m choosing to turn to the comfortable default FanGraphs fallback, that being Mike Trout, and how very good he is.

This is a question from my own chat earlier Tuesday:

Comment From Eddie
How many MLB outfields post less value than Mike Trout in 2014? Have to think the Cubs are on that list.

I was in love with the idea right away, and below, my subsequent investigation. I’d like to thank Eddie for the prompt, and for giving me another reason to re-visit Mike Trout’s unparalleled player page. Obviously, we can’t know anything yet about how the coming season is going to go. But we do have complicated mathematical guesses, which I’m happy to depend on for these purposes. By WAR, how many outfields does Mike Trout project to out-produce on his own during the 2014 regular season?

Our projection system of choice will be Steamer, because ZiPS hasn’t fully rolled out yet. Also, there aren’t massive differences between Steamer and ZiPS anyway. As you can see on Trout’s player page, Steamer projects Trout for 684 plate appearances over 146 games, and 9.0 WAR. Oliver actually projects more WAR in less time, and Trout reached double digits the last two years, but we’ll stay conservative, where by “conservative” I mean the system that thinks one player will be worth nine wins above replacement. There’s our line.

The harder part is figuring out projected combined outfield WAR, but this, actually, is also simple, and only harder relative to glancing at Trout’s FanGraphs page. Here are position by position and team by team projected WAR totals for 2014. Steamer is the system used, and the depth charts used are created by a small handful of FanGraphs authors. So the only thing to do is, for each team, add up LF WAR and CF WAR and RF WAR. Of course, the depth charts aren’t perfect, because they’re manually generated, but they’re not going to completely miss on a team, so they convey the right ideas. We have all the data we need for Trout. We have all the data we need for team-by-team outfield projections. Here’s the resulting graph, with the Angels eliminated and Trout inserted as a substitute:


The top ten (eleven) projected outfields:

  • Pirates
  • Dodgers
  • Cardinals
  • Brewers
  • Athletics
  • Braves (t)
  • Blue Jays (t)
  • Mike Trout
  • Royals
  • Rays (t)
  • Indians (t)

Mike Trout is projected for 9 WAR. Seven outfields are projected for more than that, meaning 22 outfields are projected for less than that. It’s not literally true that Mike Trout would be a top-ten outfield on his own — that would actually be a catastrophe — but a top-ten projected outfield could realistically feature Trout flanked by a pair of replacement-level corners. Say, Delmon Young and Jeff Francoeur. How do you turn Young and Francoeur into a top-ten outfield? Put Mike Trout in between them and you’ve got a better unit than the Nationals. And Giants, and Indians, and so many others. Look at the far right side. The Cubs and White Sox are currently tied for last, at 4.5 projected outfield WAR each. Mike Trout is projected for as much outfield WAR as the city of Chicago.

We all already knew that Trout is amazing, but this might help underscore the sort of advantage he provides. Trout doesn’t just give the Angels the best situation in center field in the league. He automatically makes them a top outfield, just by himself. Let’s say you need, I don’t know, 40-45 WAR to be a real playoff contender. Trout can provide a fourth or a fifth of that in one place, and at least for 2014 he’s projected to do that for practically nothing. Last year Trout was paid a hair over the league minimum. This year he should get a raise, but not much of one, relatively speaking. By making almost no dent on the Angels’ budget, Trout makes up a huge chunk of what the Angels want to build.

Right now the Angels are big-money contenders in the AL West, along with the Rangers and A’s. Take Trout away, and the Angels have basically the same payroll. But take Trout away, and they project for fewer WAR than the Orioles. They project for only a few more WAR than the Twins and Astros. The Angels, in a lot of ways, are a complete mess, but because of the Trout advantage they can realistically think about playing in October anyway. Because of his massive value over his salary, Trout effectively boosts the Angels’ payroll by tens of millions of dollars. That’s what happens when you maximize the productivity you get out of a little contract.

Mike Trout is why the Angels are better than the Mariners. Mike Trout is why the Angels are better than the Mets. Mike Trout is why the Angels still have most of the same people in charge in place. It’s hard to be terrible with a healthy Mike Trout, because the guy is perfect and still hardly costs anything. That won’t continue much longer, but it is what it is for the time being.

This is sort of an extreme example of why teams are beginning to so highly value their own cost-controlled youth. Every team has a budget, and within that budget, they want to get something like 40-50 WAR. Getting a lot of WAR out of cheap players increases the effective available payroll, allowing for flexibility elsewhere. It’s those young guys who allow for bigger investments and overpayments. When you have a cost-controlled core in place, then you can modify the roster by adding free agents and so forth. If you can pay pennies for wins in some areas, then you can pay market price for wins in others. Because just about no one can afford to pay market price for wins everywhere. I mean, a lot of teams could afford it, but they don’t and won’t spend like that. This is why efficiency is always so critical, for almost every single team.

But that’s getting to a larger point, which wasn’t the purpose of this exercise. The purpose of this exercise was to compare 2014 Mike Trout to other outfields around MLB. Turns out Trout is better than most of them, combined. We talk about Trout all the time because there’s pretty much no way we’re appreciating this enough.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.