Mike Trout, When It’s All Said And Done

The week leading up to Opening Day 2014 turned out to be quite historic, with the clear two best players in the game locked into long-term contracts guaranteeing them nearly a cool half-billion. Obviously, the prognosis for the respective long-term efficacy of the two deals varies dramatically, with Cabrera’s extension locking up his age 33-40 seasons, compared to Trout’s doing the same to his age 23-28 campaigns. This week, let’s take a step back and put these two greats into some sort of historical perspective, then use that perspective to research their aging curves in order make some educated judgments regarding the Tigers’ and Angels’ investments. Today, let’s look at Mike Trout.

As we did in the Cabrera piece, let’s first look at how Mike Trout gets it done offensively. Trout has superior complementary skills, but in both cases, the main driver behind the big payday is the bat. Below is a grid of Trout’s percentile ranks indicating the respective frequency of each of the six key plate appearance outcomes – K’s, BB’s, popups, fly balls, line drives and ground balls – in his first two seasons as a regular. Batted ball authority is not taken into account at all here, but these numbers alone – from 1, indicating lowest in the majors, to 99, indicating the highest – paint a very accurate portrait of a hitter qualitatively. They’re his technical merit scores, if you will.

2012 73 81 20 42 94 53
2013 60 98 17 68 85 36

It might not be quite Cabrera quality, but it’s still pretty special. The K rate is still high, but it’s trending downward. The BB rate is already at the top of the scale. The line drive percentile ranks of 94 and 85 indicate a true skill – that kind of line drive tendency, combined with his speed, low popup rate and a continued decline in his K rate could put some scary batting average levels within range. Like Cabrera, he combines a high fly ball rate with a low popup rate – these are rare hitters that don’t give away free outs in the pursuit of power. Later, we’ll take a quick look at his batted ball authority and direction data and see why Trout has a chance to become materially better in the near term – an almost unthinkable prospect.

Trout is clearly an elite hitter already, at age 22. There is certainly no reason, on the surface, to question whether he’ll be worth his recent six-year, $144.5M extension that will carry him through his age 28 season. Still, let’s look into the game’s past and try to identify his peer group. Does he even have one? How did they age, when did they peak, and what might the future hold for Mike Trout, and for the Angels’ investment in him?

As we did with Cabrera, we’ll utilize my database of MLB regulars going back to 1901. More specifically, let’s look at the cumulative number of standard deviations above or below league average OBP and SLG for some of these regulars at various stages throughout their careers. For well above average players, it is a useful method of tracking development of on-base and slugging skills, independent of one another. Trout is already 360th on the all-time list in this statistic in just two years as a regular, with 5.28 cumulative standard deviations above league average OBP and 4.27 cumulative standard deviations above league average SLG (9.55 combined). This amazingly already ranks him 34th among active players.

The start to Trout’s career is almost unparalleled in modern baseball history. He ranks fourth on the all-time list of players with the most cumulative standard deviations above league average OBP and SLG in their first two years as a regular, behind Babe Ruth, Joe Jackson and Frank Thomas – who were all three years older and more physically mature than Trout when they completed their second seasons as regulars. Yup, he was younger at the end of his second year as a regular than they all were at the beginning of their first. Their specifics appear below, along with those of a handful of other players who ranked closely behind them, and were no older than 22 in their second season as regulars.

Ruth 18-19 23-24 4.54 7.21 11.75 207
J.Jackson 11-12 23-24 4.95 5.63 10.58 192
F.Thomas 91-92 23-24 6.08 4.42 10.50 177
Trout 12-13 20-21 5.28 4.27 9.55 174
Musial 42-43 21-22 4.07 5.04 9.11 166
Hornsby 16-17 20-21 3.80 4.62 8.42 160
T.Williams 39-40 20-21 3.80 3.97 7.77 160
Foxx 28-29 20-21 3.74 3.68 7.42 162
Speaker 09-10 21-22 3.10 3.99 7.09 161
Cobb 06-07 19-20 2.93 4.14 7.07 154

This is pretty staggering stuff, actually, that pretty much places Trout on a plane unto himself in baseball history. For players at or near his age, he stands on top, by a fairly sizeable margin. It’s also difficult to cite any of the others as clear comps when projecting Trout’s future performance. The two guys at the bottom of the above list – Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb – come closest to matching Trout in age, speed and defensive value, in addition to their fairly similar offensive dominance. Let’s start the comp list with those two, even though their respective “Trout phases” were over a hundred years ago.

Next, let’s look at a list of the 10 players with the most cumulative standard deviations above league average OBP and SLG through age 21 – Trout ranks second on this list.

Cobb 3 4.63 7.23 11.86 160 4
Trout 2 5.28 4.27 9.55 174 360
Ott 3 4.53 4.20 8.73 153 10
Hornsby 2 3.80 4.62 8.42 160 6
T.Williams 2 3.80 3.97 7.77 160 2
Foxx 2 3.74 3.68 7.42 162 15
Mantle 3 2.57 3.92 6.49 145 8
Griffey 3 2.62 3.46 6.08 135 47
T.Conigliaro 3 1.26 4.61 5.87 130 379
F.Robinson 2 2.39 2.89 5.28 139 11

First, just take a look at the names on this list, and consider that the beginning of Trout’s career likely outshines that of all the others. Half of the players on this list, including Cobb, the one guy ahead of Trout, played an extra season as a regular by age 21. Trout has the highest relative OBP component of the group, and the fourth highest relative SLG component. Seven of the names of this list wound up among the 15 best offensive players in the history of the game. Of course, we can’t overlook the tragic shortening of the career of Tony Conigliaro, who was on his way to an excellent career before the tragic beaning at age 22 that effectively ended it.

Adding to Trout’s core comp list remains a dicey proposition. The only two additional players on the above list who combine comparable offensive performance at the same age with Trout-level speed, athleticism and defensive ability are Ken Griffey, Jr., and Mickey Mantle – who, ironically is the player comp I used for Trout when I scouted him in the Midwest League in his first professional season.

That leaves us with four comps – Speaker, Cobb, Mantle and Griffey. As with Cabrera, no Hank Aaron or Willie Mays on the comp list. As a frame of reference, consider that Aaron didn’t clear Trout’s current 9.55 score until after his fifth full season, at age 24, and Mays didn’t do so until after his fourth full season, at age 25. (Mays did lose two seasons to military service before then.) Trout is running with pretty fast company here. For the four comp players, let’s look closely at their performance between ages 22-28, both on its own merits and in comparison to their final cumulative career total of standard deviations above league average OBP and SLG.

Speaker 24-26 1.13 1.91 15.53 15.27 173 36.08 32.77 49.2% 39 19 7
Cobb 22-24 4.63 7.23 20.16 20.26 195 47.02 46.03 56.2% 41 22 4
Mantle 24-26 2.57 3.92 14.91 16.88 181 34.55 33.27 56.4% 36 17 8
Griffey 22-24 2.62 3.46 6.61 15.18 157 11.39 25.16 76.3% 39 19 47

All four players put up simply massive numbers between ages 22-28, averaging a 176 OPS+ and almost 4.50 combined standard deviations above league average OBP and SLG per player season. Yes, the AVERAGE season is basically MVP-caliber, and the age range encompasses the entirety of all of these four greats’ three-year peak periods. Yes, it is going to get even better for Mike Trout.

Between ages 22-28, Speaker was a regular black ink guy, even as a peer of a still-in-his-prime Cobb. His lowest OPS+ over this span was 151, and he led the AL in average once, OBP twice, SLG once, hits twice, and doubles twice. He led in OPS+ once, with a 186 mark at age 28 in 1916. He averaged a 173 OPS+ over this seven-year span.

Cobb was arguably as good as any player ever has been between ages 22-28. He basically led the AL in just about everything, every year. He won the Triple Crown at age 22 in 1909, also leading the league in OBP, SLG, OPS+, runs scored, hits and steals that same year. Oh, and he exceeded that season’s OPS+ in each of the next four seasons. Between ages 22-28, he won the batting title every season, led in OBP five times, SLG five times, and in OPS+ all seven seasons. Wow. His average OPS+ figure over this span was 195.

Mantle also won a Triple Crown in his age 22-28 range, at age 24 in 1956. He led in OPS+ in five of those seven years, though he didn’t in 1957, at age 25, when he posted his career best mark of 221. This also encompassed the maximum durability phase of Mantle’s career – he never played less than 144 games in a season between ages 22 and 28. His average OPS+ over this span was 181.

Griffey didn’t record nearly the amount of black ink as the others (led in homers three times, RBI once, SLG once, runs scored once between ages 22-28), for a number of reasons. First, the leagues were much larger, and the respective talent pools much deeper. Second, he never embraced the base on balls, never walking even 100 times in a season, holding his OBP component score much lower than the other players in this group. He also is the only one of the four to miss any length of time due to injury in their age 22-28 window, as he was limited to 72 games by a broken wrist at age 25 in 1995. If you throw out that one injury-shortened season, his lowest OPS+ over that span was 150 – he just lacked the ridiculous upsides above that level possessed by the others due to his relative OBP shortfall. Even with his subpar, injury-shortened 1995 included, his average OPS+ over this span was 157.

There was plenty of damage still to be done by these players following their age 28 seasons. All but Griffey, in fact, had close to half of their career total of cumulative standard deviations above league average OBP and SLG ahead of them. The four of them combined accumulated 59.5% of their total cumulative career scores through age 28. Griffey, however, had only a quarter of his career total ahead of him, due largely to an increasing frequency of nagging injuries and a gradual thickening of his frame. If Trout still has 40.5% of his career offensive value ahead of him after his age 28 season, he might even have a chance to pay off his next huge free agent payday.

Where might Trout go from here? Obviously, the absolute floor is a Conigliaro situation, a sudden, career-ending impact, which really could happen to anyone. Barring that fairly remote possibility, Trout’s floor is about as high as they come. If he performs as Ken Griffey, Jr., did from age 22 through the end of his career – and Griffey is by far his weakest comp – he’ll rack up 21.79 standard deviations between 22 and 28, and then another 23.7% of total career value afterward, for a total career score of 41.07 – good for 36th on the all-time list. That’s his “floor”. If he hits his ceiling, and posts a Cobb-like 40.42 score from 22 to 28, and then ages like Speaker, accumulating 50.8% of his career value from age 29 onward, that would put him in the mix with the top three of Barry Bonds, Ted Williams and Babe Ruth for best hitter of all time honors. If he hits the midpoint of those two tracks, he would rank seventh on the all-time list, behind those three plus Cobb, Stan Musial and Rogers Hornsby. Pretty heady stuff.

Based on the peak-period ages of his peer group, Trout most likely has yet to reach his, but will do so fairly soon. Where on earth is there actually room for improvement in Trout’s repertoire? It’s actually pretty easy to find. Let’s first take a look at Trout’s 2013 production by BIP type as a point of reference.

FLY 0.362 1.080 191 187
LD 0.645 0.944 106 121
GB 0.356 0.391 228 126
ALL BIP 0.410 0.711 178 162
ALL PA 0.317 0.423 0.549 183 170

If you read the companion article on Miguel Cabrera earlier this week, you might recall that Cabrera’s actual production on fly balls far outpaced Trout’s figure above – prior to the aggravation of his hip injury last August 28, Cabrera hit .521-1.672 on fly balls, for a 391 ADJ PRD (relative to MLB average, scaled to 100, adjusted for context), that more than doubles Trout’s very solid 187 mark. Trout hit “just” .362-1.080 on fly balls – not even in the same league as Cabrera. The difference between the two is almost solely in their respective abilities at this stage in their careers to selectively turn on the ball and pull it in the air for distance.

In 2013, Cabrera hit 22 fly balls to LF (field split into five sectors – LF-LCF-CF-RCF-RF), and an amazing 18 of them went over the fence. Mike Trout hit only six fly balls to LF all season, three of them for homers. Trout will soon learn to selectively pull in the air for distance more often, most likely without negatively affecting other aspects of his offensive game. There are more homers – lots of them, in fact – coming. In the next few seasons, we will witness the intersection of his capacity to hit for an extremely high average (very high LD rate, low popup rate, overperformance on grounders because of his speed premium – see his 228 actual REL PRD on grounders in 2013) and his capacity to reach his peak power production due to increased fly ball pulling. The result will be a historically prodigious career peak – in fact, I’d bet on a Triple Crown, or even two – if he can pull off the RBI component, which is mostly out of his control – an unprecedented individual achievement.

Mike Trout is a historic talent. As hard as it was to piece together a peer group for Miguel Cabrera, it was significantly harder to do so for Trout. The residual effects of becoming such a highly compensated player at such a young age are impossible to predict – we’re truly in uncharted waters here. If precedent comes even close to holding, however, Trout will go down as an inner, inner circle Hall of Famer. When your “floor” scenario contains references to Ken Griffey, Jr., you’re something else. History says that the Angels should get quite a deal on Trout’s contract extension. He’s good enough, and young enough, that we might able to go through this exercise with his next big contract, and come up with a somewhat similar conclusion.

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