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Mike Trout and the 8 WAR Season


Chuckster70

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By @Angelsjunky, AngelsWin.com Contributor

I like to find new angles on the greatness of Mike Trout - not hard to do, but always satisfying. Here's something tasty for your enjoyment. I'm going to be focusing on 8 WAR seasons. Why 8 WAR? Well, it represents a level beyond just garden variety superstardom. Generally speaking, 8 WAR is either a career year for a superstar or a good peak year for an inner circle Hall of Famer. In other words, it is a good benchmark for a truly great season.

What is 8 WAR? 

As you can read here, below 2 WAR are bench players and scrubs; from 2-4 WAR is the range from solid to good regulars; and 4 and above are various shades of stardom, from borderline stars to MVP candidates. In any given year, the best player in the game is somewhere around 8 WAR or higher; only rarely is the leader below 8 WAR, with the last two both from Jeff Bagwell with 7.8 WAR, in 1999 and 1994. 

In most years there are two or three players with an 8 WAR or higher; some years less (or none), and some more (the most 8 WAR players in a single year was six, which happened three times: in 1912, 1961, and 1997). The point being, with an average of two or three a year, an 8 WAR player is a candidate for the best player in the game and a possible MVP. 

It is also worth pointing out that WAR is less volatile than it used to be, with fewer high outliers. If we ignore Barry Bonds for a moment, the last position player to reach 11 WAR was Joe Morgan in 1975, which also happened to be the only position player season over 10 WAR in the 1970s. Including Bonds, from 1970 to the present there have only been thirteen 10 WAR seasons: five by Bonds (including one pre-roids in 1993 when he had 10.5), two by Trout, one each by Joe Morgan, Cal Ripken, Rickey Henderson, Alex Rodriguez, Buster Posey, and Mookie Betts.

Meaning, super-high WAR seasons (above 10) are very rare, occurring--on average--only once every four years or so over the last half century.

In 119 years of the two leagues (1901-2019) there have been 266 position player seasons of 8 WAR or above, or a little over two per year. Again, this averages out to a little over two a season.

Active Players

Among all currently active players, there have been 21 8 WAR seasons by the following players, in order of highest WAR: Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, Buster Posey, Albert Pujols, Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson, Miguel Cabrera, Aaron Judge, Jose Ramirez, and Andrew McCutchen. Other than Trout, the only players to have more than one such season are Betts with two and Pujols with four. And Mike Trout? He's got seven. 

Meaning, Trout's got as many truly great seasons (as defined by 8 WAR) as any three of his peers combined. What does that mean, in historical context? Let's take a look.

The Club of Seven (8 WAR Seasons)

Mike Trout had his seventh 8 WAR season in 2019 at the age of 27, when he tied with Alex Bregman for the major league lead with 8.5. It was the sixth highest WAR of his eight full seasons, with only 2014 (8.3) and his injury-shortened 2017 (6.8) being lower.

In baseball history, there are only nine players--including Trout--with seven or more 8 WAR seasons in their entire career. OK, take a breath. Consider how crazy that is, given that Trout is only 29 years old (and possibly would have had his 8th such season last year).

Here are the leaders in numbers of 8+ WAR seasons:

11: Babe Ruth, Willie Mays

10: Barry Bonds

9: Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig

8: Honus Wagner, Ted Williams

7: Eddie Collins, Mike Trout

No one else--including inner circle Hall of Famers like Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Jimmie Foxx, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, and Alex Rodriguez--have more than six. Meaning, everyone but the seven players who are as good a septad of the greatest to ever play the game (although I would include Cobb, Aaron, and either Musial or Mantle to make it a rounded ten).

Now here is where it gets even crazier (yes, it gets crazier). Trout is way ahead of everyone else's pace for adding up 8 WAR seasons. Here is when each player listed above had their 7th such season:

  • Ruth: 14th season, age 32
  • Mays: 11th season, age 31
  • Bonds: 16th season, age 36
  • Hornsby: 13th season, age 31
  • Gehrig: 13th season, age 32
  • Wagner: 13th season, age 35
  • Williams: 13th season, age 35
  • Collins: 15th season, age 33
  • Trout: 9th season, age 27

To be fair, some of those players were delayed due to various circumstances. Ruth wasn't a full-time position player until his sixth season when he had 9.4 WAR in 1919 at age 24, ushering in the home run era. Chances are he would have had two or three by then if he had been a position player all along, and reached his seventh a few years earlier than he did. Williams lost three years in a row due to WWII at the age of 24-26, with two 11+ WAR seasons and two 10+ seasons bookending that gap. He almost certainly would have had his seventh 8 WAR season by 1947 or '48 at age 28 or 29. But even so, not even Ruth or Williams would have reached their seventh 8 WAR season by age 27.

Trout did. No one else has. 

Trout will eventually slow down. Yet he has established a baseline of about 9 WAR per season or even higher, so even if he slows by a half step he should have--at least--two or three more 8 WAR seasons, and maybe more. As of this writing (through April 21) he's at 1.6 WAR through his first 16 games--that's double the pace he needs to reach 8 WAR this year.

What this means is that Trout has a legitimate shot at having more truly great (8 WAR) seasons than any other position player in history. Or, at the least, he probably has better than even odds in joining the "ten or more club" with arguably the three greatest position players in baseball history: Ruth, Mays, and Bonds (I would add Williams as of similar caliber, but as mentioned, he lost almost five years to military service, reducing what would have made him one of only three 160+ WAR players, to "only" 130.4, which is still 8th all-time).

But Wait...What About 9 WAR Seasons?

I've written about this before but think that 8 WAR is a better benchmark, because differences beyond that point are more due to era and occasional extraordinary performance than sustained greatness. That said, Trout is still among the best of the best. Ruth has the most with 10, followed by Hornsby (9), Bonds (8), Mays (7); Wagner, Cobb, Gehrig and Williams (6 each); A-Rod and Trout are next with 5 each.

Meaning, he's one of only ten players in major league history with five or more 9 WAR seasons. If we go back to our active players, he has one more than everyone else combined (Betts, Posey, Pujols, and Harper with one each).

If Trout manages to have two more 9 WAR seasons, he'll be one of only five with seven or more. At that point, the only players with more would be Ruth and Hornsby--both of whom played in a very different era with only eight teams per league and more outlying statistics, and Bonds, half of whose 9 WAR seasons were clearly augmented (Bonds' greatness shouldn't be understated; consider that he accumulated 99.2 WAR through 1998 at age 33, before he "allegedly" started juicing, and even without steroids he likely would have gone down as one of the top 10 or so greatest ballplayers ever).

Conclusion

The numbers speak for themselves, and we all know Trout is great--not only the greatest player of his generation, but also one of the greatest in baseball history. Within the month of May he's going to enter the top 40 for career WAR, and has a chance at the top 30 by the end of the year.

What these statistics--the 8 WAR club--illustrate is what makes him one of the very best of all time: that he not only has reached extreme heights, but has done so with remarkable consistency. His level never drops, or when it does it is "all the way down" to the 8 to 8.5 WAR level, which is about the level of Hank Aaron's best seasons.

At still only 29 this year, he has a real chance of compiling the needed five more 8 WAR seasons to stand above everyone else, with more truly great seasons than anyone in baseball history.

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