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The Mike Trout Chronicles: Can the perennial All-Star stay healthy and make the necessary adjustments to produce at a high level for the Angels?


Chuck

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By Jonathan Northrop, AngelsWin.com Senior Writer

Introduction

In a recent post, I re-assessed Mike Trout's career trajectory via WAR and comparable players, pointing out that as things stand, his 85.1 fWAR ranks him 30th all-time, and he's likely going to end up somewhere in the latter half of the top 20, depending upon to what degree his career revives. Of especial note, his 71.4 through his age 27 season (2019) was the best in major league history; now, through his age 31 season (2023), his career fWAR of 85.1 ranks him 8th among his age cohort. So if you don't want to read that other post, the takeaway is that he's slipping down the all-time rankings, and while he was arguably the greatest player in baseball history through age 27, he's fallen to the back half of the top 10 because of his sub-par age 28-31 seasons. Or to put it more starkly:

Through Age 27: 71.4 fWAR (1st all-time)

Age 28-31: 13.8 fWAR (395th all-time)

Through Age 31: 85.1 fWAR (8th all-time)

I want to go a bit further with this and make an argument that Trout has a good chance of having a career bounce-back over the next few years. So this is a bit more positive than the last!

There are two facets of it: One, observations of Trout as a player and his penchant for adjusting over the last 13 seasons and two, which I'll focus on in a sequel post, an analysis of historical comps and how they fared in their 30s.

PART 1: Mike Trout - The Great Adjuster

It was often remarked of Trout earlier in his career that a major component of his greatness was his ability to adjust. Laypeople who follow baseball casually, and don't think much about deeper technical elements, tend to think that there is a direct, one-to-one relationship between a player's stats and their improvement. While there is obvious, logical truth to this, it discounts the dynamic nature of baseball: hitters and pitchers adjust to each other, and if a hitter maintains a certain level of performance over long periods of time, it likely means that he's actually improved in terms of refinement of skills due to the necessary adjustments that are made to maintain a statistical threshold. In other words, staying at the same level of time actually might mean continual improvement, even if only in small ways (aka, adjustments).

There is also normal fluctuation. A player hitting .302, .293, .287, and .312 over a four-year period isn't necessarily getting better or worse - it is just normal fluctuation; trends are key here. If the same player hits .312, .302, .293, and .287, it may imply some degree of decline (in terms of contact, at least). And of course some statistics, like batting average, are more subject to oscillation than others are (e.g. walk rate).

But in terms of the initial point, if a player averages a .300 BA over, say, a five-year span, it actually probably means he's improved his skills as a hitter.

When hitters first show up in the big leagues, they have to adjust to major league pitching. Imagine making the jump from AA to the majors. Whereas in AA, as a hitter you might face several guys within the entire league that have blazing, elite stuff, but most pitchers are still in the process of refining their skills, and some won't even ever have real major league careers; in the majors, you'll face dozens of pitchers with elite stuff, and the baseline level is, well, a major league pitcher. After a hitter becomes more comfortable and gets in a groove, pitchers get to know them and how to pitch to them, what is proverbially called "the book" on said player. Hitters adjust, and then pitchers try to find and exploit more weaknesses. So it is an ongoing back-and-forth of adjustments and counter adjustments. Now I would argue that it becomes less pronounced over time; that there's a big adjustment period early on--the hitter to major league pitching, then the pitchers to the maturing hitter, and any further back-and-forth diminishes in impact over time as after a few years in the big leagues, hitters stabilize at a certain "plateau" level.

Inevitably hitters age. Usually starting around the age of 30 or 31, and then increasing at age 33-34, the skills of hitters decline. It may show up in reduced bat speed, diminishing eyesight and hand-eye coordination, but more importantly, the aging body's inability to bounce back as quickly as it did in one's 20s. Anyone who is in their 30s or older knows this first-hand; from hangovers to hard physical work, to lack of sleep, etc, the older you get, the longer and harder recovery is. This can be somewhat counter-acted by more stringent health regimes, but eventually Father Time catches us all. This factor is probably far more important than skill decline, at least in the first half of a player's 30s. I can't remember where I saw it, but I read somewhere that hand-eye coordination doesn't really start declining until around 40. This is why you find the occasional hitter who is just as good in their late 30s as they were in their 20s: from Barry Bonds (ignoring other factors) to Hank Aaron to Ted Williams, and other players who had peak hitting seasons in the latter half of their 30s.

This is exemplified by Ted Williams who, in 1957 at the age of 38 had his career best wRC+ of 223 (!). But he was starting to slip in other ways - he played in 132 games, and it was between two relatively pedestrian (for him) 174 and 179 seasons, the latter of which was followed by an 111 season at age 40, by far his career worst. But Williams finished out his career with a 184 wRC+ in 1960 at age 41, which was very close to his career average of 187. Meaning, the skills were there to the end, but he fluctuated more, presumably due to age.

Mike Trout was always a great adjuster early on: pitchers would find a weakness and exploit it, and then for a month or so, Trout would struggle. But then he'd adjust, and he'd figure out how to hit what was being thrown at him. Like all great hitters, he receives fewer good pitches to hit than, say, a David Fletcher, which in turn illustrates how great hitters--when maintaining the same stats year to year--are actually improving. Trout in 2012 (167 wRC+) was receiving a lot more good pitches to hit then he was after, yet he actually continued to improve as a hitter, peaking in 2018 with a 188 wRC+.

What is also quite notable about Trout's career, even through 2022, was how he didn't vary that far from his career hitting line. Through 2023, his career wRC+ is 170; from 2012 to 2022--discounting the Covid-shortened shortened 2020 season and his mostly-lost-to-injury 2021 season--his seasonal wRC+ ranged from 167 to 188, a very tight band of 21 points. Even in 2020 he wasn't far out of that range, with a 160 wRC+.

That is an absurd degree of consistency. Among a sampling of great hitters, here are the ranges of their wRC+ in full seasons from age 20-30 (so again, discounting Trout's 2020-21 seasons):

Mike Trout: 167-188 

Hank Aaron: 103-178 (or after his rookie year, 144-178)

Willie Mays: 120-173

Ken Griffey Jr: 106-164 (after his rookie year, 132-164)

And so on. Or we can look at a few contemporary stars:

Mookie Betts: 107-185

Bryce Harper: 111-197

Aaron Judge: 141-209

This can be further illustrated in this chart, which depicts season WAR for Trout and his three contemporaries:

 

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(Column width is relative to plate appearances)

What is notable about Trout from the above are two things: One, his consistency, and the fact that unlike most players, great or not, he doesn't have any huge outlier seasons, either good or bad - at least through 2022. Meaning, he doesn't have an equivalent season to Aaron Judge's 2022 (209 wRC+ vs 165 for his career), which is the 15th highest wRC+ in major league history; or Betts 185 in 2018, or Harper's 193 in 2015 -- or really any of their down seasons.

Now to be honest, this year he did seem on pace to have, by far, the worst season of his career, with a 3.0 WAR and 134 wRC+ in 82 games. He was turning things around with the bat, so if he had stayed healthy and played 130+ games, chances are he would have come close to 7 WAR and surpassed 150 wRC+. But even then they would have been career lows for him.

Two, Trout entered the league in a Venusian manner: a fully formed superstar performing at a Hall of Fame level, almost from day one (that is, after his cup-o-coffee in 2011). Betts and Harper took several years to find an elite level. Judge, however, like Trout had a great rookie year, but was already 25 years old - the same age as Trout in 2017.

The big question is: Can Trout make the biggest adjustment of his career, that is to an aging and injury-prone body? An optimistic view would hold that just as the Dude abides, so too does Trout adjust. I worry less about this year's 134 wRC+--especially when you consider that he's just a year removed from 176, and also that his performance this year was greatly marred by a terrible slump which was bookended by periods of relatively vintage Trout--than I am his inability to stay healthy. In other words, if he stays healthy, I fully expect something at least close to vintage Trout. I believe that the days are gone when Trout regularly puts up 8-10 WAR seasons, but certainly he has to be better than what we've seen the last three, injury-ridden seasons, when he average 4.1 WAR and 79 games per year. Right?

It is also worth noting that some of Trout's myriad injuries going back to 2017 were rather flukey: book-ended by two flukey hand injuries, one in 2017 due to a bad slide and the other his hamate bone earlier this season. While we can try to feel optimistic about the flukey nature of these injuries and consider a similar injury in 2024 to be unlikely, it does seem to be that Trout--perhaps due to the big-muscled bulkiness of his body--is, like other similarly built players of the past, truly "injury prone." Meaning, even if we consider that such flukey injuries are exceptions and not the rule, we cannot discount the possibility that they're far more likely for a guy like Trout than they are for "differently-bodied" (smaller and lighter) players like Mookie Betts.

But we can hope, and even with the injury-prone label, there's no reason to think that Mike Trout doesn't at least have several more almost-full seasons (e.g. 120-140 games) left in him. If I were to hazard I guess, we could see game totals over the next seven years like so: 130, 135, 107, 128, 111, 104, 58. Or something like that. Am I being optimistic? Pessimistic? Only time will tell.

PART 2: Among the Greats

For this next part, I'll take a deep-dive into historical comps to try to get a sense of what we might expect for the remainder of Trout's career. For such an approach, at least two problems exist: One, for a player as great as Trout, there are few close historical comps, so in order to get adequate data we have to spread the net a bit wide. Two, Trout is a unique individual -- including his personality, skill-set, and his physique; while we can find an array of somewhat similar players in terms of statistical profiles, they're ultimately all different human beings, playing under different circumstances which can't really be accounted for statistically. A third factor that should be considered is context: The game of 2023 is quite different from 1983, let along 1943 or 1903.

The point being, looking at historical comps only gets us so far. But it at least provides something to work with, to get a sense of how somewhat similar players--whether in terms of greatness or player profile--fared in their 30s (or for the remainder of Trout's contract, age 32-38).

8 WAR Seasons

To start I took a relatively broad approach, looking at ever player with at least two 8 fWAR seasons. Why 8 fWAR? Well, it is a level of performance which makes it likely that a player is the best in their league in a given year. Not every great player has reached 8 WAR in a season; take for instance the great Johnny Mize, who finished his career with 68.1 WAR, 15th highest among first basemen, despite only playing in 1884 games, as he missed three prime years (age 30-32) to World War 2 service, probably losing 15-20 WAR in the process. His best year was 7.7 WAR. Or similarly, Frank Thomas who finished his career with 72.1 WAR (11th among first basemen) and 154 wRC+ (30th all-time), but peaked out at 7.2 WAR, mostly due to being a (poor defending) first baseman. Even the great Hank Aaron "only" had four 8 WAR seasons; his greatness was largely defined by incredible consistency at an MVP level over a long period of time: For 14 straight seasons, from 1955-69, he produced at least 5.9 WAR, and only the first of those was below 6.8. Furthermore, over the course of his illustrious 23-year career, he had 11 seasons of 7 WAR or better, 15 of 6 or better, and 17 of 5 or better.

As a general rule, an average regular has a WAR roughly in the 2.0 to 3.5 range; a borderline star is roughly 3.5 to 5.0 WAR, an all-star 5.0 to 6.0, and a superstart 6.0 and above. 7.0 and above is an MVP candidate--arguably the best player in their league--and 8 WAR is arguably the best player in the game. Once you get to 9.0 WAR and above, you're getting into once a year, historical seasons. 10 WAR seasons only happen every few years and are historically great - close to or within the top 50 best seasons of all time.

To illustrate this, from 1871 to 2023--153 years of baseball statistics--here is how many position players have reached various marks:

10+ WAR: 55 seasons (a bit more than 1 ever three years)

9+ WAR: 139 seasons (a bit less than 1 per year)

8+ WAR: 281 seasons (a bit less than 2 per year)

7+ WAR: 618 seasons (about 4 per year)

6+ WAR: 1237 seasons (about 8 per year)

5+ WAR: 2371 seasons (a bit less than 16 per year)

As you can see, from 10 WAR down, there are about twice as many players in each threshold.

The above totals are taken from 19,473 player seasons of at least 400 PA (so about 80% of a qualifying season). It includes a wide range of play styles and contexts. However, if we narrow it down to the expansion era, or 1961-2023, you get very similar rates, except for 7 and 5 WAR, where it becomes more like 5 per year for 7 WAR and 22 per year for 5 WAR; I take this to be due to the larger number of players. But the high end of the scale remains the same, with the caveat that during the expansion era, there were fewer very high outliers (that is, 11+ WAR seasons).

Anyhow, the point being that there are, on average, about two 8 WAR position player seasons a year, which essentially equates to the two MVPs. In the Trout era, from 2012-23, here are the number of 8 WAR seasons per year, with bold face meaning Trout is one of them: 2, 3, 2, 3, 2, 1, 4, 2, NA, 0, 1, 2 (The NA is for 2020 when the season was only 60 games).

So that's 22 seasons of 8 WAR or higher in the last 11 full seasons (2 per year), or a bit above the historical average (1.84). Oh, and Trout has 7 of them; Betts 3; Judge and Bregman 2 each; and Cabrera, McCutchen, Donaldson, Posey, Lucroy, Ramirez, Harper, and Acuna 1 each.

So I picked 8 WAR as a threshold because of its historical relevance as roughly synonymous with being the best player in the league, and considered two 8 WAR seasons rather than just one because it cuts out "one year wonders" like Darin Erstad, whose 8.7 WAR in 2000 was his only season above even 4 WAR.

Those 281 position player seasons of 8+ WAR were accomplished by 124 players. Of those 124 players, 47 of them had multiple 8 WAR seasons. Of those 47, four are active: Trout, Mookie Betts, Alex Bregman, and Aaron Judge. Presumably new 8 WAR club member Ronald Acuna has a good chance of joining them, with Bryce Harper and Jose Ramirez also having single 8 WAR seasons, though both less likely to have a second.

Here's where Trout's greatness really starts to stand out: Not only is he one of only 47 position players with multiple 8 WAR seasons, he's got seven, something accomplished only by nine players: Willie Mays and Babe Ruth with 11 each, Barry Bonds with 10, Rogers Hornsby and Lou Gehrig with 9 each, Honus Wagner and Ted Williams with 8 each, and Eddie Collins and Mike Trout with 7 each. 

You'll note that of those nine players, Trout and Bonds are the only players to play since 1973 when Willie Mays retired. Before Mays, it was Williams in 1960 and the five others retired in the 1920s or 30s. So Mays, Bonds, and Trout are the only such players to play a significant portion (or all) of their careers in the expansion era.

Among players with 6 such seasons, you have Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Jimmie Foxx, Stan Musial, and Alex Rodriguez -- again, mostly old-timers; 5 seasons and you add Mickey Mantle and Joe Morgan. 4 adds Nap Lajoie, Hank Aaron, Mike Schmidt, Wade Boggs and Albert Pujols, and 3 adds nine more players, including Betts.

So we get a nice array of inner circle Hall of Famers, but most of whom played before the expansion era. Morgan is the only player with 5 or more 8 WAR seasons that doesn't have at least 100 career fWAR, and he's just shy at 98.8. Of the players with 7 or more, aside from Trout the lowest career fWAR total is Lou Gehrig with 115.9 -- a player whose career was shortened due to a debilitating illness. The other six all have over 120 WAR.

The Chart

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What you see above is a chart of all 47 players with at least two 8 WAR seasons, sorted first by number of 8 WAR seasons (third column) and secondly by career WAR (last column).

A few observations to make.

  • Notice where chart is on the chart, and among whom. The eight players above him and the five below him all have 100+ WAR. Of those thirteen players, all but one has 110 WAR, and all but four (9 of 13) have 120 WAR.
  • The first player without a 7 WAR season in his 30s is 11 spots lower than Trout - Mr. Albert Pujols.
  • 6 of the 47 players debuted in the 21st century. Trout (2011) is 9th on the list, then Pujols at 20th, then Betts at 30th, Chase Utley at 38th, Judge at 44th, and Bregman at 45th.
  • Of the seven previous players in the "7-8s Club," all had at least one 7 WAR (MVP caliber) season in their 30s, and only Collins didn't have at least three 7 WAR seasons. In other words, 6 of the 7 players with the same number of 8 WAR seasons as Trout had at least three 7 WAR seasons (or MVP caliber) in their 30s.

None of this automatically means that Trout is due for multiple 7 WAR seasons going forward or 120+ WAR, but it does show us the type of company he's in, and implies that he has a good chance of at least one more MVP caliber season. If he doesn't, he'll be the first player in the "7-8s Club" to not have at least one 7 WAR season in his 30s.

All of the players with six 8 WAR seasons had at least one 7 WAR season in their 30s; but among the five 8 WAR players, both Mantle and Pujols didn't reach 7 WAR in their 30s.

If we expand the pool to the 20 players (not including Trout) with at least four 8 WAR seasons, it is just those two--Mantle and Pujols--who never had a 7 WAR season in their 30s; meaning, 18 of 20, or 90%, had at least one MVP caliber season in their 30s, and 15 of those, or 75%, had multiple such seasons.

Can Trout have another 7+ WAR season?

Given the last few years of sub-par performance, It isn't hard to imagine Trout setting a new precedent, as the best player in baseball history not to have an MVP caliber (as defined as 7 WAR) season in his 30s. Right now that honor belongs to Mickey Mantle, with Albert Pujols and Mel Ott also in the mix. Others in the multi-8 WAR club include Ken Griffey Jr, Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, George Sisler, Duke Snider, Arky Vaughan, John Olerud, Snuffy Stirnweiss, and Benny Kauff. Alex Bregman turns 30 next year, so the jury is still out. But all of those guys--after Mantle, Pujols, and Ott--were significantly lesser players than Trout.

One factor working against Trout from having a 7 WAR season (or two) in his 30s is that he just turned 32, meaning every season going forward will be at age 32 or older. But even so, of the 20 players with four or more 8 WAR seasons, and whittled down to 15 players who had at least one 7 WAR season in their 30s, only Boggs, Foxx, and A-Rod had their last 7 WAR season at age 30 or 31; meaning, the other 12 still had 7 WAR seasons at age 32 or older. Still a majority, in other words. And 10 of them--or half--had 7 WAR seasons at age 34 or older, and all but Collins and Hornsby among the 7-8s Club.

Alright, if you made it through that, what does it all mean? Can we conclude anything from looking at players with similar accomplishments, as defined by multiple 8 WAR seasons?

Yes and no. The vast majority of players with five or more 8 WAR seasons still produced MVP caliber seasons in their 30s. Again, of the players with the same number as Trout--seven or more--so far he's the only one who didn't produce at least one 7 WAR season in his 30s. But he's got a lot of time left. We can hope that he'll follow his historical comps and have at least one such season.

2023 Examined: What does Statcast tell us?

In the past two installments, we focused first on Trout as a player (Part 1) and then on historically comparable players (Part 2). In this final installment, we'll take a deeper dive in Trout's 2023 season, to see if the statistics--in particular, Statcast.

2023 was a rough year for Trout, both on the field and in the statistical record. We can see this by splitting his season into three unequal parts:

First 28 games (through April 29): .320/.408/.612, 176 wRC+

Next 41 games (April 30 - June 16): .199/.318/.351, 85 wRC+

Last 14 games before injury (June 17 - July 3): .340/.441/.680, 203 wRC+

As you can see, about half of his games played--or the first month and the last two weeks (ignoring his one game back)--were pretty standard Trout, though with small differences: higher batting average and slightly lower walk rate. But he was basically as good as ever.

But in-between is what is probably the worst 40ish game span of his career, especially the last 18 games (May 28 to June 16) in which he hit .141/.309/.234 with a 58 wRC+ in 81 PA.

A first, cursory look at his Statcast data doesn't yield any red flags. His Barrel rate, Exit Velocity, Launch Angle, and Sweet Spot % are all within the natural fluctuation of the nine years of data (Statcast only goes back to 2015). His Barrel rate (16.0) is a tad on the low range and below his average (16.4), but higher than 2016-17; his Exit Velocity (91.9) is above his average (91.4), and his Launch Angle (19.3) is a bit higher than his average (18.4) but lower than three other seasons; finally, his Sweet Spot % (38.3) is a little below his average (39.0) but higher than four other seasons. In other words, he's hitting the ball about as hard as ever.

The same is true when we look at his Batted Ball profile: just about everything is within normal ranges. There are a few minor exceptions: The number of balls he hit to center was a career low (30.1%), well below his average (35.8%). Also, his solid hit % (5.8) was his lowest since 2017 and at the MLB average, below his own (6.7).

The pitch he struggled with the most by Run Value was the sinker at -3 RV; everything else was average or better. He's never had an issue with sinkers, at least in the data range going back to 2017, and it was his only RV below -1 for his career.

But here's where the flags start showing up: His Zone Swing % was the highest during the data span going back to 2015 at 69.8%, significantly above his previous high in 2022 at 64.8%, both of which were well above his average of 59.2%. At the same time, his Zone Contact % over the last two years--75.8 and 75.9, respectively--are his lowest and far below his average of 82.0.

And here's another interesting bit: Remember when we all used to complain about him always taking the first pitch? Well, his last three seasons (2021-23) have been a jump from previous years, and the highest going back to 2015 (the full data range). 2021 was the highest but in only 36 games; otherwise 2023 is the highest. And his overall Swing% is the highest of his career at 44.4, compared to a career rate of 38.8.

To summarize, Trout is swinging more, especially in the zone, swinging at more first pitches, and making worse contact. This likely means one (or both) of two things: diminished hand-eye coordination (or eyesight) and pitch recognition and/or that he's pressing and gotten into bad habits.

Is that fixable? Only time will tell. His last two weeks before injury are encouraging, because it seemed like he had made the necessary adjustments and was seeing the ball better. Chances are he'll be able to carry this forward, or at least adjust again as necessary, but whether back to the super elite 170 wRC+ level of most of his career or something in-between remains to be seen.

We also see a trend in his plate discipline: His 12.4 BB% is the fourth lowest of his career after 2012, '14, and '22, but at least it went up from last year, and it was rising over the course of the season. His K% (28.7) was the highest of his career, but that is partially due to league-wide increasing strikeouts.

As mentioned, Trout has been unusually consistent over the course of his career, with full-season wRC+ rates in a rather tight range: 167 to 188. In 2023 he plummeted to 134. It would be very surprising if 134 is the new norm. Chances are he bounces back to at least the 150ish level, and maybe higher. 

So if I were to guess, I'd say that Trout's bat will improve significantly, at least for the next several years. There's no reason to think that he cannot at least bounce back to the 150+ level, and may even have a season or two back around his career average of 170.

The big question is whether he can stay healthy. The most similar player to Trout in baseball history is Mickey Mantle who, even as his WAR plummeted after his last great season in 1961 at age 29, his wRC+ remained above his career average for three more partial seasons (age 30-32), and he only dipped below 140 for one season. But again, given the nature of some of his injuries--basically freak accidents--it seems quite possible that at least some of the next seven or more seasons will be less injury-ridden.

The 100 WAR Question

Before concluding, I want to add one more piece to the puzzle. The question has come up on the forum as to whether we've seen the end of players reaching 100 WAR. I noted that we don't see as many huge outlier seasons. For instance, while there are more 7-8 seasons overall, we are seeing less 10 and especially 11+ WAR seasons, with Aaron Judge's being the first since Barry Bonds did it three times in the early 2000s, and then before Bonds you have to go back to Joe Morgan in 1975 (11.0 WAR).

To put that another way, of the 26 hitter seasons of 11+ WAR, ten of them (38.5%) were in the 1920s alone and only four in the last 48 years (1976-2023). Or compare the number of players at various levels above 7 WAR by decade:

image.png

It is important to understand that this is not a static player pool -- thus note the "Player Seasons" row. From the 1900s to the 1950s there were from 1002 to 1114 hitters per decade with 400 PA; as expansion happened starting in 1961, this grew substantially, from 1331 in the 1960s to 1731 in the 70s and up from there, maxing out in the 2000s with 2182 player seasons of 400 PA or higher. Meaning, three 10+ WAR seasons in the 90s isn't the same thing as three in the 1950s when there were about half as many teams and players.

The next chart illustrates this, with WAR ranges as percentage of 400 PA seasons:

image.png

 

Perhaps what stands out most in both charts, but especially the second one, is how many big (10+ WAR) seasons there were in the 1920s. In fact, of the nine 12 WAR hitter seasons in baseball history, seven of them were in the 20s: Five by Babe Ruth and one each by Rogers Hornsby and Lou Gehrig. The two in the 2000s were, of course, Barry Bonds.

So it is worth noting that every 12 WAR season was done either in the 1920s when Ruth and, to a lesser but still significant extent, Rogers Hornsby were so much better than everyone else with the bat--or by Barry Bonds who, well, you know. Ruth revolutionized hitting in a way not seen before or since, and Hornsby was presumably the first to be able to come close to emulating it. By the 1930s, big bats flourished, with fewer high outliers. But even Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays weren't able to reach 12 WAR (Though Williams and Mantle both had multiple 11 WAR seasons).

Another, and perhaps more relevant, takeaway from the chart above is that there have been fewer 10 WAR seasons in the last 50-60 years, not just numerically but as a percentage of all hitters. The 1920s are a historical outlier; the 1930s-60s saw a significant number, but it dropped during the comparatively low offense of the 70s and 80s, before rising a bit in the 90s and after. But more importantly, we see this contraction occurring with 9 and 8 WAR seasons, and slightly with 7 WAR seasons. Meaning, WAR is being contracted.

So to return to this question, while I think we will see 100 WAR players--Trout is a virtual lock, and Mookie Betts has an outside chance, and who knows about Acuna and other young guys--we probably are done with 120 WAR players, at least unless the game radically changes (again). In fact, other than Bonds (164.4) we haven't seen a 120 WAR player since Mays (149.8) retired in 1973 and Aaron (136.3) retired in 1976. Alex Rodriguez (113.7) fell just short, and Mike Schmidt (106.5) and Rickey Henderson (106.3) are the only other hitters to surpass the 100 WAR threshold in the last five decades.

With his astonishing 11.6 WAR season last year, Aaron Judge proved that we still will see the occasional 11 WAR season; and within the last dozen seasons, Trout (twice), Betts, and Buster Posey have reached 10 WAR. But these high 10 to 11+ WAR seasons are more rare than they once were, and will likely continue to be more rare.

 

Conclusion: Summing Up the Series

OK, let's wrap things up. After about 6,000 words, where does that leave us? Let's summarize some key points: 

  • Trout's career has been characterized by unusual consistency, with every full season from 2012-22 within the 167 to 188 wRC+ range.
  • 2023 was a huge aberration from that, with a 134 wRC+.
  • According to JAWS, Trout is the 5th best center fielder and 25th best position player all-time, and has a good chance of reaching 4th and the top 15 (possibly top 10), depending upon how the rest of his career goes.
  • The vast majority of somewhat similar players, in terms of career accomplishments, had at least one MVP caliber season (7+ WAR) in their 30s.
  • In 2023, he was his normal self for about half of his playing time (the first month and last two weeks) but terrible for about 40 games in-between.
  • An analysis of Statcast tells us that the main outlier in 2023 was a penchant to swing more often, especially on the first pitch, and making worse contact.
  • WAR totals have contracted since the 1920s, with very high (10 and especially 11 WAR and above) seasons more rare than before, leading to career WAR totals also contracting.

What does all this mean? And to the point: What does it mean for Mike Trout in 2024 and beyond?

To go back to a point from the intro of part one, every player is unique - and there is no way to know the future with any degree of certainty. All we can do is try to understand the individual player as much as possible, look at historical trends and deeper statistics, which is what I tried to do in the three parts of this series.

All that is left is to make an informed guess, season it with intuition and, hopefully, reduce bias as much as I can (which is hard with Trout).

So my guess is this: In 2024, Trout will bounce back, having his best year since 2019. He'll never quite be as good as he was in his prime (2012-19), but his bat will be close. Over the next three or four years, he'll have one or two MVP caliber seasons of 7 WAR or better (or very close to it), but probably not 8 WAR or above. But he'll continue to struggle with the injury bug to some extent, and probably never play 140 games again, though have several seasons above 120 games.

He'll be an MVP caliber player--when healthy--through 2026 or 27 (age 34-35), surpassing the 100 WAR mark sometime in 2026, then drop to merely good to very good, before playing one final hurrah season post-contract in 2031 at age 39, turning 40 near the end of his final season. With injuries and a bit of ups and downs, he'll accumulate 30-35 more WAR and finish his career with 115-120 WAR, to go along with 550+ HR and a career wRC+ in the 160-165 range. He'll widely be considered an easy pick as one of the top 20 players of all time, and arguably top 10.

Or to put it another way, Trout isn't done. We may never see "Trout WAR Day" again, but we'll see him among the five or ten best players in the sport, at least for several years. And who knows, maybe the stars align and he has one (or two?!) more MVP runs left in him. We can dream....

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