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Trout, Betts, and playing for a contender


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I just had a conversation with my father that I thought some would find interesting. My dad is 77 and far more traditional in his fandom. I've tried explaining WAR to him, but for him "advanced statistics" are On-base Percentage. At least he knows who Bill James is. He casually follows the Red Sox, but not as much out of fandom as geography - he lives in New Hampshire. Rather, he's more of an anti-Yankees fan than anything alse. Anyhow, he's enough of a Red Sox fan that I jabbed at him a bit, mentioning how Mookie Betts had come back down to earth this year, while Mike Trout was still being Mike Trout (he had complained when Trout won MVP in 2016 over Betts, and thought Betts was the clear MVP last year...which I agreed with, but only by a hair). 

He agrees that Trout is the better player, but he compared him to Ralph Kiner, who was one of the best players in baseball during the late 40s and early 50s while playing for a very bad Pittsburgh Pirates team. He seemed to think that this diminished Trout's play because he wasn't playing for a contender. But here's the point I made, that I think stumped him a bit to the point of convincing. While the Angels aren't the Yankees, Red Sox or Astros, they also aren't the Orioles. Right now, in mid-June, and presumably for the next month or more, the Angels are playing for a wildcard berth - they have a legitimate chance of getting it, even if there are several teams that are more likely to do so. 

Now imagine you're a member of the Baltimore Orioles. Your team sucks and will continue to suck for years to come. Chances are that by the time they get around to being good again, you'll be long gone. What are you playing for? Well, your substantial salary, the perks of being a major league baseball player, the fun of the game, and I suppose the off chance that you are traded to or signed by a contender. In other words, your baseball life is more mercenary and hedonistic, less purpose-driven.

The Angels are playing just as hard, if not harder, than the really good teams to try to make the playoffs. Mike Trout's performance is every bit as important, as clutch, as Xander Bogaerts or Mike Judge - arguably more so, because unlike Bogaerts or Judge, if Trout gets injured or has a bad year, the Angels chances diminish greatly. As good as Judge and Bogaerts are, the Yankees and Red Sox could absorb their loss and still remain destined for the postseason.

Now if Trout played on the Orioles it would be a different matter - his performance would be less important, more about the factors that are important to Orioles players. But the Angels aren't the Orioles, and haven't been the Orioles for his entire career - even if they haven't been all that good. The worst season by the Angels during his tenure was 2016 when they went 74-88, but other than that they've been within a few games of .500 and at least close to contention into the dog days every year.

I think you could even argue that there is no player in baseball whose performance matters to his team's chances of contention more than Mike Trout. In other words, if there was a statistic for "plate appearance leverage" - the impact a given PA has on a team's chances of contention - I wouldn't be surprised if Trout was substantially higher than every other player in baseball.

I didn't say all of that to my father, but enough so he didn't have a good reply. And just thinking about it made me appreciate Trout afresh.

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