In the first round of the 2009 MLB Draft, the St. Louis Cardinals selected Texas high school pitcher Shelby Miller with the 19th overall pick. By most standards, Miller was a very good pick–he’s already the seventh-best #19 pick in history (if this sounds like a familiar topic, it is) and he has a very reasonable chance of making it to sixth–after battling injuries in recent years, he’s expected to start for the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday. Shelby Miller became a top prospect for the Cardinals, he was a Rookie of the Year finalist in 2013, and following the 2014 season, he was the centerpiece of a trade for Jason Heyward, whose 2015 performance was probably the difference between a 100-win division winner and a third place team.
And yet, because Shelby Miller was drafted six spots before Mike Trout, despite the fact that only three players drafted before Miller (Stephen Strasburg, Mike Leake, A.J. Pollock) have had more productive MLB careers by Wins Above Replacement, Shelby Miller might be the worst draft pick in recent St. Louis Cardinals history. Shelby Miller is good–Mike Trout is Mike Trout.
Mike Trout made his MLB debut in 2012 and was immediately the best player in baseball, Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown-fueled American League MVP award aside. At one point in August, the Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim, at the time) center fielder was the MLB leader in Runs Above Average at the plate, in the field, and on the bases. This didn’t quite hold, though he was the best player in baseball still by Wins Above Replacement (Trout, as easily the best player of the “people pay attention to Wins Above Replacement” era, is almost certainly the player most synonymous with his marks), which he was for four of his first five seasons. But 2012 Trout ranked first in Offensive Runs Above Average (even eclipsing Cabrera), first in Base Running Runs Above Average, and ranked third among MLB outfielders in Ultimate Zone Rating.
There isn’t really a baseball analogue to Mike Trout. The greatest player of all-time, Babe Ruth, was the rare combination of great pitcher and even greater hitter (to such a degree that the pitching became a footnote in his career), but he was a competent-at-best fielder or base runner. Barry Bonds, at his peak, was one of the all-time great defensive left fielders in his prime, but by the time he reached his offensive peak in the early 21st century, his defense look his age, even if his offense did not. Only Willie Mays really works as a historic parallel. Willie Mays was really good.
For the next five seasons, Mike Trout remained the best player in baseball. Even in 2015, when Bryce Harper eclipsed him on the WAR leaderboard (at least by Baseball Reference’s measure–FanGraphs has them tied), and Josh Donaldson edged him out for AL MVP, there was no question among the public at large that Trout was still the class of professional baseball. In 2017, when Mike Trout missed a considerable chunk of the season with an injury, he remained the gold standard. He was worth 6.9 FanGraphs WAR in 114 games.
This season, Mike Trout has been worth 6.3 FanGraphs WAR. In 75 games. He is on pace for a 13.6 fWAR season. This would give him the third-highest fWAR season in history. The top two came from Babe Ruth.
Two things have happened which are allowing Mike Trout to have what has been the best season of his career. First, Trout is back to 2012 form in the sense of being a well-rounded player. Mike Trout has been great since 2013, but he was primarily an offensive weapon–his UZR in center field was slightly below-average and while he stole 49 bases in his rookie season, Trout never quite reached those heights again, largely of his own volition (he remained a very efficient base thief; he just tried less often). But Trout is having his best defensive season since 2012–this can usually be attributed to sample size luck, but Trout had expressed a very specific desire to improve his defense before the season. He is still young and thus hadn’t lost material foot speed so it always made sense he could still be a good fielder; in 2018, it came together. Also, he has 13 steals while only being caught once.
The second thing Trout is doing is being the best hitter in baseball by a lot. His wRC+ of 211 is not only the best mark in baseball, but it would be the best mark by a qualified hitter since 2004 Barry Bonds. That the best hitter in baseball plays a premium defensive position and plays it well and also is a good base runner is staggering.
There is no Cardinals analogue for Mike Trout because there are very few, if any, analogues for Mike Trout in baseball history. Here is a comprehensive list of MLB players with at least one season with a wRC+ of at least 211 in their careers: Ruth (five times), Bonds (four times), Williams (three times), Mantle, and Hornsby. This is such an iconic list of players that first names aren’t necessary, even for the guy named “Williams”. Rogers Hornsby is the Cardinal season with a higher wRC+, sure, but he did it with far less power (Trout could easily pass Hornsby’s 1924 home run total of 25 by the end of the weekend) and far more contact hitting (no disrespect to Trout, but Hornsby’s .424 batting average seems pretty untouchable). The end result might be in the same neighborhood, but the differences in path are stark.
The closest point of comparison to Mike Trout in recent Cardinals history is unsurprisingly his current teammate Albert Pujols. The 2003 version of Pujols had power (43 home runs) and an impressive walk-to-strikeout ratio: while Pujols didn’t walk as much as Trout does, he also struck out quite a bit less. It’s not a perfect analogue, but if you’ve watched Cardinals baseball post-Musial, no player has been more similar to current Mike Trout at the plate while being in the same stratosphere in terms of quality.
On the bases, there are plenty of 1980s Cardinals who stole more bases, but in terms of base running efficiency combined with a high but not astonishing number of stolen bases, 2015 Jason Heyward is a strong comparison. Heyward stole 23 bases (Trout is on pace for slightly more) and was caught just three times. He wasn’t Vince Coleman–he was merely a fast player who subscribed to some sort of Hippocratic oath for runners.
Defensively, there’s something tricky at play in terms of styles, as the most prominent defensive center fielder of the 21st century for the Cardinals, Jim Edmonds, was not particularly fast. I mean, he was fast enough, but raw athleticism wasn’t really his game (the same could be said for Jon Jay, whose center field defensive numbers were comparable to Trout’s 2013-2017 metrics). So let’s go with mid-1980s Willie McGee, whose 1984-1986 defensive run worked out to around what Trout’s defense has been in 2018. McGee won two Gold Gloves in that time, while Trout is still gunning for his first.
As great as Albert Pujols was, he was never close to as valuable as Mike Trout is now–he was the best defensive first baseman of his generation, sure, but the difference between a great and a merely passable first baseman is small enough that it is impossible to have a tangible effect on the team’s overall performance in the field anywhere close to what a good center fielder can do. And while Jim Edmonds was a great center fielder, his wRC+ peaked at 168. To be clear, a 168 wRC+ is amazing. It just isn’t Mike Trout.
It’s inconceivable to imagine what Angels fans are watching every day–sure, I follow baseball in general, but every single day, they’re experiencing Gold Glove defense in center field, elite base running, and better offense than even the best of Albert Pujols. This post barely has anything to do with the Cardinals–I realize this–but we need to appreciate that perhaps the greatest player in baseball history is playing right now, and he is probably reaching the peak of his powers. And if he isn’t, I’m quite terrified.