Nowhere to Go But Down

To the surprise of exactly no one, Mike Trout is the American League Rookie of the Year. Mike Trout is about to finish no worse than second in the American League MVP race, depending on the whim of a voting pool that doesn’t like stats EXCEPT for these stats. Mike Trout is already the most compelling baseball player in the game: an electric presence, the reason MLB.tv has at bat pop-up alerts.

There isn’t another player in baseball who makes fans stand up and take notice when he is at the plate or a ball is hit anywhere near him in the outfield. His season is already legendary, posting 10 WAR on both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs while posting just the fifth big league season of 30 home runs and at least 45 steals.

He is just 21-years old. The sky is the limit for his career. Except, well, he’s already there. We might have already seen the best Mike Trout has to offer – an unparalleled season he cannot possibly duplicate.

Dave Cameron of Fangraphs runs down some of the niggling numbers that suggest, to Dave, that Bryce Harper might just be the better player going forward. Harper’s power can only improve while many scouts and evaluators consider the 30 home runs clouted by Trout in 2012 the best-case scenario for any single season of his career, based on his swing and body type.

As entirely possible as these skill-based metrics make that potential reality seem, my brain refuses to accept there could ever be a better player than 2012 vintage Mike Trout. But the reality remains: the odds Mike Trout ever bests or matches his 2012 campaign is incredibly slim.

Cameron frames most of his piece around WAR – due to a few statistical blips in the system, Trout is unlikely to ever amass such a gaudy number. The base running metrics and fielding metrics both rated him so highly that regression is inevitable.

The high BABIP rate Trout managed, while not impossible for a player who might be the fastest in the bigs, is still one of the highest ever recorded and sure to come back down to Earth. The precious extra hits Trout earned in 2012 boosted his average and on base percentage beyond what, in a more “normal” year, his skills might sustain on their own.

The perfect storm that enveloped Trout and his WAR in 2012 might never be repeated: a move to a corner outfield position on a full time basis as the Angels attempt to establish some value/get the most out of Peter Bourjos’ particular skills will hamper Trout’s ability to leave “replacement level” in the dust.

More than anything, the pitchers of the American League will figure Mike Trout out. They’ll attempt to do so, at least. If one was to search, desperately, for a flaw in Trout’s game, the above-average tendency to strikeout might just be the crack in the fa├žade. Trout also displayed incredible patience, swinging at fewer marginal pitches than league average. If Trout widens his zone or otherwise strays from what makes him great…well everybody slumps at one time or another.

WAR is a great all-in-one metric and a fine tool for evaluating players across eras or positions. When drafting contracts or evaluating trades, the Angels might have a use for something similar to WAR. On the field, however, the Angels don’t care is Trout posts 10 WAR or 8 or 15 – so long as his talents help them win games, they’re happy. And win games they will as Mike Trout is very, very talented.

A recent edition of the Productive Outs podcast featured Trout’s teammate Mark Trumbo in an extended chat. A worthy listen as Trumbo is an all-time great dude, it also features some incredible insight on what makes Trout special.

Trumbo explains his process when facing a pitcher of Justin Verlander’s considerable skill. Because Verlander humps his fastball into the upper 90s but still throws his off-speed stuff for strikes in the low 80s. Trumbo admits that, he as a mortal human, tends to sit on Verlander’s slider as it still allows him to adjust to the change and curve if he IDs them in time. Sitting dead red against Verlander’s smoke leaves him prone and unable to get anywhere near any of Verlander’s soft stuff.

After explaining this, Trumbo adds that Mike Trout doesn’t need to do this. Mike Trout can sit on a pitcher’s best heat and, in the face of breaking balls, simply adjust. Trout’s short swing, incredible eye, and alien musculature gives him an edge that few in baseball possess: the ability to stay back for an extra beat and wait.

Take this home run against the Dodgers Chris Capuano, for example. The pitch registers 75 miles an hour. Trout is able to plant his left foot, wait a beat, then crank the ball deep into the seats in left field.

The skills and abilities of Mike Trout are not in question. The inevitable drop-off of his final numbers are not indictments of his future work ethic, nor is the crushing weight of regression a shining example of the sophomore slump or his future ability to make his teammates better or his future ability to perform on the big stage, though each of those tired tropes will see the light of day should he fail to remain a shining beacon of baseballing light for the duration of his career.

Some years, the home runs will fall off and the strikeouts will climb. Maybe the walks slip and the random nature of defensive chances doesn’t present example after example of Trout’s range and preternatural ball-hawking abilities. The “hit” to Trout’s WAR won’t make him a worse or less valuable player, they’ll make him just like everyone else. Players don’t age and improve in a linear fashion, especially when they already occupy the 99th percentile of talent and production.

We cannot blame Mike Trout for having a magical first season when, for the rest of his career, plain old skill will have to suffice without the benefit of divine intervention. Mike Trout has the ability to be one of the game’s best players – he probably already is.

The insane of heights of 2012 rank as one of baseball’s greatest seasons. It just so happened to be Mike Trout’s first. His skills, patience, make up, and body should deliver him the kind of career anyone to ever watch him play expects – the kind of career that doesn’t even come around once a generation. Baseball fans are the real winners here.

Hopefully Angels’ fans (and baseball fans as a whole) remain realistic about Trout’s ability to improve as he ages. There will be improvement but, again, everyone is allowed a career year. Do not hold it against Mike Trout that his is most likely now in the past.