MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Los Angeles Angels

If talk is cheap, Spring Training workout talk is “wheelbarrow full of devalued currency” worthless. Everybody is in the best shape of their life, everybody is primed for a big season, everybody is ready to leave last year in the past.

When it’s Mike Trout who starts making noise about improving over 2013 and being in the best shape of his life, people tend to notice. In a pre-camp State of the Franchise address with Angels media, Trout expressed a desire to bring his stolen base totals up after swiping a mere 33 bags in 2013.

Stolen bases aside, the question of Mike Trout’s future performance is a very interesting one. Specifically: how much better can he get? And on the flip side of that question, what would it look like if he got worse?

Trout set the bar impossibly high over his first two seasons. His slash line over the last two campaigns stands at .324/.416/.560, which is most certainly not a typo. He famously posted consecutive 10 WAR seasons, which is so improbable my wee brain cannot process it in real time.

Ten win seasons are few and far between, making two such seasons from a 20-year old ballplayer just that much harder to fathom. Even without measures like Wins Above Replacement, there is little doubt in the minds of baseball fans that Mike Trout is the best player in the game.

But we can’t really expect another 10 WAR season, can we? That’s just not even fair. After his incredible rookie year, I wrote a piece entitled “Nowhere to Go But Down” about the difficulty Trout would have repeating his 2012 success. Then he proved me, and everybody else, wrong.

So all bets are officially off. Conservative estimates don’t live here any more. Earlier this week, I floated a question on Twitter. Which would surprise you more: another 10 WAR season from Mike Trout or a 4 WAR year?

The respondents were nearly unanimous in their belief that a four-win season from Mike Trout would surprise them more than another 10 WAR year. Which is understandable and bananatown crazypants all at the same time.

We know what a great Mike Trout season looks like, he already authored two of the them. What might a disappointing Trout season look like? Or, even more improbably, what would an even better Mike Trout season look like?

Consider for a second, two projections for Trout’s 2014. In both systems, Steamer and PECOTA, Trout projects to be the best player in baseball. His history plus his age makes him catnip for these systems. PECOTA projects Trout to hit .304/.392/.512 while Steamer (recently ranked as the most accurate projection system) forecasts .308/.403/.533 for the Angels center fielder.

These projections are created by input all manner of pertinent information and then runs countless simulations of the 2014. The numbers we see are the 50th percentile results of these simulations. Meaning in 50% of the simulations run, each player performed worse than the numbers we see and vice versa. If we use these projections as our baseline, let’s play.

The Bad BABIP Season

Mike Trout owns the third highest in-play average of all time and the highest since integration. He is pretty much the perfect BABIP weapon because he hits the ball hard regularly, gets down to first base so quickly, and he rarely pops up. Which doesn’t make him immune to the whims of the luck dragon but he certainly possess the skills to be a high BABIP player for a long time.

But if, for whatever reason, the baseball gods frowned upon their prodigal son for a few months, it could put a real dent in his numbers. What if, rather than a .360-ish BABIP, he only put up a .300 BABIP for a year?

Crazy as it is to spitball, does Trout have a .285/.390/.490 season in him? Is that bad, all of a sudden? That’s still an .880 OPS and is probably still good for at least 6 Wins. That’s a great year and yet represents a significant downgrade from his current level of production. That’s crazy.

The Jim Edmonds Season

Jim Edmonds had a great career as a great center fielder who maybe rubbed people the wrong way and also put up some insane numbers. He was a great defender and became quite the power hitter in his 30s. Power hitter is probably a descriptor we’ll use for Mike Trout somebody, just not quite yet.

In 2003 and 2004, at the height of the offensive boom times, Jim Edmonds hit .289/.403/.631 with 81 home runs. That’s crazy. Edmonds was 33-34 at that time so he wasn’t the speed burner Trout is right now, but can we envision a season where, in his 20s, Mike Trout slugs over .600?

It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility but it is increasingly rare. Over the past five seasons, only eight batters put up .600 SLG seasons, and they’re among the elite sluggers in the game.

Rk Yrs From To Age
1 Miguel Cabrera 3 2010 2013 27-30 Ind. Seasons
2 Jose Bautista 2 2010 2011 29-30 Ind. Seasons
3 Chris Davis 1 2013 2013 27-27 Ind. Seasons
4 Giancarlo Stanton 1 2012 2012 22-22 Ind. Seasons
5 Mike Napoli 1 2011 2011 29-29 Ind. Seasons
6 Joey Votto 1 2010 2010 26-26 Ind. Seasons
7 Josh Hamilton 1 2010 2010 29-29 Ind. Seasons
8 Albert Pujols 1 2009 2009 29-29 Ind. Seasons
9 Prince Fielder 1 2009 2009 25-25 Ind. Seasons
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 2/21/2014.

Trout has the advantage of his legs to add extra bases and boost his slugging percentage, but he’d still need to hit more home runs. Using the Jim Edmonds model as seen above, let’s assume the extra home runs come at the expense of some walks and some contract, bringing his overall line into the .286/.370/.634 range. That’s huge power. Huge. That exact line is what Chris Davis put up in 2013.

If Mike Trout posted Chris Davis’ line while playing his home games at Angels Stadium…he’s probably end up right where he is now in terms of value. The extra power doesn’t overshadow the extra outs.

The Everything Goes Right Season

Let’s call this the Miguel Cabrera Contingency. Mike Trout doesn’t really change a thing and copies Cabrera’s line from last year – .338/.417/.620. Trout merely adds 60 points of slugging (50 points of ISO) and probably another 15-20 home runs. That is essentially the only difference between them over the last two years. Trout maintains his elite plate discipline and contact rate while hitting the ball farther with more regularity.

This is borderline absurd, I shouldn’t have to remind you. This maybe tacks another win on Trout’s 2014 ledger, meaning we’re talking an 11 WAR season. Live Ball era seasons of this magnitude? 18. Total. Ever. Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. That’s where this gets us.

The Everything Goes Wrong Season

Watching Mike Trout play baseball it becomes very difficult to imagine him struggling for an extended period of time. His swing is too quick, his eye is too good, his power to apparent, his abilities too rare. Which isn’t to suggest he’s bulletproof, of course.

Even last year, Trout had a few stretches in which he struck out too much and watched too many good pitches go by. Say all the hype and distractions and reality of his accomplishments grows too large to deal with, too much to block out on gameday. Suddenly, Trout is mired in a season long slump. He’s too talented (we assume) to slip into an extended replacement-level slumber. But he scuffles.

His strikeouts soar and his average drops as he sells everything out for power. He hits a bunch of home runs and still draws some walks but the singles and doubles desert him. It’s a down year, a reality check.

In this alternate universe, Mike Trout posts a weird .276/.338/.501 line in 2014. He plays solid defense in center field all year. This represents a drop of 40 points of batting average, 80 points of OBP and 40 points of slugging. What kind of value does this deliver to the undoubtably disappointed Angels?

Funny you should ask, as that is the exact line Colby Rasmus posted en route to a near 5 WAR season for the Blue Jays – in just 118 games. That line is nearly identical to the one put up by Carlos Gomez in 2013, a season in which his brilliant defense powered him to about 8 WAR and a handful of MVP votes.

This is the reality – even if Mike Trout shaves 140 points off his OPS while playing the entire season, he’s one of the best players in baseball. EVEN AFTER A HUGE STEP BACK.

It is also so difficult for such a great player to improve. Fewer strikeouts? More walks? More steals? More power? How much is too much? The best part of wishcasting on the best player in the game is it’s all in play. However improbable, nothing can be considered impossible when this much talent is involved.

Of course, a similar article to this one could have been written after the 1993 season, in which Ken Griffey Junior went crazy at age 23 and posted a .309/.408/.617 line with 45 home runs. In the strike-shortened 1994, he improved on that by hitting 40 home runs and producing 7 WAR in just 111 games.

Reality happened all over Ken Griffey Jr., but not before he hit 200 home runs over four seasons. After 30, Griffey was never the same. Injured and perhaps bored, Griffey never played 150 games in a season again.

But just as a generation of kids raised on the early days of Sportscenter can attest, Griffey made everything possible. Hopefully Mike Trout can motivate the next generation of baseball fans, those who come to expect superhuman feats and continually reel in disbelief when he delivers them. Hopefully this story has a slightly happier ending.