When people think about the most dominant team athletes in America, most sharpen their focus on one person: LeBron James. It’s a clear and easy answer. The newly minted star of the Los Angeles Lakers ticks all of the boxes.
Recognizing his greatness doesn’t take a trained eye. His athleticism stands above most of the pack in a sport predicated on agility, speed and leaping ability. Hell, he just looks bigger, stronger and faster than everyone, even at the age of 33. Acknowledging LeBron as the most dominant athlete in professional sports is like calling a Drake album too long. It’s so widely accepted as fact that any conversation feels unnecessary.
But while James will certainly go down as the best basketball player of his generation, calling him the most dominant American male athlete diminishes the greatness of one much less newsworthy star: Mike Trout. His greatness is so enormous and consistent that most fail to recognize how much better than everyone else Trout is at hitting a baseball.
Ted Williams famously wrote that hitting a baseball consistently is the hardest thing to do in sports. Hitters have about only a quarter-second to decide whether to swing at an average major league fastball, according to Davin Coburn of Popular Mechanics. That Trout is so adept at it makes him the most dominant athlete in any sport. Michael Jordan, one of the greatest athletes to ever live, looked like a mere mortal when attempting to put the barrel on the ball during his brief minor league career.
In baseball, the MVP discussion revolves around Trout, with an assumption that he’s perennially the most valuable player in the sport. Year after year, a challenger emerges. One year, it’s Jose Altuve. The next, it’s Josh Donaldson. Sometimes, it’s Mookie Betts. People don’t bat an eye when talking about Trout as a potential MVP candidate before the season. It’s just fact.
There are, of course, flaws in this comparison. Value statistics in basketball tend to de-emphasize defense and strongly favor those with a high usage percentage. While both sports attempt to calculate the impact of a singular athlete on a team, you can’t compare a baseball player’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) to a basketball player’s. They do, however, provide a strong starting point to compare an athlete’s impact to that of his peers, and the numbers strongly favor Trout’s otherworldly greatness.
Since 2014, Trout has accumulated 41.7 WAR, according to FanGraphs, far and away the highest mark in the game. The challengers include pitchers Chris Sale (29.6 WAR), Clayton Kershaw (29.5 WAR) and position players Altuve (27.9 WAR), Donaldson (27.5 WAR) and Betts (27.0 WAR). When accounting for wins added, that makes Trout 29.0 percent more valuable than his closest contemporary and 33.1 percent more valuable than any other position player over the past four-plus seasons, even though he missed a month-and-a-half with a thumb injury in 2017.
Contextually, in the best five-year stretch of Babe Ruth’s career (1920-1924), he posted 61.1 WAR, which was just 16.4 percent better than the second-best position player (Rogers Hornsby). And that came before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, an era with less competition.
Trout’s greatness not only derives from his ability to hit moonshots, make leaping catches to rob homers and swipe bases, but from his ability to consistently and annually outpace his peers. The numbers speak for themselves. You can compare Trout to someone like Bryce Harper, but that’s like comparing Toy Story to Cars in the pantheon of Pixar movies. They’re in the same universe, but their greatness can’t be compared. Since 2014, Trout nearly doubles Harper’s WAR total (21.2). When considering talent and production, Trout has no peers among the current crop of baseball stars.
Reed Saxon/Associated Press
While basketball is a much more team-centric sport than baseball, a basketball lineup’s success also often hinges heaviest on a singular star. Baseball is much more individualistic on a pitch-by-pitch basis, with the team’s success determined by collective players’ successes. James can drive repeatedly into the paint by himself to score, but the only way Trout can drive himself in is by smacking a pitch out of the ballpark.
By all value metrics, James has been among the best players in the NBA during the last five seasons, but he is by no means head and shoulders above the rest statistically, a claim Trout can make. According to Basketball Reference, Russell Westbrook places first among his peers since 2013-14, posting a total of 104.8 WAR (approximate value calculated by multiplying VORP by 2.7, per Basketball Reference) in the last five years. James, in comparison, comes in second with 101.8 WAR. The most widely accepted value statistic, player efficiency rating, places James (27.7) third in the last five years, behind Kevin Durant (28.0) and Anthony Davis (27.8).
Many of the strong feelings about James’ dominance stem from his success in the postseason, which has produced three titles and eight straight trips to the NBA Finals. Trout, on the other hand, has only played once in the playoffs, getting one hit in a Kansas City Royals sweep of the Los Angeles Angels. Trout can only do so much by himself, even if he’s disproportionally more impactful on a baseball field than any of his peers.
James’ greatness is undeniable. From his raw athleticism to his explosiveness to the endless highlight reels, James is a one-of-a-kind athlete. But while he rises above the pack of current basketball stars, he does have contemporaries, most notably Kevin Durant. Trout does not have peers in this current crop of baseball stars, and there should be no doubt about the identity of the best male athlete of this generation. There won’t be someone who even comes close, no Pacino to Trout’s De Niro.
In Trout, we are watching one of the most dominant athletes in sports history.
The next step is getting people to care.