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Imagine if Mike Trout never played another game.
Oh, don’t worry. He will. Trout hasn’t suited up for the Los Angeles Angels since August 1, as he’s recovering from wrist inflammation and mourning the death of his brother-in-law. But he should be back soon. He also just turned 27 on August 7, so he’s certainly too young to call it a career.
Still, this is a fascinating “what if?” because Trout is neither too young nor too unaccomplished to be a certifiable candidate for Cooperstown.
This may not be the hottest take for anyone who’s gotten to know the do-it-all center fielder as Major League Baseball’s resident history-making boy wonder since his explosive breakthrough in 2012. But because marketability isn’t among Trout’s strengths—much to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s chagrin—it might be hotter than quark-gluon plasma for John/Jane Q. Sports Fan.
But in either case, it’s quite simple. Although it’s unprecedented—Ross Youngs is the only Hall of Famer who didn’t play past 30, and he made it to 29 and played nine full seasons—for a player with such a short career to get into the Hall of Fame, Trout already has already crafted a Cooperstown-worthy legacy in his eight years in The Show.
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Start with the numbers. With Trout, this means starting with wins above replacement. It’s the only statistic that’s good for getting a sense of the total value of a hitter’s offense, defense and baserunning contributions, and therefore the best window into the totality of his excellence.
According to Baseball Reference, Trout has been worth 62 WAR through 2018, which is technically his age-26 season. Among the few position players who’ve reached similar heights through such a young age, Trout ranks between one of baseball’s greatest hitters and greatest overall talents:
- Ty Cobb: 63.4 WAR
- Mike Trout: 62.0 WAR
- Mickey Mantle: 61.4 WAR
Moreover, Trout’s 62 WAR is a mark that many Hall of Famers never got to in their entire careers. To name just a few: Jackie Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, Mike Piazza, Vladimir Guerrero, Yogi Berra, Hank Greenberg, Willie Stargell, Tony Perez, Kirby Puckett, Orlando Cepeda, Jim Rice and Lou Brock.
This isn’t a case of WAR playing some kind of weird trick, a la when it curiously rated Ben Zobrist as one of MLB’s elite players between 2009 and 2014. For the most part, Trout’s WAR has been elevated by his blatantly brilliant bat.
His 231 career home runs are ninth-most for a player through his age-26 season. And among all hitters who’ve ever had 4,000 plate appearances, his ranks are a case of increasing returns:
- Tied for 119th with a .306 average
- Tied for 24th with a .415 on-base percentage
- 11th with a .571 slugging percentage
- 9th with a .987 OPS (on-base plus slugging)
Then there’s Trout’s OPS+, which adjusts his OPS to account for factors such as the pitcher-friendly nature of Angel Stadium of Anaheim. At 174, it ranks behind only Babe Ruth (206), Ted Williams (190), Barry Bonds (182), Lou Gehrig (179) and Rogers Hornsby (175) for sixth-highest in history.
Of course, Trout hasn’t played long enough for Father Time to drain the thunder from his stick. But this is as much a testament to his consistency. He’s topped a 160 OPS+ seven times.
Which brings us to another list of Hall of Famers who never did that: Stargell, Greenberg, Piazza, Killebrew, Nap Lajoie, Willie McCovey, Eddie Matthews, Joe DiMaggio, Eddie Collins, Jeff Bagwell, Reggie Jackson, Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Schmidt, Carl Yastrzemski, Al Kaline and Duke Snider.
Beyond Trout’s bat, there’s his baserunning. He boasts 186 career stolen bases, as well as total baserunning value that few players of his era can match.
Beyond Trout’s baserunning, there’s his glove. The two major defensive metrics (defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating) rate him as above average in center field. And he was robbed of a Gold Glove in 2012, when he was unquestionably one of the American League‘s top outfielders.
On the plus side, a Gold Glove is the only major award that’s missing from Trout’s collection.
He’s been an All-Star every year since 2012, as well as the game’s MVP in 2014 and 2015. He has five Silver Sluggers. He was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2012. He was the AL MVP in 2014 and 2016, and the runner-up in 2012, 2013 and 2015.
Mind you, it might be possible to look at all this and shrug if Trout were the Mike Mussina of center fielders.
Although the former Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees ace has credentials worthy of the Hall of Fame, perhaps he’s ticketed for a sixth year on the ballot because of how he pitched. He was less Nolan Ryan and more Greg Maddux, except nowhere near as good. And while calling him a “low-rent Greg Maddux” may be accurate, it wouldn’t look so flattering in bronze.
By contrast, consider Vladimir Guerrero. The stats actually left room for argument over whether he was truly a Hall of Fame right fielder, yet he got in in his second year on the ballot. References to his “distinctive approach,” “attacking swing” and “aggressive style” on his plaque hint at what may be the reason he got in: Anybody who watched him play had plenty to remember him by.
So it is with Trout. His numbers and accolades are the fruits of an uncanny blend of power, speed and general baseball know-how that’s earned comparisons to greats like Mantle, Griffey and Willie Mays. And these things have left a definitive mark.
Even if Trout were indeed to never play another game, we’d always have his booming home runs:
As well as his astonishing catches:
And visions of his blazing speed:
Trout’s only true fault is that his star power is far out of line with where it should be, given that he’s arguably the most dominant male athlete of his generation. To wit, he didn’t even crack MLB’s 10 most-Googled players en route to his second AL MVP in 2016. This is somewhat by Trout’s own design. He’s not much of an interview, and his social media footprint doesn’t extend far beyond airplane emoji.
However, this is ultimately neither here nor there when it comes to the “integrity,” “sportsmanship” and “character” clauses the Hall of Fame prides itself on.
Whether it’s performance-enhancing drugs or simply sliding into second base with his spikes up, Trout has never wronged baseball in any way. And nobody who’s ever come across him—fellow players, coaches, executives, journalists—has ever had anything but kind things to say about him.
As former teammate Danny Espinosa said to Tyler Kepner of the New York Times: “I don’t know if people want drama or something, but I don’t think Mike’s ever going to bring that to you. He plays the game with a smile on his face.”
Again, it shouldn’t be long before Trout is heard from again. And when he does return, he’ll be going back to work on what might be his best season. At the least, he stands to get career bests in OBP (.459), OPS (1.083) and OPS+ (196) out of it.
But if Trout’s ultimate goal is to be good enough for Cooperstown, well, he’s already done enough. All he’s doing from here is piling on.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.