I know I spend most of my time on this blog writing about subjects connected to history, but I do have other interests, and every once and awhile discover something in those realms that seems worth sharing. In this case the subject is baseball, and eventually it will revolve around evidence about where a contemporary player may rank in baseball history. I would expect that my readers from outside the Americas will find this inscrutable, but given that for over a decade in my life I put in my best effort to try and understand the stories about cricket in the “Manchester Guardian,” I don’t feel I owe any serious apologies. For the rest of you, this is my ritual offering for Opening Day, 2016.
Not long ago I received as a birthday present The Bill James Handbook 2016. This is the annual statistical compilation assembled by various associates of the man in the title, the great revolutionary of how we use statistics to understand the game of baseball. James always contributes a smattering of essays introducing various sections of what is otherwise a pretty dense assembly of numbers and tables designed to help the serious baseball fan get a better grip on the past season and a clearer picture of prospects for the season that is about to begin.
As a Seattle Mariners fan I’m eager for any sign that the off-season replacement of their Manager and General Manager will get the club headed in the right direction. Sure enough, buried in the tables is evidence for some modest optimism. The old manager made some decisions that any fan had to second guess, such as giving their highly-paid closer Fernando Rodney chance after chance to give away leads after his ERA had blown sky high. This obviously had an impact on the Mariners’ bullpen ranking 25th out of 30 teams in ERA, despite pitching in one of the best pitcher’s parks in baseball, and there’s a morbid fascination to looking at the table revealing that half of Fernando’s blown saves are the sort classified as “Easy” and other half “Regular.” It was the other guys who got the chance at the“Tough” saves, and they did not measure up to that harder task, being able to save just one of the seven.
More morbid dwelling on the past comes from looking at the catcher spot, where manager Lloyd McClendon finally realized, after giving him 350 at bats, that Mike Zunino, who had batted .199 the year before, was not going to turn into a major league hitter no matter how many big-league swings he got. His average ended up at .174, with 132 strikeouts. There are times managers need patience, but it helps to have someone notice that you’ve sprung a bad leak and are taking on a water before the front of the ship has broken off and your stern is rising toward the sky.
Another problem evident enough to anyone watching the games last season was clarified by the final stats. I had found myself cursing a lot because the Mariners ran into so many outs on the basepaths, but until I saw the Team Baserunning charts I did not know that only three teams in all of baseball did worse on the base paths than Seattle. Having given away a net total of 56 bases by making outs trying to advance, as well as by trying to steal with limited success, the Mariners found themselves in a group with the White Sox, who were -66 on the bases, and the Dodgers, who were -71. All of whom could console themselves by saying “At least we’re not the Tigers”; Detroit came in at a whopping -107. Running the bases is supposed to be one of those “little things” but when you are in the same division as the Astros (+60 on the basepaths) and the Texas Rangers (+142, best in baseball) that “little thing” can loom large. This is an obvious area where better coaching would clearly help the team.
It would also help if the team added some outfielders who could catch the ball. The Mariners were above average in fielding only at pitcher and catcher, but while the infield gave away a total of 25 runs, Mariner center fielders managed to kick away 26 on their own, and the left and right fielders combined to chip in for another 20. The guy projected to be the team’s new center fielder, Leonys Martin has been a steady plus-fifteen runs saved for the past three years (14, 16, 15 to be precise) this would suggest a defensive improvement of forty runs if the 28 year old can stay in the line-up.
Another place the Mariners were giving away runs was in defensive positioning. The new trend is toward shifting defenders more severely on batters who pull the ball. In 2010 big league teams shifted 2,464 times; in 2015 they did so 17,733 times. The number is increasing because statistics show that you save one and a half runs for every 100 times you shift. The Mariners were one of only six teams in all baseball that decided to shift less in 2015 than they had the year before. They ended up shifting less than any team in the American League, giving up 18 extra runs compared to those devilishly shifty Tampa Bay Rays, who got with the program in a big way, and 15 compared to upstart division rival Astros, who added a bit to their already high shift totals. A manager who can keep up with 21st-century trends would certainly help the team.
One more problem of the departing manager can be seen in the Managers Record which reveals McClendon’s habit of issuing intentional walks that hurt the team. Of the 41 he issued, 18 were what the book calls “No Good” and 10 of those were what they call “Bomb”: intentional walks that completely blow up on the manager. McClendon led the league in both categories: it was the third time in seven seasons as a manager that he led his league in the “Bomb” category. Fewer of these explosions would certainly be a good thing for the team.
There is also some bad news in the outlook. Far and away the most pleasant surprise of the Mariners’ 2015 season was the success of Nelson Cruz. This free agent acquisition looked dubious from any analytical standpoint. When you pay free agent money for a guy who has surprised everyone by hitting 40 home runs at the age of 34 (previous high, 27) and move him into a notoriously bad park for right-handed hitters, the analysts are going to be skeptical. Mariners fans, who saw a similar move fail in 2006, when Adrian Beltre was signed after suddenly raising his career high in homers from 23 to 48. He was only 26, theoretically in the prime of his career, but Safeco turned out to be a terrible park for him to hit in, and his .334 with 48 dingers turned into something along the lines of .265 and 25. Escaping at last to Boston and then Texas, he has put up good numbers again, but after Beltre retires, when they talk about his chances for the Hall of Fame, that big hole in what should have been his prime will loom large. So, with that example to remember, and with the General Manager having given a 10-year deal to 31-year old Robinson Cano, this second big-money addition seemed like a bad gamble. But Cruz surprised us by hitting .302 with 44 homers. Cano had done something similar in his first year in Seattle, maintaining a high batting average despite some loss of power. He came to earth in 2015. We really have to expect the 36-year-old Cruz to decline too, even while hoping this surprising power output improved his chances to delay that inevitable slump for another year or two. But the Handbook singles out Nelson Cruz as a player who benefited from more than his share of luck last year, picking up extra home runs on the road that barely cleared the fence, a prime candidate to decline when his lucky streak ends.
This research on my own team was fun, but what really got me stirring around was a discovery about Mike Trout, the young superstar of the Mariners’ rivals the Los Angeles Angels. “Young” is an important part of why baseball analysts gush about Trout. Three decades ago my reading of the Bill James Baseball Abstracts revealed a truth then routinely denied by baseball broadcasters, and only dimly understood within the profession, that baseball players peak earlier than conventional wisdom believed, and that for position players, advanced skills at a very early stage project dependably into exceptional careers. When my Mariners came up with a couple of teenagers in a row who were ready to play major league baseball, I understood why, when their careers caught really fire in their early twenties, they were suddenly candidates to break some major records. As it turned out, Ken Griffey Junior got hurt too often to join the 700 home run club, and Alex Rodriguez’ steroid suspension has badly undercut his chances to break the career home run record and wiped out his faint hope of getting the record for career RBIs. All the same, they served very nicely to underscore the fact that the younger the player, the more his accomplishments predict future success. A-Rod, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra all came up at the same time, but Jeter was a year older than Alex, and Nomar a year older than Derek. Garciaparra had some bad luck with injuries, it is true, but it was no real surprise that he would end up providing TV commentary for several years while Jeter was still playing, and that Jeter would retire while A-Rod was still hitting home runs.
My discovery about young Mr. Trout, who will still be 24 when the 2016 season starts, had to do with one of my favorite sections of the Handbook, the section that records the Win Shares earned by every active player, assuming his play actually helped his team win. (The aforementioned Mariner catcher, Mike Zunino, has no listing in this year’s book, which I suspect was a clerical error connected with his name coming last in the alphabet. I think it was a mistake, but as awful as Zunino’s season was, I have to consider the possibility that he managed to contribute no wins at all to his team even though he played 112 games). What caught my eye was that Trout’s 2015 season gave him three straight seasons of 40 or more Win Shares. My response was “That’s got to be pretty rare” so I did a little research. What I discovered was very impressive indeed.
I’m guessing that most people reading this have little or no idea what I mean by a Win Share, so I’m going to take a little time to explain it. It seems as though lately baseball comes up with a new stat every day, and I can understand a feeling of “Uh, oh” when an enthusiast gets ready to tell you all about this great new measure of baseball production. But this one really, really matters, because once you know what it is and start looking at it, it makes all sorts of fascinating comparisons possible, that just weren’t available before Bill James went into his cave and spent nine months working out the implications of a particular insight, then came out, got some help, and spent another four years of painstaking effort to refine the system and see the results into print. James’ book Win Shares goes into the details at length. The upshot is that a realization about how something called marginal runs scored and allowed will let you predict win-loss records made it possible to parcel out credit for those wins to the players on the team. This required solving some big challenges on how to figure out defensive values, which were apparently tricky enough add a couple of years to the process. But when the dust had settled, James had arrived at a method of looking at a team’s record, and the records of its players, and ascribing a number value to each player’s season.
Once you get comfortable with this system, when you have looked over the assumptions behind the formulas and convince yourself that it makes sense, having a list of Win Shares for players is a big help in simplifying what used to be laborious comparisons.Say you need to try to figure out whether the MVP award should go to a slugging first baseman, or a shortstop whose hitting numbers are very good, but not as impressive as those the slugger amassed. How much credit do you give for the shortstop playing a more demanding defensive position? How do you measure the defensive value of any shortstop or first baseman? After you’ve done what you can to estimate this value you have to remind yourself to adjust the hitting stats to account for whether these guys were hitting in parks that helped or hurt them. You’ve got to account for differences in playing time, and make all those fine adjustments for base-running, getting hit by pitches and grounding into double plays. This is a huge amount of work, and it is nice to have a reasonably thought out set of formulas that make all these calculations, make all the adjustments and give you a single number that represents the system’s best estimate of how many wins each player contributed to his team.
It’s even more helpful when you get one of those apples and oranges comparisons between a pitcher and a field player. In The Bill James Baseball Abstract, 1987 the author spent several columns trying to assess whether the American League MVP award for 1986 should have gone to Don Mattingly instead of the actual winner, Roger Clemens. After some effort, he decided that the numbers supported Clemens. James then did a shorter rundown of the 1978 award, measuring Jim Rice against Ron Guidry, and decided that the numbers left that one too close to call.
One of the small surprises in the Win Shares system turns out to be its assessment that pitchers, on the whole, aren’t quite as valuable as we tend to assume. This is because preventing runs is a combined effort between the pitcher and the other eight guys on the field, and we tend to ignore the contribution of the defense to a pitcher’s success. When you make the common sense concession that those other eight guys who have to catch the balls in play are helping you win, and that somewhere around a third of the credit for preventing runs from scoring goes to their collective effort, you end up with pitcher ratings lower than you would expect if you listen to the guys on Baseball Tonight talk about why this free agent pitcher is going to be such a great addition to the team. (I have established that there is no limit to the ignorance allowed to a professional talking head on a sports show, based on hearing a commentator say that when the Cubs acquired Jon Lester, “He instantly becomes the best pitcher in Cubs history.” This is where Win Shares become very helpful indeed, because instead of having to give you the incredible win totals and ERAs and Innings Pitched put into the record books by Ferguson Jenkins and Three-Finger Brown, I can blow this crazy claim away with a very short string of numbers: 113 and 18, 323 and 37, 296 and 36. These are the career Win Shares and the single season highs for Lester, Jenkins and Brown at the time the broadcaster made his claim. Not all the career shares were earned with the Cubs, but, then again, at the time of the claim, none of Lester’s had been earned in Chicago. His 13-share season last year did not mark significant progress. Other pitchers who rank ahead of Lester in these measures, just on the basis of their time with the Cubs include Charlie Root, Bill Hutchinson, Larry Corcoran, Clark Griffith, and Hippo Vaughan. The Cubs have a very long history, something that might perhaps cross the mind of someone making rash claims about them. Objects in this particular mirror may turn out to be much farther away than they appear. One thing these guys forget is that modern starters just don’t put in enough innings to be as valuable as their counterparts in the past who were asked to complete a game more than once in blue moon. All the guys I just listed completed more games in a single season than Lester has in an eleven year career).
Anyway, it turns out that when you start giving defensive players credit for catching the ball, pitchers Win Shares slip a little, and the numbers the system provides for the two seasons whose MVP choices James dissected in the Abstract tend to contradict the conclusions he reached all those decades ago. In 1978, it’s not quite so close as he thought: Rice earned 36 Win Shares, Guidry 31. It’s a similar gap for the hitter in 1986, where Mattingly is credited with 34 Win Shares to Clemens’ 29. Actually the numbers suggest that the whole debate left out the guy who should have been MVP that year, at least based on this measure, Clemens’ teammate Wade Boggs, who had 37 Win Shares.
I realize that I have eased into the process of showing how Win Shares are used without providing a basic description of what they represent. A Win Share is essentially one-third of a win. James chose to use a bigger number than simple wins so that distinctions wouldn’t blur, but not so much bigger that we would impute real meaning into minute variations. Translated directly into wins, the system says that Jim Rice put contributed 12 wins to his team’s column in 1978, while Guidry that same year and Clemens in ‘86 added something around ten wins to their teams.
What’s nice about the scale James chose, three shares per win, is that the numbers break down into easy-to -summarize categories. If you score in single digits, you’re a bit player, a guy who lost his job during the season, a star who suffered a devastating injury early on, a pinch-hitter who sometimes platoons, a backup catcher, or maybe one of the non-stars in the bullpen. Regulars will score in the range between 10 and 20, and regulars who make the All-Star team tend to score in the 20s, except for most of the starting pitchers, who usually earn about as many win shares as they do official pitching wins. If you cross the line and earn 30-plus Win Shares you’re in the range where you probably pick up some MVP votes, and might even win the award. This is what Bill James calls (in his Historical Baseball Abstract) a “Great Season” because getting into the thirty-point range with some regularity is what sets great players apart from those who are merely very good. Albert Pujols did it nine times in a row before injury dragged him down, which is one reason James’ Hall of Fame monitor gives Albert 163 points, when the scale is set so that 100 will usually get you in.
If earning 30 Win Shares is what we think of as a Great Season, what do we call a season where you cross the next divide and get into the 40s? Well, in the same article where he called 30-share seasons “great” (his section on the 42nd-best left-fielder of all time, Augie Galan) he says this: “A season of 40 Win Shares is still rare enough to be described as a “Historic” season. With a few exceptions, only Hall of Famers ever have a season of 40 Win Shares, and most Hall of Famers don’t approach 40 Win Shares, even in their best seasons.” James says “still rare enough” because he introduced this particular discussion with a short paragraph talking about seasons of 50 Win Shares, a paragraph sure to be revised in a new edition, because refinements to the Win Shares system knocked his only example of a 50-Share season for a left fielder, Ted Williams in 1946, down to a mere 49, while Barry Bonds 73-home-run outburst in 2001 moved onto the list by earning 54 Win Shares.
There are so few 50-Share season in the part of baseball history that has unfolded since the pitching mound was moved back and it became necessary for teams to share pitching duties between more than a couple of pitchers, that any fan can memorize the list. I might as well take a moment to provide that list. As James called 40-Share seasons “Historic” we might as well go a step up for these and call these “Legendary.” Two of them were by pitchers. Jack Chesbro in 1904 had a “Turn-Back-the-Clock” season, where he started 51 games and finished 48 of them, and added three more in relief. He ended up throwing over 454 innings winning 41 games, and providing 53 Win Shares for his team. Walter Johnson did him one better in 1913, earning 54 by going 36-7 with 11 shutouts, adding 12 appearances as a reliever to his 36 starts, which earned him a couple of what we would call saves, and leading the league with a miniscule 1.14 ERA.
There have only been seven 50-share seasons by field players. One, Barry Bonds’ monster year, we have already mentioned. Before Bonds you have to go back to 1957, when Mickey Mantle’s On Base Average of .512 was the kicker to his .365 batting average and 36 home runs, which earned him 51 Win Shares, two points better than he earned in his 52-homer 1956 season. Two of the remaining seasons are a little surprising. In 1912 Tris Speaker stepped across a threshold his more-famous rival Ty Cobb never quite reached, despite hitting .400 three times. That same season Cobb hit .410 and led the league in hits, but he still fell 11 Shares short of Speaker who played a few more games, led the league in doubles (53) and home runs (10) and walked a bit more, which, with his .383 batting average, allowed him to lead the league in On Base Average (.464). Tris got 41 Win Shares with his bat alone, and added another 10 by playing the best defense of his stellar defensive career. Honus Wagner’s 1908 season is even odder at first glance. His season is great, but then again, Wagner’s seasons almost always were. Yes, he led the league in Doubles, Triples, Total Bases, RBI, Stolen Bases, Batting Average, On Base Average, and Slugging Percentage, but except for leading in hits, he had done all those things before, and with higher totals. What was it about hitting .354 this year that vaulted the season above the years he hit .355, .363 and .371, earning him the what the Win Shares system rates as the best season of all time, with a staggering 59 Win Shares? James explains that it was mostly a weird shift in context, that the league totals in runs scored took a dive, and Forbes Field in that season was a terrible place to hit. When Wagner did what Wagner usually did in a park and season where runs were absurdly scarce, the value of his hits went way, way up, because the runs he created resulted in more wins.
The remaining three seasons of 50 Win Shares were all produced by a single player in a four-year span. If you can’t guess what they were, you probably aren’t much of a baseball fan, or at least a fan of baseball history. Between 1920 and 1923 Babe Ruth destroyed all the old standards of what could be done by slugging the baseball. Those epic seasons earned him 51 Win Shares in 1920, 53 in 1921, and 55 in 1923. That record, putting up a three-season average of 53 win shares, will probably be harder to break than the familiar ones that have already fallen. Bonds came as close as anyone has, with his peaks of 54, 49 and 48, for an average of just over 50. With the juice being squeezed from the game, that’s probably as close as anyone will get.
Coming down from Olympus to the level of mere demigods brings us to the seasons that score in the 40s. There are still few enough of these that a fan could get them down with a little study, but let’s not go there. Let me just point out that when Mike Trout came up with a 40-point season in 2013, it was the first such season in the entire history of the California Angels. It was only the second such season for any team added to baseball in or after the 1961 expansion, although I’d bet that you can’t guess which team and player had the first. (It was Jeff Bagwell of the Astros who racked up 41 Shares in 1996). No one on the Royals, Rays, Rangers, Blue Jays, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Marlins, Brewers, Expos/Nationals, Mets or Padres has yet to reach that milestone. Most of the older franchises have seen multiple 40-Share seasons–coming up with a megastar like Ruth, Mays, Wagner, Bonds, Musial or Williams gives you repeat business–but the Dodgers, who have been in the league since 1884 and have boasted many famous stars, have had no one cross the threshold to 40 since the pitching mound moved back to the modern distance in 1893. The Braves got a few in the 1890s when they were still in Boston, from their pitching star Kid Nichols, but since then have exactly one: Hank Aaron’s 41 in 1963. Since 1900 the Cubs have had only two, by Rogers Hornsby in 1929, and Sammy Sosa in 2001.
Sosa’s big year is one of a precious few since the dawning of the new Millennium. Bonds in his second, steroid-enhanced peak had those monster seasons I mentioned above. Albert Pujols got there in 2003. A-Rod has never quite made it, nor has Miguel Cabrera. PItchers today don’t put in enough innings even to reach 30 Shares; the last to touch 40 was Steve Carlton in 1972. We’ll have to reverse forty years of baseball “evolution” to get back to a place where someone can start 41 games, complete 30, log over 346 innings while striking out 310 and winning 27 with an ERA of 1.97. I’m not holding my breath. The only post-Millennium player besides Bonds and Pujols who put up a 40-share season before Mike Trout got there was something of a puzzler. In 2012 Andrew McCutchen reached 40 with a season that, while good, was hardly jaw-dropping. I mean a .337 average and 31 home runs, and an On Base Plus Slugging Slugging of .953 is great, but “Historic?” When Ted Williams got an even 40 in 1949 he needed a batting average of .343, 43 homers, and an OBPS of 1.140. But to be fair, let’s just take our comparisons from other center fielders. Cobb in 1912 we talked about above–remember, he hit .410–and he reached 40 (exactly) again in 1916 when he hit .371 and stole 68 bases. The only other exact centerfield comps I could find were all by Willie Mays, in 1954 (.345 with 41 homers) 1955 (.319 and 51) and 1958 (.347 and 29). With that last one we get a season that looks a bit more like McCutchen’s, although his OBPS of 1.002 was still a notch higher. Mays reached 40 with lower numbers in 1958 because he had moved from the Polo Grounds to Candlestick Park, which was much harder place to hit. And that’s what PIttsburgh was for McCutcheon in 2012, just as it was for Wagner in 08, a place where runs were few and far between, which meant that McCutcheon’s merely “great” numbers produced “historic” numbers of runs. By the way, another bad season for hitters in Candlestick produced the only 40 Share season of the 1980s, magnifying Will Clark’s 1989 output of .333 with 29 homers all the way up to 44 Win Shares.
Win Shares are valuable precisely because they unearth accomplishments masked by odd circumstances. We tend to think of Babe Ruth’s superstardom as a phenomenon of the 1920s. But his breakthrough in the new decade seems a bit more natural when you see that he had already reached the 40-Share level during the 1918 and 1919 seasons. We understand that there were fewer runs scored then than in the 1920s, but the adjustments for that are not easy to do on paper, and are all but impossible off the top of your head. Especially daunting is the task of estimating the value of a season as weird as Ruth’s was in 1918. That was his year of transition, from a star pitcher to a superstar everyday player. Ruth played in only 95 games that year, starting 19 of them as a pitcher, and platooning in the outfield between starts. How do you add up the value of a guy who leads the league in homers in 317 at bats, and also goes 13-7 (he made one appearance in relief) with a 2.22 ERA? The Win Shares formula popped out the surprising answer that his bat provided more than eight wins to his team, his pitching more that four, and his defense not quite one win more, and when you add in all the fractions you get 39.8 Win Shares, which rounds up to 40. His 1919 season of 43 Shares only made it to the 40 mark because he put in enough time on the mound to add almost eight win shares with his pitching.
If one 40-Share season is rare enough to be called “Historical”, how often has a player reached 40 in three straight seasons? Again restricting the data to seasons when baseballs were thrown from modern distances, my survey of the data suggests that it has only been done by eight players. Although Barry Bonds crossed the 40-Share barrier five times, he never did it never more than twice in a row. A two-season streak was tops for the four times Willie Mays got there, as it was for Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Eddie Collins, and Walter Johnson who all made 40 or more three times. Rogers Hornsby, Cy Young, Tris Speaker, and Nap Lajoie all got to 40 three times, but none of those seasons were consecutive. Greats such as Frank Robinson, Jimmie Foxx, and Joe Morgan only made it to 40 twice in their careers. Only an elite group of players have put together three of these seasons in a row.
Babe Ruth, unsurprisingly, has more seasons of 40 or more than anyone else, with 9; he had a four-season streak from 1918 to 1921, as well as another three-season run from 1926 to 1928. Cobb totaled 8, with a streak of four starting in 1909, and another of three beginning in 1915. Honus Wagner had “only” six such seasons, but he bunched them into a single six-season streak that began in 1904. World War Two limited Ted Williams to a total of five 40-Win seasons, and as that condition was beyond his control it’s only fair that we consider his accomplishments from 1942 to 1947 a streak of four straight, even though there is a three-year gap right in the middle when he was unable to play. The other two players who got there managed to bunch their only 40-share seasons in a single three-year streak; they are Grover Cleveland Alexander and Mickey Mantle. That was the whole gang until Trout came along.
According to the Win Shares system, Mike Trout has been the best player in the American League every full season he has played. He has only won a single MVP award in that time, in part because the voters still haven’t learned to make all the adjustments needed for players who hit in very different run environments–Cabrera and Donaldson, who won the awards for some genuinely impressive seasons were helped by hitter-friendly ballparks while Trout was putting up numbers only a tad less impressive in the league’s second-toughest place to hit–and because it is traditional for players who dominate their leagues to win fewer MVP awards than they should. The voters don’t like to give it to the same player every year, and guys like Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Barry Bonds all ended up with fewer trophies than they deserved.
The question is not whether Trout will make the Hall of Fame–the Hall of Fame monitor already has him with 41 points of the necessary 100–but whether the next few years will demonstrate without a doubt that Trout belongs in the elite company that his streak of 40-Share games suggests. The key question I asked myself as soon as I saw that Trout had managed the three-in-a-row feat was “Is he the youngest player ever to do that?” The answer is “Yes.” The oldest of the lot to start this sort of streak was Honus Wagner who was just over 30 when he began the season that would mark the start of his 40-Share string. Next oldest was Alexander, just over 28 years old. Ruth and Mantle were both a few months past their 23rd birthdays when they started shifting into this high gear. Cobb and Williams were 3 and 7 months past their 22nd birthdays when they got it going. And Mike Trout, at the start of the season that began his ascent into the “Historic Season” club, was 21 years, nine months old.
Trout’s precocity goes far to offset the “yes, buts” that first come to mind, the ones that bubble up when you notice that a string of 40, 40, and 42 is not exactly the same as one that goes 44, 45, 47 (Cobb), or 41, 49, 51 (Mantle). The prime years for a ballplayer, Honus Wagner, excepted, are predominantly in the ages 26-28. Yes Honus had his best season, that 59-share miracle, when he was 34 and Alexander had his peak of 44 at age 31. But the odds suggest that Trout, like most players, will be declining by the time he enters his thirties. Mantle had his best season at age 25, Ruth and Cobb had their best (55, 48) at 28, and Ted Williams came back from the marine corps after three years of service, and at age 27 had the best season–49 shares–of his career. As I said before, Mike Trout will be 24 when he enters his next season. It’s always possible that he will suffer an injury that would derail his progress, but barring that, you have to expect that the best Trout seasons are still to come.
I can’t say I will entirely enjoy Mike Trout’s climb toward Olympus. I’m already very tired of watching Mariner pitchers hit the bottom of the strike zone with a breaking ball to no avail, as Trout reaches down and hammers the baseball over the fence. It’s possible that he’ll slip back a bit from the high level he has reached–almost any significant injury could do it–and with a gun to my head I might well bet that his streak ends this year, that he drops back for a season or even two from “Historic” to merely great. But if you look back at those numbers in the previous paragraph, you’ll see what his upside is. In another three to six years it could well be obvious to everyone that Trout is not just the best player of our time, but a serious contender for a place among the top ten players of all time.