The big debate in fantasy baseball right now is whether Mike Trout, Ryan Braun or Miguel Cabrera is most worthy of the No. 1 pick in drafts. Eric Karabell outlined the issues in his top-10 player rankings, but the same concerns about Trout apply to fantasy baseball or real baseball: Will he regress, and if so, how much?
Here are Trout's 2012 numbers and some projected 2013 totals:
Trout in 2012: .326/.399/.564, 30 home runs
ESPN Fantasy: .285/.351/.472, 22 home runs
ZiPS: .282/.361/.507, 29 home runs
Baseball HQ: .286/.359/.494, 25 home runs
Bill James: .325/.402/.564, 30 home runs
Oliver: .301/.373/.511, 24 home runs
The major concern is whether Trout can repeat his .326 batting average, an average obtained in spite of striking out 139 times, and fueled by a .383 average on balls in play (BABIP) that was third-highest in the majors in 2012, behind Dexter Fowler (.390) and Torii Hunter (.389). Trout's .383 BABIP ranks 15th-highest over the past decade.
Most analysts would thus call that .383 figure a fluke, and that's why you're seeing the predicted decline in batting average. Of the 30 highest BABIPs in the past decade, only two players appear on the list more than once: Ichiro Suzuki, with averages of .399, .389 and .384, and Derek Jeter with averages of .391 and .379. Otherwise, it's an eclectic list with names ranging from David Wright to Chone Figgins to Jorge Posada to Edgar Renteria. Hitters just don't consistently post a .380 BABIP season after season.
In fact, of the 26 non-2012 players, only one raised his average the next year: Joey Votto (No. 30 on the list with a .372 BABIP) hit .322 in 2009 and then hit .324 (and won the MVP award) in 2010. Votto, however, owns a .359 career BABIP; he just missed the qualifying standard of 502 plate appearances in 2012, but his .404 BABIP would have been the highest of the past 10 years. His ability to square up the ball is a rare talent (helped by his immaculate strike-zone judgment). Overall, our group of 26 declined an average of 43 points, topped by Chipper Jones falling from .364 to .264 in 2008-09. On the other hand, 10 of the 26 still hit .300 or better.
Another reason many believe Trout's average will decline significantly is he struck out in 21.8 percent of his plate appearances. Since 1990, players have hit .320 in a season 287 times. Here's the list of players who did so while striking out in at least 20 percent of their plate appearances:
Manny Ramirez: .351, 22 percent in 2000 (.403 BABIP)
Mo Vaughn .337, 21.1 percent in 1998 (.386 BABIP)
Carlos Gonzalez: .336, 21.2 percent in 2010 (.384 BABIP)
Manny Ramirez: .333, 20.5 percent in 1999 (.365 BABIP)
Sammy Sosa: .328, 21.5 percent in 2001 (.336 BABIP)
Eric Davis: .327, 21.3 percent in 1998 (.372 BABIP)
Mo Vaughn: .326, 20.5 percent in 1996 (.366 BABIP)
Mike Trout: .326, 21.8 percent in 2012 (.383 BABIP)
Matt Kemp: .324, 23.1 percent in 2011 (.380 BABIP)
Milton Bradley: .321, 22 percent in 2008 (.388 BABIP)
Sammy Sosa: .320, 23.8 percent in 2000 (.363 BABIP)
This is where projecting Trout becomes an impossible assignment. Sure, maybe he goes the way of Alex Rodriguez, who hit .358 in his age-20 season in 1996 but never came close to that again (a .321 mark in 2005 being his second-best average). Rodriguez had a .382 BABIP in '96 but has a .318 career mark.
On the other hand, look at the case of Manny Ramirez. He had a career strikeout rate of 18.6 percent, including four seasons over 20 percent, but had BABIPs of .403, .373, .373, .370, .365, .354 and .353 (career BABIP of .338). Or Miguel Cabrera. In his first full season, at age 21, he had a strikeout rate of 21.6 percent and still hit .294. The next year, he cut his strikeout rate to 18.3 percent and hit .323. His career BABIP is .345.
Isn't it possible that Trout is where Cabrera was in 2004? Or where Ramirez was in the late '90s? Those rare guys who might strike out 100-plus times, but when they connect they hit the ball hard. And maybe Trout, like Cabrera, will cut down a bit on his strikeouts, so although he might not produce a .383 BABIP again, maybe he'll hit .320 because he's putting more balls in play.
Here's the kicker: Manny and Miggy never ran like Trout. Trout had 22 infield hits last year, tied for 12th-most in baseball. Cabrera had 15 infield hits his first full season but hasn't had more than 12 since. Scouts will say Trout is one of the fastest right-handed hitters they've ever seen. Infielders have to play a step closer. If he gets an extra 10 infield hits a year because of his speed, that helps his average, as well.
That's the scary part to me: What if Trout is Manny Ramirez or Miguel Cabrera with speed? What if he can hit .320 or .330 with 30-plus home runs and 40-plus steals?
Regression? Maybe. He just had one of the great all-around seasons in history. But I don't think Trout is going to hit .285. I think he's too good to regress, that he is a generational player of immense talent who can do everything on a baseball field. I think he'll hit over .300 with 30 home runs and 50 steals -- and win that MVP award he should have won a year ago.