<
>

How can Mike Trout top Mike Trout?

Another Mike Trout article? Didn't Jeff Sullivan just recently ask if anyone can have a better season than Mike Trout? Yes. But did writers stop writing about Willie Mays in 1958? No, they did not.

With help from Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system, we projected the odds of the Los Angeles Angels' center fielder breaking his previous career highs in various categories. Will he set career marks in all these categories? Probably not, but never put anything past Trout. Let's take a look and break down the game of the 25-year-old super-duperstar.

Batting average: .326 in 2012 (7.3 percent)

Remember the career crisis Trout went through a few seasons ago? After hitting .326 and .323 his first two seasons, Trout suddenly started striking out at alarming rates in 2014 and hit just .257 in the second half to finish at .287. He still won MVP honors. Not bad for a career crisis.

Trout has reduced his strikeouts the past two seasons, down from 184 and a 26 percent strikeout rate in 2014 to 137 and a 20 percent K rate in 2016. More balls in play leads to more hits, and Trout was back up to .315 in 2016. But the average also went up thanks to eliminating his Kryptonite.

In 2014, Trout couldn't hit the high fastball. Like, he had trouble even making contact. Check his results against plate appearances ending in pitches in the upper third of the strike zone (or above), which are mostly fastballs:

Not only is he improving against the high fastball, but what makes pitching Trout up in the zone so tough is his eye at the plate. He rarely swings at pitches up and even more rarely swings at one out of the strike zone. Sure, you can try to throw your best heat past him, but you more likely will walk him.

Beating his season-best batting average may be difficult, however, in part because Trout may have lost a step out of the batter's box. He had 22 infield hits in 2012 and 31 in 2013, but just 18 in 2016.

Hits: 190 in 2013 (4.1 percent)

Hey, it's hard to get hits if they're not going to pitch to you. Trout posted a career-high walk rate in 2016, drawing 116 free passes. Trout arrived to the majors with his doctorate in plate discipline already in hand and hasn't changed much in his approach through the years. What has changed is pitchers are simply throwing him fewer pitches in the meaty areas of the strike zone:

"Competitive" refers to pitches within 18 inches of the center of the strike zone. A 4 percentage point decrease from two seasons ago may not seem significant, but Trout saw 3,014 pitches last season, so that translates to 120 fewer hittable pitches -- close to one per game.

By the way, Bill James estimates Trout's chances of getting 3,000 career hits at 14 percent. Can he get to 3,000 without any 200-hit seasons? Sure. Carl Yastrzemski had 3,419 hits and never had 200 (although he also played until he was 43). Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson also got there without a 200-hit season.

Doubles: 39 in 2013 and 2014 (14.8 percent)

I wouldn't describe Trout as a doubles machine. He hit 32 in 2016, well off the leaderboard (the top 10 in doubles went from David Ortiz's 48 down to 41). Guys who hit a lot of doubles tend to be hitters who spray the ball all over the field and in the gaps -- or slap fly balls off the Green Monster. Trout is more of a fly ball hitter and pull hitter. As you can see from the hit chart below, many of his doubles were liners or hard grounders down either baseline as opposed to liners in the gap:

For his career, Trout has 175 doubles and 168 home runs. Is that a typical ratio for a power hitter? Here are the doubles-to-home runs ratios for the 10 players with the most home runs in the majors since 2012, Trout's first full season:

1. Chris Davis (197 home runs): 0.66

2. Edwin Encarnacion (193): 0.75

3. Nelson Cruz (178): 0.81

4. Miguel Cabrera (169): 1.05

5. David Ortiz (163): 1.08

>> 6. Trout (168): 1.04

7. Jose Bautista (152): 0.78

8. Giancarlo Stanton (152): 0.78

9. Adam Jones (150): 0.99

10. Mark Trumbo (149): 0.77

Trout actually fares well here, trailing only Ortiz and Cabrera. That's a sign he's more of a well-rounded hitter than a pure slugger like Bautista or Stanton. Indeed, of those 10 guys, only Cabrera has also hit over .300 over those five seasons.

Triples: Nine in 2013 and 2014 (16.5 percent)

Trout hit five three-baggers in 2016, but get this: Using that same five-year time frame, Trout leads the majors in triples with 37 -- three more than Adam Eaton and Michael Bourn. So he's relatively great at something you didn't even realize he was great at!

Home runs: 41 in 2015 (24.3 percent)

Trout slammed 36 home runs in 2014 and 41 in 2015 before falling to a mere 29 last year. It was a little odd only in that the overall rate of home runs skyrocketed across the majors, from 1.01 per game per team to 1.16 (and that was up from 0.86 in 2014). So what happened? Some of that is probably related to the above issue about not getting pitches to hit. Back in 2014, as pitchers attacked that weakness up in the zone, he saw more fastballs. But that percentage dropped from 61.4 percent in 2014 to 56.2 percent in 2016.

While there was probably some simple bad luck on fly balls that just missed clearing the fence, Tony Blengino wrote at FanGraphs in his hitter contact report that "Trout's contact authority is good, but not great; in fact, it was down a bit this past year from 2015." Indeed, ESPN Stats & Information data shows Trout's average fly ball distance was down 5 feet from 2015 (although both figures were much higher than 2014).

Szymborski's system still gives Trout pretty good odds of surpassing his previous career high in home runs. That's based on a model that most hitters hit their peak power seasons starting in their mid-20s. As we know with Trout, however, he's been pretty consistent five years running. While a 40-homer season isn't out of the question, I wouldn't predict one.

Keep in mind that home runs can fluctuate even for great hitters. Willie Mays hit 29 home runs in 1960, the Giants' first year at Candlestick Park. He averaged 45 the next five seasons. Like Mays, maybe Trout hits a power peak in his early 30s. How many home runs will Trout end up with in his career? He's seventh on the list in career home runs through his age-24 season, and the six above him all cleared 500. The "Bill James Handbook" gives Trout a 13 percent chance at 600 career home runs -- and a 2 percent chance of breaking Barry Bonds' all-time record.

Stolen bases: 49 in 2012 (0.6 percent)

As you might expect, this is the personal best Trout is least likely to beat, although after stealing just 27 bases in 2014 and 2015 combined, he swiped 30 in 2016. "That's one of things I'm going to work on this spring," Trout said a year ago in reference to stealing more bases. "It's definitely one of the personal goals I want to get back to."

So he said he would run more and he did. This year he has even loftier aims: "I want to maybe try to get 40," Trout said at the start of spring training. "It's just goals you can set. You work in spring. You set your goals high and see if you can reach them."

There's a practical reason for running more as well. Albert Pujols follows him in the batting order -- presumably, anyway -- and Pujols grounds into a lot of double plays (24 a season ago). So if Trout remains in the No. 3 hole and Pujols in the cleanup spot, maybe Trout steals 30-plus bags again.

Practically speaking, speed is the first tool players lose. Stealing bases, however, can be as much about brains and desire as anything. New Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell, hardly a speedster, twice stole 30 bases, at ages 29 and 31. Paul Goldschmidt, who turned 29 in September, swiped 32 bases last year. Trout just has to decide whether to put his body through the extra punishment.

WAR: 10.8 in 2012 (14 percent)

This is pretty astonishing to me: ZiPS gives Trout a better than 1-in-10 chance of having an historic, all-time great season. Maybe that doesn't sound astonishing; after all, we already know Trout is pretty awesome. This is just something else telling us he's awesome. But projection systems, by their nature, are conservative. More often than not, a player follows a great season with a not-as great season. See Bryce Harper. Projections thus usually assume some regression from greatness.

Trout, coming off a 10.6 WAR in 2016 via Baseball-Reference.com, has decent odds, however, of being that rare player who cracks 11.0 WAR. (Although we shouldn't get too caught up in the difference between 11.0 WAR or 10.9 WAR and so on.)

There have been just 20 player-seasons of 11.0 WAR by position players. Babe Ruth did it six times. Barry Bonds, when he broke baseball, did it twice. Here's the list:

Babe Ruth: Six times (1920, 1921, 1923, 1924, 1926, 1927)

Barry Bonds: Two times (2001, 2002)

Mickey Mantle: Two times (1956, 1957)

Willie Mays: Two times (1964, 1965)

One time: Carl Yastrzemski (1967), Rogers Hornsby (1924), Lou Gehrig (1927), Cal Ripken (1991), Honus Wagner (1908), Ty Cobb (1917), Stan Musial (1948), Joe Morgan (1948).

How does Trout get there?

  • In his best WAR season, Baseball-Reference credits him with his best defensive season at plus-21 defensive runs saved. After below-average figures in 2013 and 2014, he's been better the past two seasons, including plus-6 DRS in 2016. So he'll need to play good defense.

  • He'll need to keep his OBP in the mid-.400 range again. The main reason his WAR climbed higher in 2016 was the .441 OBP. He was good at avoiding outs. Compare to 2014, when his OBP was "only" .377.

  • Steal 30 bases with a high success rate. That adds value.

  • Hit more home runs. He slugged .590 in 2015. Another seven home runs in 2016 would have gotten him from .550 to .600.

  • Stay healthy. This reminds me: When Trout hit 41 home runs in 2015, he injured his wrist in late July, played through it in August and hit just one home run that month. His exit velocity dropped, indicating the injury affected him. So if he can hit 41 home runs in essentially five months, maybe a 45-homer season over six healthy months isn't out of the equation.

And that's how the best player in the game delivers one of the best 10 seasons of all time.