As our tier ratings series begins to wind down, we come to the outfielders. That means, of course, it's Mike Trout Day.
Trout's status as "best player in the game" has been touted for so long now that it's almost a cliché. It's also a hard notion to challenge. Even in evidence-based estimates like these, his edge is just too large to allow room for a good debate. The Boston Red Sox's Mookie Betts is probably better positioned to challenge Trout's reign than any other player. But my forecasts have Trout with a 1.5 hWAR edge over Betts, which is to say that he's 1.5 hWAR ahead of every other player in the majors.
Betts had a better season than Trout last year. He had a better season than anyone in the majors, a declaration that few Red Sox fans would challenge and probably not many New York Yankees fans would either. However, that's a separate thing from claiming that Betts has usurped Trout's status as the game's best player. That sort of changeover doesn't happen overnight.
I decided to get at this topic by looking at how long best-in-the-game players have generally held the title, and how Trout stacks up historically. He first began to be touted as the game's best way back in 2012 -- his first full season in the majors. That wasn't a consensus feeling right off the bat, but it wasn't long before that idea spread from coast to coast.
Many of those who defended Miguel Cabrera's selection as the 2012 American League MVP -- just because he happened to become baseball's first Triple Crown winner in 45 years -- really didn't argue that Cabrera was better than Trout, just that he had a better year. The same dynamic was in play in 2013, when Cabrera again outpointed Trout for MVP. By that point, however, the idea that Trout was the best player in baseball was firmly embedded and it hasn't really been challenged since.
That means even if we don't anoint Trout for his rookie season, we're still looking at a six-year window (2013 through last season) when he has been baseball's consensus best player. That seems like a long time. To see how that compares historically, I dumped every season's single-season win shares measurement from thebaseballgauge.com into a file and calculated five-year averages. (Note: These numbers vary slightly from the "official" win shares figures as compiled at Bill James Online.)
In other words, for each season, a player is measured by his win shares for the two preceding years, the current year, and the two years after. (Rolling averages is the statistical term.) This gives us a glimpse of who the actual best-in-game players were at a given time, regardless of what challengers might have bobbed up with a career season, while also giving us enough window to mute the effect of fluke/injury seasons. The downside with this size of a rolling window is that we can't get a good measurement until a player's third season. Also, we don't have the year-after and two-years-after measurements for the last two seasons of a player's career, nor for players from 2017 and 2018. Those future seasons haven't happened yet. So we just count the seasons that we have. It might seem odd to consider two seasons that haven't happened when assessing the best player in a given year, but what we're after is a good estimate of true talent level. Hindsight helps sharpen that estimate.
Here is the progression of "Best Player in the Game" estimates for the modern era, based on these five-year win share estimates:
'BEST IN BASEBALL' REIGNS
Cy Young, (3 years, 1899-1901)
Honus Wagner, (7 years, 1902-1908)
Ty Cobb, (3 years, 1909-1911)
Walter Johnson, (2 years, 1912-1913)
Tris Speaker, (1 year, 1914)
Ty Cobb, (6 years, 1912-1917)
Babe Ruth, (13 years, 1918-1930)
Lou Gehrig, (5 years, 1931-1935)
Mel Ott, (2 years, 1936-1937)
Joe DiMaggio, (3 years, 1938-1940)
Ted Williams, (2 years, 1941-1942)
Stan Musial, (2 years, 1943-1944)
Hal Newhouser, (1 year, 1945)
Ted Williams, (5 years, 1944-1948)
Stan Musial, (7 years, 1947-1953)
Mickey Mantle, (7 years, 1954-1960)
Willie Mays, (6 years, 1961-1966)
Hank Aaron, (1 year, 1967)
Carl Yastrzemski, (2 years, 1968-1969)
Pete Rose, (2 years, 1970-1971)
Joe Morgan, (5 years, 1972-1976)
Mike Schmidt, (8 years, 1977-1984)
Tim Raines, (1 year, 1985)
Wade Boggs, (3 years, 1986-1988)
Will Clark, (1 year, 1989)
Barry Bonds, (14 years, 1990-2003)
Albert Pujols, (7 years, 2004-2010)
Miguel Cabrera, (1 year, 2011)
Robinson Cano, (1 year, 2012)
Andrew McCutchen, (1 year, 2013)
Mike Trout, (5 years, 2014-2018)
Based on this method, there was a highly unusual power vacuum between the beginning of Pujols' decline phase and the arrival of Trout as a superstar, though the method might be wrong to not declare Trout the best player by 2013. Still, you get a sense of the place in baseball history that Trout has already established.
This is a bit of regurgitation from the list above, but here are the only players to own a five-year reign as the game's best player: Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Joe Morgan, Mike Schmidt, Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout. This is as Hall of Famey as a list can get.
In case you somehow missed this fact, let's state this emphatically: Every time we get to watch Mike Trout play baseball, we are watching an all-time great. Incredibly, he's still only 27 years old. Perhaps the Angels might want to externalize some of those internal discussions.