Mike Trout is squarely in the passing-Hall-of-Famers-in-career-WAR-every-few-days period of his career. He is 27.
If I tell you that 27-year-old Mike Trout has more career WAR than, say, Carlton Fisk, you could hear it as an incredible tribute to Trout, but you could also hear it as a diminishment of Fisk -- and if we diminish Fisk, we diminish the power of the tribute. To really appreciate Trout, it helps to appreciate just how incredible the Hall of Famers he is passing were and to understand how it is plausible that Trout is already actually more valuable than they were.
Trout started June with 68.0 career WAR. With another fantastic month -- he hit .320/.440/.641, ended June leading the American League in WAR and raised his career mark to 69.5 -- he passed eight more Hall of Famers. In Trout's honor, we will consider those eight.
Ryne Sandberg, 68.0 WAR (83rd all time among position players)
How good Sandberg was:
1. He was a home run-hitting second baseman who set errorless-streak records and won more Gold Gloves at that position than anybody except Roberto Alomar. He stole 50 bases one year and hit 40 homers in another, one of only three players in history to do that. At his peak, he was the highest-paid player in baseball. And by the time Sandberg was 31, Tim Kurkjian could write that he was "a lock" for the Hall of Fame. On June 23, 1984, after watching Sandberg collect five hits -- including two game-tying homers against future Hall of Fame closer Bruce Sutter -- Whitey Herzog declared, simply, "Ryne Sandberg is the best baseball player I've ever seen."
2. In the 1990 Home Run Derby, Sandberg outhomered the entire field of seven other players combined. Now, in fairness, that was the strangest derby ever, with a stiff Wrigley wind holding Cecil Fielder, Jose Canseco, Ken Griffey, Darryl Strawberry and Bobby Bonilla homerless, but all the same: On a day when those five, plus Mark McGwire and Matt Williams, could muscle only two stupid baseballs out, Sandberg popped three. (He also led the league in homers that year, with 40.)
3. He was such a superstar he singlehandedly shifted national baby-naming trends. Before Sandberg, the name Ryne never appeared in the top 1,000 baby names in the United States, and it's hard to find evidence it was considered a name at all. (Sandberg was named, inexplicably, after the 1950s reliever Ryne Duren, but Duren was actually named Rinold.) But in 1984, Sandberg was the NL MVP, and his name jumped from oblivion to become the 600th most popular name in the country. Through the rest of his career, the name Ryne stayed in the top 1,000, climbing higher when he had better seasons and dropping some when he was worse; it fell out of the top 1,000 when he retired in 1995, but jumped back in when he unretired in 1996. The correlation between Sandberg's WAR and the popularity of the name is an extremely strong 0.87, suggesting that the two (Sandberg's accomplishments and naming babies Ryne) were strongly entangled.
There have since been around 15 Rynes in professional baseball, all of them born during (or immediately after) Sandberg's career. Of the 2,000 or so Rynes named during his career, close to 1 percent have played affiliated baseball, a staggering estimate that doesn't even include a small handful of middle-name Rynes (such as Patrick Ryne Palmeiro, son of Ryne's teammate Rafael) and independent leaguers. Ryne Sandberg was, quite literally, a household name.
How Trout is plausibly better, already: Trout has already passed Sandberg in career walks, and he'll probably pass him in home runs by the end of this season. Subtract Trout's career from Sandberg's, and you'd have more than 4,000 plate appearances with a .255 on-base percentage and .330 slugging percentage left over.
Edgar Martinez, 68.4 WAR (81st)
How good Martinez was:
1. Martinez is probably the latest-blooming Hall of Famer of the modern era, at least among hitters. He didn't lose his rookie status until he was 26, didn't play his first full season until he was 27, didn't hit 20 home runs until he was 32, but from 32 onward outhit just about every player in major league history. Only seven players (Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams among them) had a higher OPS from 32 on, and none of those seven had as many post-32 plate appearances as Martinez did. Through age 30, he was just the 679th-best player in history, by WAR; then, his march up the leaderboard began:
Through 31: 633rd-best player ever
Through 32: 435th
Through 33: 331st
Through 34: 246th
Through 35: 186th
Through 36: 156th
Through 37: 127th
Through 38: 100th
Through 39: 95th
Through 40: 78th
2. Randy Johnson, Martinez's teammate, was another late-blooming Hall of Famer. "I've faced a lot of Hall of Fame hitters," Johnson once said, "and my gosh, Edgar is the best hitter that I ever saw." He had a reputation as a hitting genius, a technician, a perfectionist, a worker. A Mariners exec remembers seeing Martinez at the ballpark on Christmas Eve, his car the only one in the whole lot. "Over the years it was a common sight to see him sitting at his locker ... pulling out his little kitchen scale, checking every bat of a new shipment, carefully writing the weight in ounces on the knob, and occasionally shaking his head over discrepancies," longtime beat writer Bob Finnigan wrote.
3. With two strikes, he was the sixth-best hitter in history. Against right-handed pitching, he was the 13th-best right-handed hitter in history. Those are supposed to be the hard plate appearances, and they were, but for Martinez they were simply less hard than they were for almost anybody else.
How Trout is plausibly better, already: Edgar is the sixth-best hitter ever with two strikes. Trout is fifth. Edgar is the 13th-best right-handed hitter ever against right-handed pitchers. Trout is the best. Edgar is headed to the Hall of Fame because he is, arguably, statistically, the greatest designated hitter in history. Trout, who in addition plays a demanding position every day, has been a considerably better hitter, with a slightly higher on-base percentage and a much higher slugging percentage. Trout's incredible rate stats, to be fair, don't include his eventual decline phase. On the other hand, Trout has done all this and he's still younger than Edgar was at the end of his first full season.
Carlton Fisk, 68.5 WAR (80th)
How good Fisk was:
1. Fisk was the best rookie catcher in history. And then, two decades later, he was easily, clearly, by a mile, the best old catcher in history. In 1990, he produced 4.9 WAR at age 42. The next-best season by a catcher 42 or older, other than Fisk, was by Deacon McGuire, who in 1906 managed 0.8 WAR. Then comes Walker Cooper's 0.2 WAR in 1957. Fisk produced 4.9! The next-oldest catcher to produce at least 4.9 WAR in a season was Gabby Hartnett, who was only 36.
Fisk was good at 43, too, for that matter. His WAR as a 43-year-old catcher was 1.9.
2. In 1971, as Peter Gammons recounts in his great book "Beyond The Sixth Game," Fisk sprinted down the line on a ground ball, in a race with the batter Thurman Munson. Fisk won the race; he got to first and received a throw to complete an ultra-rare 3-6-2 double play. Munson was, Gammons writes, mad that Fisk had shown him up. Thus launched one of the great rivalries of the 1970s, between Fisk and the Yankees. He would brawl with Munson after a home plate collision in 1973, and with Lou Piniella after a collision in 1976. As Gammons writes, "He grew up in the heart of Red Sox country, and was available in the January 1967 draft to them only because, as one Baltimore scout said, 'everyone knew that he'd only play for the Red Sox.' He looked so much the part of the hearty, square-jawed New Englander, getting up at 6 a.m., chopping down trees on his farm, and being willing to defend New England's team with his fists, his bat and his body. He had come to believe in that role for himself, and was convinced that he really did hate the Yankees."
Of course, it wasn't just the Yankees who Fisk feuded with. Frank Robinson called him "the most disliked player in the league." The only stats Fisk ever led the league in: triples, as a rookie; and hit by pitches.
3. When he retired, he had the career by-a-catcher record in just about every offensive category. He was later surpassed in a bunch of them, by Mike Piazza or Ivan Rodriguez, but remains second or third in almost everything. In the early 2000s, Bill James ranked Fisk sixth all time among catchers, and noted that this was somehow not conventional wisdom:
"If you have a player who a) holds major career hitting records for a catcher and b) was an outstanding defensive catcher, one might think it obvious that he should be rated among the greatest catchers of all time. Apparently it isn't, as nobody else rates him there, but I will point out there is an argument that I should have rated Fisk quite a bit higher." James then considers, in a lengthy passage, whether Fisk might actually deserve to rank higher than Roy Campanella, who is in the catcher pantheon despite catching only half as many games as Fisk did. "Now I'm not saying that, to get even, Campanella has to be twice as good; he doesn't. But he does have to be, at the very least, 10 percent better. I can't see that he is."
How Trout is plausibly better, already: Now I'm not saying that, to get even, Trout has to be twice as good. But he is. Fisk, in his average season, produced about 30 more runs than a replacement-level hitter. Trout, in his average season, has produced about 40 more runs than that.
Eddie Murray, 68.7 WAR (78th)
How good Murray was:
1. The word "compiler" is often used as disparagement, but if we call Eddie Murray the greatest compiler of all time we can rightly put the emphasis on "greatest" and use it as an honor rather than disparagement. Murray never led his league in homers or RBIs in a full season (he did so in the strike-shortened 1981 campaign). Yet he hit 504 home runs and drove in the eighth-most runs in major league history. He hit at least 15 home runs in each of his first 20 seasons, the only player in history to do that. He drove in at least 75 runs in each of his first 20 seasons; nobody did that, either, and only one hitter even got past 17.
"Great," you might shrug, "15 homers and 75 RBIs." Doesn't sound like much. But that's the floor, and for most of those two decades Murray was way above that floor. Remember how good Adrian Gonzalez was in his prime? A terrifying hitter, a respected defender, a star who could be the biggest name on the Hot Stove and the best player on a World Series contender. There was no "but is he elite?" discussion about Gonzalez in his prime. He was. Murray was that good, for as long as Gonzalez was that good. Now just add three very good years at the front of the career and six good years at the back, and that's Eddie Murray.
2. Bill James perfectly captures this: "Here's a challenge for you: Can you identify Eddie Murray's best season?" He then proceeds to name nine plausible answers. Nine! "He never won an MVP Award," James continues, "but he was an MVP candidate every year."
3. He was also the 24th "clutchest" hitter in history, according to FanGraphs' way of measuring that. (Performance in high-leverage situations relative to performance overall, basically.) That's a stat that tends to hurt the very best power hitters, for various reasons, but it never hurt Murray.
How Trout is plausibly better, already: If Murray was an MVP candidate every year, Trout is the MVP favorite every year. Murray's career-best OPS+ is 159, 59 percent better than league average; Trout's career-worst OPS is 168 (which was good enough to lead the league).
Ivan Rodriguez, 68.7 WAR (77th)
How good Rodriguez was:
1. According to lore, Rodriguez might have grown up to be a dominant pitcher instead, but his arm was too good. His dad, they say, moved him to catcher because little Ivan's pitching "scared the other kids." According to Rodriguez, "I threw seven no-hitters, two in one day." Anyway, he had the best arm, as a catcher, in history.
Baseball Prospectus has an advanced metric for catchers' throwing, based on how often runners try to steal, how often they successfully steal, and adjusted for the pitchers who were on the mound (because individual pitchers have an even bigger effect on the running game than most catchers do). Rodriguez's arm produced three of the four best throwing seasons in history, and five of the best 11. He also picked off 90 baserunners, 25 more than Yadier Molina (so far) and 28 more than Johnny Bench.
In a 1997 Sports Illustrated profile, it was claimed that "Rodriguez throws so hard that the ball appears almost misshapen as it speeds toward second," which doesn't make any sense but goes to the sense of disorientation and fear that his arm inspired. That fear arguably made Rodriguez even more valuable than we give him credit for, just because of the way he subtly affected baserunners' aggressiveness: "His arm keeps some runners from attempting to steal and makes others reluctant to even take a sizable lead. [Rangers manager Johnny] Oates says Rodriguez's arm allows [first baseman Will] Clark to play off the bag when a runner with average speed is on first, closing the hole a left-handed hitter would otherwise enjoy. The Rangers' pitchers say that with Rodriguez behind the plate, they get more double plays and fewer opposing runners who go from first to third on a single or first to home on a double. 'I call it the Drop Anchor Effect,' Clark says. 'Guys get to first. Drop anchor. Then wait till it's safe to go to second.'"
2. That SI profile came out in 1997, when Rodriguez was just 25 years old. It called Rodriguez the most irreplaceable, most important player in baseball. Oates issued a guarantee that Rodriguez would make the Hall of Fame. That sure seems aggressive, considering that at that point Rodriguez was merely an average hitter.
But Oates was, in fact, a prophet: "Oates insists that Rodriguez could end up with 30 homers one year. Moreover, says Oates, if Rodriguez, who usually bats second, didn't have hitters like Rusty Greer, Juan Gonzalez and Clark hitting behind him, he could steal 20 bases. There's no telling how many more RBIs he'd have if the Rangers' rotating leadoff men weren't batting a paltry .249, third-worst in the league through Sunday." Two years later, Rodriguez hit 35 homers, stole 25 and drove in 113 runs, batting .332/.356/.558. He won the MVP award, along with his sixth consecutive Silver Slugger award.
3. When Rodriguez made his debut in June 1991, at 19, he was the youngest player in the American League. He would stay that way through the season, and through the entirety of the next season. He spent almost two full years as the youngest player in his league. By the time he retired, he was the eighth-oldest player in baseball. There are about 100 Hall of Fame hitters -- among them Mike Schmidt, David Ortiz, Frank Thomas and Jimmie Foxx -- who played fewer games than he caught.
How Trout is plausibly better, already: No knock on Ivan Rodriguez: It's just about impossible to do the things Trout does (or even come close) while catching. Ivan Rodriguez hit .308/.346/.489 in the first half, during his career; he hit .282/.318/.431 in the second half, presumably worn down by the strain of catching. He hit .306/.347/.490 through age 32, the same OPS+ as Robin Yount and Derek Jeter had in their careers; he hit .274/.301/.404 in seven years after that, same as Jerry Hairston. It's hard to catch, and Rodriguez was so good he had to bear even more of the burden than most: Oates described the routine of coming to work every day, knowing he had to give Rodriguez the day off, vowing to give Rodriguez the day off, and then caving and writing his name in the lineup once more, unwilling to give up his most valuable player for the day.
Al Simmons, 68.8 WAR (76th)
How good Simmons was:
1. In 1996, five decades after he played his final game, Simmons suddenly showed up on the cover of Sports Illustrated, under the headline "The Team That Time Forgot." Everybody knew that the Murderers' Row Yankees of the mid-late 1920s were the greatest team ever; what the accompanying article suggested was that it was actually the 1929-1931 Philadelphia A's who might deserve that title: "Statistically the New York and Philadelphia mini-dynasties were remarkably even: The A's had a record of 313-143 (.686) between 1929 and '31; the Yanks, 302-160 (.654) between 1926 and '28. And while Philadelphia scored six fewer runs than the Yankees -- 2,710 to 2,716 -- the A's had five fewer runs scored against them: 1,992 to 1,997. That represents a difference between the two teams, in net scoring, of only one run." Simmons was the best player on that team, the team's WAR leader over those three years, better than any American Leaguer besides Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
2. A quintessential "fall out of bed and hit" player, Simmons -- despite an incredibly violent and multidirectional swing, a swing that looked like frames were missing from it -- had actual evidence in his support: After holding out for a contract one spring, he finally signed and showed up for Opening Day without having played in a single spring training game. He rapped two hits. (He would hit .390 that season.)
"Late in his playing career, Simmons set a goal of obtaining 3,000 base hits," according to his SABR biography. How late he set that goal isn't clear, but his struggle to get there shows just how difficult it is to keep hitting major league pitching after the game has overtaken you. In his final four seasons, his hits totals were just 25, 3, 27 and 3 (with a year off in the middle). "He came up 73 hits short. He bemoaned the times he had begged off playing to nurse a hangover or left a one-sided game early for a quick shower and a night on the town. Proud of his Polish ancestry, Simmons as a veteran coach imparted his unachieved goal to another Polish-American. 'Never relax on any at-bat; never miss a game you can play,' he advised a young Stan Musial."
3. "One time," James writes in "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," "Al Simmons was in a terrible slump. After going oh-for-four he stumbled out of the shower in a funk and, not really thinking about what he was doing, put on his hat. The sight of a naked man wearing a hat caused somebody to laugh out loud, which caused other people to look and see what was funny, and pretty soon the whole clubhouse was roaring at the sight. The next day, Simmons had four hits. You can imagine what happened then: Simmons began getting dressed every day by putting his hat on first. And, as he got hot and stayed hot, this spread to the rest of the team. After a while, you could go into the A's locker room after a game, and there'd be a dozen men running around naked except for their hats."
How Trout is plausibly better, already: Simmons spent the final decade of his career as merely a league-average hitter. Even before that, he hardly ever walked. And he played in an era of outrageous offense. Bottom line: He finished with an OBP that was about 5 percent better than his league's average. Trout's OBP is 30 percent better than his contemporaries'.
Tony Gwynn, 69.2 WAR (75th)
How good Gwynn was:
1. He's one of the all-time great fun fact machines, maybe top five. Aaron Judge already has more career strikeouts than he did. After falling behind 0-2 in counts, he still hit .267, and his strikeout rate in those plate appearances (13.6) would rank around 20th, out of 180 qualifying hitters, in 2019. He hit .444 with the bases loaded. He hit .398 in extra innings, with a .500 on-base percentage.
But here's probably the greatest one: He faced Greg Maddux -- one of the half-dozen best pitchers in baseball history, and perhaps the savviest -- 107 times. He batted .415 against Maddux. He walked 11 times and never struck out. Maddux got two-strike counts against him at least 22 times; Gwynn hit .476 in those at-bats. Against all Hall of Famers, he hit .331. Other than Gwynn, no batter since Stan Musial has hit that high in a career, against all pitchers.
2. In Musial's final season, Stan The Man was joking around with Joe Garagiola before a game. Mocking the tendency of old-timers to demean those who came after, Musial mimicked: "Then, we didn't have any radio or any television or any writers following us around. We just played ball. We didn't have ceremonies at home plate. We just played ball and we hit .370. Kids today have it too easy."
Al Simmons hit .370 a few times. So did Gwynn. But Musial, who counseled Gwynn on hitting decades later, knew: These .370s aren't nearly equal. It was miles easier to hit .370 in the 1920s, when the quality of talent was far thinner and the offensive environment much friendlier. If we compare each player to just his peers, Gwynn rises into truly elite status: His batting average, relative to his era, is tied for the third highest ever, trailing only Joe Jackson and Ty Cobb. His strikeout rate is the fourth lowest ever, relative to league norms. He won so many NL batting titles they named the danged thing after him.
3. Gwynn's reputation as a singles hitter belied his ability to drive in runs. According to FanGraphs, he's the greatest clutch hitter ever, or at least for the years (1974 to the present) that the stat covers. He hit .352/.411/.480 with men on base, outslugging Dave Winfield and Andre Dawson and Carl Yastrzemski in such situations.
"Will have average power when he learns to pull the ball more," a scout predicted after watching Gwynn play in college. That took until the mid-1990s, and a conversation with Ted Williams, when Gwynn was 37:
"We talked for two hours," Gwynn says, "and we must have spent 50 minutes talking about the inside pitch." Gwynn already had won six of his seven National League batting titles, including the crown for the strike-shortened 1994 season that he got with a .394 average, and amassed Hall of Fame credentials by allowing the inside pitch to get to the plate before, as he likes to say, "carving" the ball through the hole between third base and shortstop. Williams insisted that a good hitter meets the inside pitch in front of the plate. He picked up his cane, snapped at an imaginary inside fastball and shouted at Gwynn, "You've got to turn on it! You've got to let it go! Let it go!"
He ended up driving in 119 runs that season. "I don't care what the numbers say," Gwynn said in that same article. "Am I better than Hank Aaron? Stan Musial? Frank Robinson? Not a chance. The only thing I want people to say about me is that I played the game the way it should be played. What I've always wanted to do is be a complete player. This is as close as I've ever come to it."
How Trout is plausibly better, already: This feels like a hard one. Gwynn has a lot of black ink on his player page, and for stretches of his career he was a great corner defender and a great baserunner. He had a particular set of strengths, and he used them flawlessly. But Trout has those skills too -- he's 17th all time in AVG+, which is batting average relative to a player's era -- and a few more. He's about to pass Gwynn in walks, about to double him in career homers, and he plays the much more demanding position. (Just by playing center field instead of right, Trout has earned about 9 more WAR than Gwynn.) And while Gwynn's batting averages are historic, he had only two seasons with an on-base percentage higher than Trout's career OBP. His best season would be Trout's sixth best.
Tim Raines, 69.4 career WAR (74th)
How good Raines was:
1. Just after Tim Raines announced his first retirement, in 2000, ESPN.com ran a poll asking fans whether he should be in the Hall of Fame. Only 4% said yes. Thus began a decade-and-a-half-long push by sabermetric writers to convince those other 96% -- and the baseball writers who overwhelmingly voted against Raines when he first appeared on the Hall ballot, in 2008 -- that he was, truly, among the 100 best position players who ever lived. A "dweeb team" was formed to make this case. Many thousands of words were written, many analyses conducted and the case never weakened. The facts were so strong that, eventually, most of those voters changed their minds, and Raines was elected in 2017. In the 25 years or so that sabermetrics has been a truly popular movement, few positions have been more universally and consistently held within that community than this one: Tim Raines was an all-time great.
2. Here's the nutshell argument, made way back in 2000 by Joe Sheehan: "Raines was probably the best player in baseball from 1985-1987, and could have been the 1987 National League MVP had he not lost the first month of the season to collusion. [Note: In 1988, Bill James wrote that the best current player in baseball was either Raines or Wade Boggs.] He led the NL in steals four times, and stole 807 bases at an 85 percent clip for his career, which makes him the second-best basestealer in history behind Rickey Henderson." For a decade, he was the National League's second-best player. For his career, he was history's second-best leadoff man. "I'd rather have Tim Raines or Rickey Henderson than any slugger in the game today," Padres manager Steve Boros said in 1986. "That's not to say I'd take the good leadoff man over the slugger, per se. I'm talking about Raines and Henderson. They're probably the two best leadoff hitters who ever lived."
3. Raines did many things well, but his value came mostly from getting to first base (he reached more times than Gwynn) and then, a pitch or two later, getting to second base. Raines once claimed he could steal 150 or 175 times in a season if all he'd cared about was piling up numbers, but he was much choosier to avoid making outs.
How Trout is plausibly better, already: Raines played 23 years, to Trout's nine so far. But the final decade of Raines' career was spent mostly injured, in part-time roles or as a veteran occasionally coming off the bench. From 1993 to 2002, he had 11.3 WAR; Trout already had 11.0 by the end of his rookie season. Which is to say that Raines had longevity, sure, but his case was always built on his great peak; Trout's peak, meanwhile, might be the greatest peak of all time. Raines does have a baserunning edge of nearly 80 runs; but Trout's edge on defense (110 runs) wipes that out. And Trout's OBP (.420) is nearly as high as Raines' slugging percentage (.425). Raines' best season would only tie Trout's sixth best.
Who's next: Ed Delahanty. Trout could pass him today.