When Mike Trout reported to spring training in mid-February 2020, he was 28 years old and had more career WAR through the age of 27 than any player in Major League Baseball history.
Although 27 has long been mythologized (not entirely accurately) as the peak of Major League Baseball players' performance, it's not as though year 28 automatically triggers some inexorable decline. Babe Ruth had his best season at 28. So did Rogers Hornsby and Ernie Banks, and until his PED-fueled third act, Barry Bonds' best season had come at 28. Other inner-circle stars -- Joe Morgan and Albert Pujols among them -- set new career highs at 28 and then continued to improve.
Trout, more than any other active player, is baseball history (and legendary) happening in front of us. It is very easy to anticipate that, in 10 years, he'll be chasing down round-number milestones and career records, and the main work is happening in these seasons, while he's at his peak. But it's not just that. Trout is already squarely in the passing-Hall-of-Famers-in-career-WAR-every-few-days period of his career, and another Trout-like season could topple as many as 17 Hall of Famers. And if nothing else, Trout would have entered 2020 looking to defend and extend the record he first claimed in his rookie season:
• More WAR through age 27 than any player in history
• More WAR through age 26 than any player in history
• More WAR through age 24 than any player in history
• More WAR through age 23 than any player in history
• More WAR through age 22 than any player in history
• More WAR through age 21 than any player in history
• More WAR through age 20 than any player in history
Of course, COVID-19 didn't care. By the time this season actually began in late July, Trout's run as WAR Champ Through Age ___ was essentially over. The 10 players after him on the all-time WAR leaderboard through age 27 averaged about 8.0 WAR -- an MVP-caliber full season -- at age 28. Ty Cobb, second behind Trout after age 27, had 9.5 WAR at age 28. To match Cobb through 28, then, Trout would have had to produce 5.6 WAR this year -- easy in a full season but unthinkable in 60 games, requiring a pace better than the greatest season of all time. Mickey Mantle and Hornsby have also passed him, for now; he's unlikely to catch Hornsby, but if he plays like his normal self he'll pass Mantle still. That would put him third, all time, though age 28.
Alas, thus far he hasn't quite played like his normal self -- or, at least, WAR hasn't reflected it. Through the weekend, Trout was hitting .277/.369/.622, an OPS that exactly matches his 2015 and 2016 seasons. But WAR combines offensive, baserunning and defensive value, and the early defensive metrics have dinged him. That could be caused by any number of small-sample flukes, and the Angels have dismissed the metrics. But, in one of the many, many downstream examples of this year's weirdness, Mike Trout is unlikely to challenge for the league's WAR lead. He's unlikely to finish near the top of MVP voting. He hasn't changed, so much as the world this year is too chaotic to make proper use of him.
Still, though, Trout moves up the career WAR leaderboard, and he passed two more Hall of Famers this month. If I tell you that 29-year-old Mike Trout has more career WAR than, say, Jim Thome had in his entire career, you could hear it as an incredible tribute to Trout, but you could also hear it as a diminishment of Thome -- and if we diminish Thome, we diminish the power of the tribute. To really appreciate Trout, it helps to appreciate just how incredible were the Hall of Famers he is passing and to understand how it is plausible that Trout is already actually more valuable than they were.
Larry Walker, 72.7 career WAR (57th all-time among position players)
How good Walker was:
1. When Trout passed 19th-century star Fred Clarke in career WAR, we noted that Clarke "made the majors about five years after he started playing the game." In the very early days of professional baseball, this sort of thing happened. There were a lot of late bloomers, players who bloomed late not because their skills advanced later than their peers' but because they weren't really even playing yet. It's not that it was easy to be a major league star in 1894. But, it's fair to say, it was a lot easier. A great athlete could figure the sport out.
Nowadays, a late bloomer is unlikely to ever catch up to the amount of development the typical 22-year-old prospect has been through. The life of a teenage star might well involve hundreds of games every year against draft-caliber opponents, with coaching from professional-level tutors. The act of hitting is now so difficult, so unnatural to the human brain, that hitters must be exposed to thousands and thousands of pitchers to, essentially, program their brain to recognize patterns subconsciously.
Larry Walker might be the last player to follow a career path like his own to the Hall of Fame. Growing up in Canada, he was primarily a hockey goalie and played "10 baseball games a year. Fifteen, tops." The sport wasn't that popular among his community -- "the weather was against it" -- and the season was short. His high school didn't have a team. Some of the pitchers he'd see in recreational leagues would spin the ball a little, but nobody could really throw a good breaking ball or at high velocity.
He went undrafted, and when the Montreal Expos signed him as a free agent it was for just $1,500. He wasn't preparing for a career as a minor leaguer -- let alone a career as a major leaguer, as his dad, Larry Sr., told him: "I warned Larry back then that he would have to be prepared to spend the next 50 years as a laborer. He said he understood that."
In Walker's first year as a professional, in the rookie-level New York-Penn League, he hit .223, with two homers in 241 plate appearances. He played first base, the least demanding position on the diamond, and made four errors. He stole a dozen bases, but even that wasn't anything special at that level; four teammates stole more, and he was caught six times.
So that's where he started. The next year he led the Single-A Midwest League in OPS, as one of the youngest hitters at the level. A year after that he hit 26 homers and stole 24 bases at Double-A, as the youngest regular in the league. He was one of the best prospects in baseball, and -- after a freak injury derailed him for one year -- he would go on to be one of the finest all-around players of his era. "Most talented player I've ever had," his manager Don Baylor said later.
2. From 1995 to 2003, Walker had the third-best OPS in baseball, and that's where the controversy about his career really kicked in. As an Expo for the first six years of his career, he was seen as a very good player, but he made only one All-Star team and led the league in only one offensive category (doubles, in the strike-shortened 1994 season). As a Rockie, he had a five-year run where he hit .357/.445/.658, which is about what Ted Williams hit in the middle of his career. In 1997, he led the league in homers, took a .400 batting average into July and had more total bases than any hitter in a half-century. Tom Verducci, making Walker's case for MVP that fall, wrote: "Twenty years from now baseball archaeologists should not sift through the Baseball Encyclopedia, come upon these Jurassic numbers -- .366, 49 homers and 130 RBIs -- and have to wail, 'He didn't win the MVP?'"
He did win it. A few years later, Baseball Prospectus' preseason annual asked about Walker, "Will he be the first guy to suffer in Hall of Fame voting because of Coors Field?" He probably was. But that 1997 season might have been what most persuasively made his case. Walker was, yes, putting up huge numbers at a park that was creating laughably inflated offensive numbers for everybody. But that year, he was even better on the road. He hit 29 of his 49 homers on the road, and slugged .733 away from home. Only nine players in history ever had a season with a higher road OPS than he did: Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, Mark McGwire, Norm Cash and Jeff Bagwell.
Twenty years later isn't that long, and we don't yet need baseball archaeologists when most of us were actually there. But it still really helps to have these reminders of what people thought when they were actually seeing it. Walker's MVP win that year was an important block in establishing the credibility of his late-1990s performances. Coors Field was a farce, it's true. But people who had to sit through that farce could still see through it enough to note that Larry Walker was, indeed, the best player in the National League that year, and one of the very best for about a decade.
3. Just after his retirement, and before he became head coach at San Diego State, Tony Gwynn spent some time as an ESPN analyst. He used that time to declare his limitless admiration for Walker:
"He is the best baserunner in the game. What puts Walker on a higher level is his mental approach. It's obvious to other players and people who watch the game that he is always thinking ahead. He goes from first to third better than anyone in baseball because he has thought about it before the ball is hit."
Walt Weiss, a teammate turned manager, echoed it: "The best baserunning instincts I've ever seen."
How it's plausible Trout is, indeed, already better: Larry Walker deserves every Hall of Fame vote he got, and every MVP vote he got, and if anything the distortive powers of Coors Field cost him credit. But Walker's greatness was, in fact, more about his all-around abilities (defense, baserunning and offense) than his truly being Ted Williams at the plate. During his peak, from 1995 to 2003, he was just 34th in the majors in road OPS, one point ahead of Jay Buhner and 12 points behind Ryan Klesko. He was still a very good hitter and a great player, but he didn't hit anywhere near as well as Trout does. (Trout's OPS on the road since 2012 is by far the league's best, by more than 50 points.)
Jim Thome, 72.9 career WAR (56th)
How good Thome was:
1. At this point in this series, when Trout is passing true all-timers, the leaderboards do most of the work for us. Since 1920, Jim Thome has the 30th-best career on-base percentage and the 22nd-best slugging percentage (and the eighth-most homers). He's a prototype of his era, the early Moneyball era: a big, slugging power hitter who would draw a ton of walks, see a ton of pitchers, mash a ton of dingers and bury the bunt-and-run tendencies of the previous era. He was just so, so much better than the others of that type. By offensive WAR, his bat was a little more valuable than those of Adam Dunn, Jay Bruce and Pat Burrell combined. His power was so fearsome he might have invented the "reaction" genre on the internet, when Delmon Young was conveniently placed in the on-deck circle for Thome's 490-foot homer.
2. But Thome (and others of his prototype) were often knocked for being one-dimensional. That's unfair. For one thing, hitting dingers and drawing walks are two dimensions, and Thome (who led the league in the latter statistic three times) excelled at both. But Thome was also a rarity for his type, because he could also hit for average, despite the copious strikeouts that came from his hitting approach. Since 1961, there are 77 hitters who have slugged at least 350 home runs. Thome's batting average on balls in play is, at .322, the eighth-best. Many of these hitters are easily defended, because (in order to hit homers) they hit a lot of fly balls, pull everything and are muscular but slow. That mostly describes Thome, too, but he managed to hit around those challenges.
Between his walk rate and his respectable batting averages, Thome was actually a fairly well-rounded hitter. Reggie Jackson, Willie McCovey, Harmon Killebrew, Ken Griffey, George Brett, Duke Snider, Mike Piazza, Willie Stargell, Carl Yastrzemski, Vladimir Guerrero, on and on: They all had a lower OBP and a lower slugging percentage than Thome. That's not to say Thome was better overall than these greats, but he was a better hitter.
3. Thome is as associated with his geographical upbringing as any player in baseball. He's from Peoria, Illinois, and his family members -- he's descended from a family of legendary softball players -- crowd the Peoria Hall of Fame. Throughout his career, profiles of Thome played up what might be considered his extreme Midwesternness -- which is to say, how nice and unglamorous he was.
But people are individuals, not stereotypes. In Joe Posnanski's 2010 profile of Thome, he recounts how Thome's father, a fast-pitch softball star named Chuck, "was strictly a Bill Buckner man. Buckner almost never struck out, and he almost never hit a home run -- he cracked line drives that split outfielders and rolled into the ivy walls. 'Watch Billy Buck,' Chuck would tell his youngest son when they made the trip to Wrigley Field. 'That's a hitter.'"
But Jim Thome of Peoria did not choose Billy Buckner as his idol. His hero was Dave Kingman, a famous jerk and the opposite of Buckner in every way. Kingman struck out and he homered. Posnanski: "'I don't know,' Jim says when asked why Kingman was his favorite player. 'I didn't really hit home runs back then. I wasn't really all that big then. I mean, it was just cool to watch the way he hit those long home runs out onto Waveland Avenue. That's all. I guess I didn't think about it too much.'"
Thome would grow up to be, essentially, the perfect baseball version of Dave Kingman. And also very nice.
How it's plausible Trout is, indeed, already better: The simple part of the answer is that, for all our praise of how multidimensional he was, Thome couldn't really run. Trout has been worth six WAR more than Thome -- about a third of Dave Kingman's career value -- with his baserunning alone. And the defensive value of a center fielder (and a good one) dwarfs the defensive value of a first baseman (and a relatively poor one).
But while that's all true, and that's the bulk of the difference, it's not entirely satisfying. More satisfying is this: Thome was an all-time great hitter, and Trout is considerably better as a hitter. Thome's career OPS+ was 147. Trout's career-worst OPS+ is 168. (Trout's career OPS+ is 176; Thome had one full season better than that.) Thome's best season, by WAR, would be Trout's eighth best.
Who's next: Frank Thomas.