Mike Trout is currently the best player in baseball. That's not really up for debate. But what does Trout need to do to become the widely acknowledged greatest player of all-time? That is, how can the Angels superstar get to the Michael Jordan level of greatness?
Even if some people question or argue about Trout's status as MLB's GOAT, how can he get to that mantle?
As Trout enters his 10th major-league season -- one that he recently re-committed to playing around the upcoming birth of his first child -- I decided to tackle this topic. Let's dive in.
Trout is on track
First, let's look at how Trout's career shapes up through his age-27 season to illustrate how he's on track to become the greatest baseball player of all-time -- and he is definitely on track.
Trout is currently slashing .305/.419/.581, with a 176 OPS+, 1,324 hits, 251 doubles, 285 home runs, 752 RBI, 903 runs, 200 steals, 72.8 WAR and three MVPs along with four MVP runners-up.
A good start? Yeah, I'd say so. Post Deadball Era, here are the players with a 175-or-better OPS+ with at least 1,000 plate appearances through their age-27 seasons:
- Babe Ruth
- Ted Williams
- Frank Thomas
- Lou Gehrig
- Jimmie Foxx
- Mike Trout.
That's just with the bat. What if we loop in defense and baserunning?
Trout already has three 10-plus WAR seasons, joining Barry Bonds, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Ty Cobb. Rogers Hornsby and Willie Mays have six with Babe Ruth tops the list with nine. No one else has more than two.
Here are the only other players with at least 60 WAR through age-27 seasons:
- Ty Cobb
- Mickey Mantle
- Rogers Hornsby
- Alex Rodriguez
- Jimmie Foxx
- Mel Ott
Notice I dipped down to 60, despite Trout being over 70? Yeah, that's because Trout is the only player in baseball history to top 70 WAR before he turned 28.
Using WAR, Trout is the best player in baseball history through his age-27 season.
What's fun is that in some ways Trout is getting better. His career high in on-base percentage was set in 2018 and last year he hit his high-water mark in slugging. While he struck out 184 times against 83 walks in 2014, he's nearly even the last three years (326 walks, 334 strikeouts).
Can he keep it up?
Now, we've seen careers fall apart before. One of recent vintage that comes to mind is Andruw Jones. He was an easy and obvious Hall of Famer though his age-29 season. Through his age-30 season, Jones had amassed 61 WAR. The rest of his career? 1.7. He completely fell apart and became a punchline.
It's hard to see that happening with Trout, but the point is his case is incomplete. In order to be widely hailed as the "GOAT" Trout will need to hit some benchmarks.
In fact, he needs to hit nearly all of them: 3,000 hits, 500 doubles, 500 home runs, 1,500 RBI, 1,500 runs. It wouldn't hurt to get to 300-plus steals, either. Do you know how many players have hit all those benchmarks in a single career? Just two: Willie Mays and A-Rod. That's it. If we lop off the steals, we still only add Hank Aaron, Albert Pujols, Eddie Murray and Rafael Palmeiro.
Using Bill James' "favorite toy," the 3,000 hits are a tall order with Trout expected to land somewhere in the 2,300 range. The other figures are completely attainable, though, and given how much Trout walks -- he's led the majors in on-base percentage three of the last four years and the AL each of the last four -- I'm willing to bet we aren't as worried about the career hit total once he retires.
Simply, Trout is on track to rack up insane counting stats and more WAR than anyone else in history while maintaining an all-time great slash line. He's well on his way.
Who's his competition?
But would that be enough to supplant the group that includes Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Barry Bonds et al in the public eye?
I still think, albeit wrongly, the general public would need more. There's a certain level of mystique that a perceived GOAT needs to possess, and these days with so many different outlets garnering our attention, it's much more difficult to get to that level of lore without increased eyeballs in October.
That is to say -- though I hardly think it's fair to judge players this way in baseball -- Trout probably needs to be the best player on a championship team at least once. How isn't it fair? I'll take this route again:
- This isn't basketball where one player can dominate the ball every time down the floor and then guard the best player while on defense.
- This isn't football where the quarterback has control of the ball on every single offensive play.
- In baseball, a player can only bat once every nine times. Sometimes that means only hitting three times in a game. He can only field balls hit to his area. Sometimes for an outfielder that means zero chances a game. And yet, people still like to judge individual players based upon team success. It's madness.
Perception is reality, however, and that persists. The general public needs the best baseball players to play on winning teams without pushing back. For whatever reason, we never hear "he never won when it mattered" about Ted Williams (who played in one playoff series in which he hit .200/.333/.200 and his team lost), for example, but it happens with current players. Again, I'll guess it's because the entertainment industry is so vast these days and regular-season baseball just isn't as visible.
I fully realize in the minds of many, Babe Ruth can never be matched. There's just too much lore there. We're also smart enough to grasp that he played in a pre-integration league. One can only measure a player against his peers, but Babe didn't play against all of them. Trout does. If he gets within the ballpark, statistically, I think more people would be willing to accept it came against far tougher competition.
It's still an uphill battle for Trout, but he's on track. He'll need to hit a lot of statistical benchmarks while playing at least another decade at a high level and, along the way, he'll need to be blessed with good enough teammates to win people over on the biggest stage baseball has.