How do you measure greatness? It is the question that hangs over the sports world. Some will knock Charles Barkley, Ted Williams, Dan Marino and Lionel Messi for their failure to win championships. Others will exalt Michael Jordan and Tom Brady for the championship resumes. Everyone agrees that statistics matter. While wins and losses matter, it is often who they came against that matters more. Peyton Manning vs Tom Brady. Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier. Everyone wants to see greatness clash. Baseball has a Mike Trout problem. Mike Trout is indisputably one of the greatest to ever play the game, but no one has ever stepped up to challenge him for that title. Someone needs to rival Mike Trout, and soon.
Mike Trout Needs A Consistent Rival
First, the rules. While pitchers and hitters are natural rivals, pitchers don’t count here. WAR is an inexact science that measures pitchers and hitters very differently. Head-to-head matchups are fun, but infrequent, and never guaranteed to happen in the playoffs. Secondly, timing matters. Trout can chase history forever, but it doesn’t actually matter if he catches it. No one actually catches history – the times, the players, the field conditions, the ball – everything changes and makes direct comparison fun, but impossible. For Trout, this means it doesn’t matter if he catches Barry Bonds or Albert Pujols or the Babe in any particular category or in total WAR. He has never matched up against another Hall of Fame caliber position player who was still in their prime.
Honorable Mention 1: The Pitchers
It would be unfair to totally ignore pitching. Some of the best arms ever are playing right now. That said since Mike Trout first came up in 2011 he has accounted for 70.1 fWAR. Second place is Clayton Kershaw way back at 53.2. That gap is practically an ocean. The stats are measured and valued so differently, pitchers simply can’t be counted as rivals. Kershaw, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander are absolutely worthy of the Hall of Fame. Chris Sale, David Price, Corey Kluber, Jacob deGrom, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels, CC Sabathia . . . the list goes on. All could potentially have Hall of Fame credentials. They are also further away from Trout than Kershaw. For rivalry purposes, the current stats just don’t work.
Honorable Mention 2: The Vets
This is not a disparaging of Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Beltre . . . or catchers from Joe Mauer and Yadier Molina to Buster Posey and Brian McCann. But it can’t be denied that they all experienced their primes before Trout entered his. Again, since Trout came up in 2011 he has 70.1 fWAR. The second best position player is Buster Posey, way back at 48.1. For comparison’s sake, that 22 fWAR gap between first and second is more fWAR than George Springer, an All-Star starter this year, has in his career. As in, you could add Springer’s entire career to Posey’s numbers the start of 2011, and it still wouldn’t quite catch Trout. Ergo, Mike Trout needs a rival.
Contemporaries vs Mike Trout
It was supposed to be Bryce Harper. It was going to be Bryce Harper. Sure, Harper kept getting hurt, but just wait. It almost was Bryce Harper. Harper was transcendent in 2015 and everyone thought he had arrived. Mike Trout had a rival at last. Except Harper regressed and plateaued, and Trout kept getting better. Since the start of 2015, Harper has 22.3 fWAR, good for 13th among position players. Trout has 40.8, good for first.
It is not a particularly close first either. Mookie Betts is second, well back at 31.1 fWAR. Betts is frustrating. The talent to truly challenge Trout is there. However, Betts keeps alternating incredible seasons with relatively pedestrian ones. He is never bad, he just fades back to the pack at times. Trout never fades back. Case in point, in 2018 Betts had 10.4 fWAR while Trout had 9.8. In 2019, Trout is again second, behind Cody Bellinger, with 5.2 fWAR. Mookie Betts is 33rd, with 2.3.
Francisco Lindor made his debut in 2015, as did Kris Bryant. They have 24.9 and 26.0 fWAR respectively. Great, but distantly great. Andrew McCutchen only has two years on Trout, but even adding those in don’t get him within 20 fWAR. Giancarlo Stanton, Freddie Freeman, and Jose Altuve all have their own cases for greatness. Of the three, only Stanton has even halved Trout’s fWAR total. Manny Machado, Anthony Rendon, Nolan Arenado, Bryce Harper – they are all stars, and they all fall well back of Trout.
The Young ‘Uns vs Mike Trout
Thanks to some injuries, Trout has only played 333 games since the beginning of 2017. If Trout were a mere mortal, the field would catch him. And as expected, thanks to the lack of games, since the start of 2017 baseball’s fWAR leader is . . . Mike Trout, with 21.8. Wait, what?! That’s ahead of Mookie Betts (who played 36 more games) and Max Scherzer (both between 18 and 19 fWAR).
Cody Bellinger has had two great seasons in three and sits eight wins back. Alex Bregman is seven wins back. Christian “On Pace For Sixty Home Runs” Yelich is five wins back, as is Anthony Rendon. Lindor is six wins back.
What about just 2018 and 2019? Still Mike Trout. 15.0 fWAR, 2.3 ahead of Mookie, a full 3.0 ahead of Scherzer and deGrom. Trout is over 5.0 wins ahead of Matt Chapman and Lindor, and further still ahead of wunderkinds Ronald Acuna Jr. and Juan Soto.
Who Will It Be?
Mookie Betts has the talent to topple Trout. Lindor, Bellinger, Acuna, Yelich may as well. But it may be too late. Mike Trout is running out of time to have a true contemporary. Hank Aaron had Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente and Frank Robinson. Bonds and Ruth had a myriad of challengers, all worthy, and all who fell well behind. Lou Gehrig, Ken Griffey Jr., and Chipper Jones were all greats in their own right though. Baseball has potential a-plenty right now, and Trout still stands alone. If Mike Trout is Muhammad Ali, no one has stepped up to be George Foreman, let alone Joe Frazier. For the fans, for the game Mike Trout needs a rival, so let’s hope that can change.
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