The Unique Greatness of Mike Trout

As I’m sure you know, there are scores of internet writers who write exclusively about baseball, and dozens more who write about baseball in addition to other topics. To the best of my knowledge, none has written a word about Mike Trout this season.

In case you haven’t heard, Mike Trout is a rookie outfielder for the California Angels of Orange County, and he’s got a pretty good chance of winning the Rookie of the Year this year. In fact, if super slugger Miguel Cabrera hadn’t already locked up the AL MVP, we might be talking about Trout for that award as well. Click below to see why.

Fangraphs breaks its version of WAR for position players into three components: value from batting, value from fielding, and value from baserunning. At the moment, Trout leads the AL, and indeed all of baseball, with 51.5 batting runs above replacement. He leads the AL in baserunning runs above replacement. And he’s third in fielding runs above average, trailing only Mike Moustakas and Ichiro Suzuki.

Baseball-Reference tells us that Trout trails Cabrera by a tenth of a run in batting runs above average. This is presumably because fangraphs includes stolen bases in its batting runs, while B-R includes steals in baserunning runs (in which Trout has been almost as valuable as the next two players combined). B-R also has Trout leading the league in fielding runs above average.

What does this tell us? Almost certainly, Trout has been the best hitter in baseball this year. B-R tells us that Cabrera has created one more run, but he’s done it in 60 more plate appearances. It’s really not that close.

Almost certainly, Trout is the best baserunner in baseball. Jason Heyward has a .1 run advantage in fangraphs baserunning, which excludes stolen bases, where Trout leads Heyward, 45-19. In case you were wondering, Trout’s four caught stealings are half of Heyward’s. B-R gives Trout ten baserunning runs above average, eight more than Heyward and three more than anyone else in baseball. It’s not really that close.

These numbers don’t necessarily tell us that Trout is the best defensive player in baseball. The eye test certainly supports his candidacy, as he’s probably made more highlight-reel catches than anyone in the game. B-R thinks he’s brought more value relative to his position than anyone else, but he’s played almost as much left field as center, so it’s hard to make a case that he’s a better defensive player than the best shortstops in the league (Brendan Ryan comes to mind) or the best catchers (Yadier Molina, for instance). Defensive numbers also fall prey to sample size issues, as a player’s UZR can be boosted by more opportunities and his zone factor can be disproportionately affected by one or two misplays. Still, we can’t have a conversation about the best defensive outfielders in baseball without mentioning Trout, and by extension, he’s in the best defensive player discussion.

Should Trout finish in the top three in his league in each component, how unique would that be? Fangraphs’ baserunning runs only go back to 2002, since the elements that comprise it haven’t been tracked forever. In the past ten seasons, no player has finished in the top three in his league in each component. Stretch it to the top five (I’ll stick to fangraphs because B-R adds a fourth component, double play runs, which are calculated separately from fielding runs), and we’re still not particularly close to finding anyone. Five players have finished in the top ten in their league in all three categories: Grady Sizemore in 2006, Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran in 2008, Chase Utley in 2009, and Carl Crawford in 2010 (Crawford’s been worth half a win since then- has anyone written about him?). Utley’s season, in which he was sixth in batting, third in baserunning, and seventh in fielding, was the most balanced between the three disciplines.

If we limit the requirement to two of three categories, we still don’t find a single player since ’02 who led either league in two. Crawford was second in fielding and third in baserunning in ’09; Matt Holliday was second in baserunning and third in hitting in ’07.

If we dig back a little further and ignore baserunning, the last player to finish in the top three in hitting and fielding was Cal Ripken in 1991, who finished first in fielding with 23 runs and second to Frank Thomas in batting runs, with 50.7. The last player to lead his league in both? Barry Bonds in 1990 (55 batting, 28 fielding). Bonds stole 52 bases that season, good for third in the NL, so this seems like a good comp for Trout’s season. Bonds earned 10.1 fWAR (9.5 rWAR) and won the MVP. Someone should write a blog post about him too.

I’m willing to reserve the Greatest Player in Baseball tag until Trout has kept this up for a few more seasons, but it’s hard to argue that he’s not already the most well-rounded player in the game.

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