Mike Trout is a baseball god among mere mortals. No matter how one slices it, he has had a historic start to his career, cementing himself as the undisputed best player in baseball essentially since he began playing full time.
Since 2012, his first full season in the Majors, he laps the league in fWAR (50.4); the next best player in MLB, Josh Donaldson, is at a distant second with “just” 32.6.
Every year, one of the few certainties in baseball is seeing Trout atop the WAR leaderboards. He has led the AL in fWAR every season since 2012, and only Bryce Harper’s monstrous 2015 campaign topped Trout in any corresponding NL season.
But if there is one other, more humbling certainty in baseball, it is that no one is invincible. Even a baseball god like Trout is vulnerable to the wear-and-tear of the grueling baseball season. He had weathered these aches and pains admirably so far in his career, playing at least 157 games in all of his full seasons, and avoiding the disabled list, giving him the capability of compiling a counting stat like WAR with ease.
Then, suddenly, he’s gone. An awkward head-first slide into second base on May 28 in Miami ultimately led to an ulnar collateral ligament tear in his left thumb, requiring surgery. The estimated timetable for his return is 6-to-8 weeks, putting his return somewhere between the start of the unofficial second half and the end of July, if all goes accordingly.
The loss of baseball’s best player is awful all around, clearly for baseball as a whole, as well as for the Angels, who are still hovering around .500. The loss comes at a time where Trout appeared to be on pace for his best season yet, as he was in the midst of one of his best stretches as a major leaguer.
Trout was off to a torrid .337/.461/.742 start to 2017, good for an obscene 213 wRC+ in 47 games, meaning he is 113% better than the average major leaguer. For comparison, his best wRC+ in a season was 176 in 2013, and his career wRC+ is 170.
Maybe not that unbelievably, but Trout has actually had better 45-game stretches in his career, by wRC+, as evidenced by the below 45-game rolling wRC+, courtesy of FanGraphs.
Perhaps more impressive than all of the highs is the lack of real lows. Granted, there are “lows” for someone of Trout’s prodigious offensive output, but if your worst 45-game stretch is an above-average wRC+, you’re doing just fine.
In terms of starting the season, Trout’s Mar./Apr. and May 2017 wRC+ are career highs for those respective months, as are basically every other offensive metric of choice.
Is a wRC+ of 213 sustainable or even attainable over a whole season? Since 1900, there have been 12 player seasons resulting in a wRC+ greater than Trout’s current 213. The names are as one would expect: Ruth (4), Bonds (3), Williams (3), Mantle, and Hornsby (1 each). There have been 28 seasons of at least 200 wRC+, which involves most of the same suspects.
So, Trout had a historically great first two months of his age 25-26 season, well on his way to his third (*cough could be sixth cough*) AL MVP, and now he’s hurt for nearly 2 months and everything sucks.
But, I’m an optimist. Rather than dwell on the potential milestones Trout may have achieved had he played a full season at this rate, I’ll spin his injury into yet another way he may be the best ever. There is a chance, albeit small, that he could still pull off the AL MVP award, even with this injury.
This will naturally require a best-case scenario to pull off. Trout will need to come back at the low end of his predicted recovery timetable (6 weeks), which would have him back right after the All-Star Break, conveniently ready to tackle the unofficial second half of the season. This would give him 70 more games to lay waste to AL pitchers. Of course, the other major assumption is that he comes back perfectly healthy and does not miss a beat from his early season destruction.
Nicolas Stellini over at FanGraphs already discussed Trout’s injury, including a useful go-to chart for every player who also had a thumb UCL surgery since 2010, with their pre- and post-surgical production. The sample size is obviously small (n = 15), and the talent pool widely variable, so it is difficult to make any real conclusions. The recovery times ranged from 5 to 13 weeks, but a few players were able to pick up where they left off, pre-injury. Some notable names are on the list, including Bryce Harper in 2014, who had exactly the same wRC+ before and after surgery.
We all want data to make useful conclusions and predictions, but the reality is, every player’s body is inherently different. No one knows how Trout’s left thumb will heal. No one knows if he’ll be just as good after surgery. But, let’s remain optimistic during these dark times and say he will be back with a vengeance come July 14 versus Tampa Bay.
If the above assumptions hold true, Trout could conservatively eclipse 7.0 fWAR, with an outside chance of surpassing 8.0. In one simplistic and flawed approach, Trout put up 3.4 fWAR in 47 games, which would extrapolate to about 8.4 fWAR for 117 games. Since 2012, he has amassed 50.5 fWAR over 818 games, which would work out to about 7.2 fWAR per 117 games.
In other words, he might still put up gaudy WAR numbers in an injury-shortened season to potentially claim the AL WAR crown for a sixth straight year. Who is his real competition thus far in 2017? Below is the Top 10 AL WAR leaders of 2017, courtesy of FanGraphs:
I narrowed it to only hitters, as a pitcher has to have a superb season to snag the MVP, although Chris Sale certainly could do just that if he keeps up his insane start (3.2 fWAR, 2.77 ERA, 1.91 FIP, league-leading 12.69 K/9).
Based on this listing, his primary competition currently lies in Yankees’ Large Adult Son Aaron Judge. He is still a rookie, and could certainly regress to his high-strikeout ways, but he has shown some real improvement in his plate discipline and pitch selection this year, as he appears on his way to, at the very least, his first All-Star appearance and Rookie of the Year award. Last year’s MVP runner-up, Mookie Betts, is a full 1 WAR behind Trout for the crown; his WAR extrapolated to 150 games would be around 7.5 WAR, in the neighborhood of Trout’s theoretical season total. Sano is crushing baseballs as he was always projected to do, and Dickerson has had a hot start as he is out to prove he can hit this well outside of Coors Field. It’s possible these guys, or the rest of the Top 10, continue their hot-hitting ways to reclaim AL dominance. However, no one, based on their rest-of-season (ROS) projections, seems poised to do so.
First, the ROS ZiPS WAR leaders:
Now, the ROS Steamer WAR leaders:
Projections are always a bit fluky. First, Trout is clearly not going to play 98, or even 76 games. However, the point is to look at everyone else’s ROS projections to give us an idea if overtaking Trout is doable, based both on current and past production. Betts seems to be the most likely based on both models, giving him about 6.5 WAR. Lindor and Correa could make some noise and end up over 6 WAR, as well. Judge is trickier for the projection systems to predict, as he has a less-established track record. It is very possible it could be a tight WAR leaderboard come the end of the year.
Of course, WAR is never the end-all, be-all metric for making an MVP case, but it does a reasonable job of stratifying out the best players for our purposes. As such, the AL MVP award, for better or worse, comes with the human element, which means certain voters placing emphasis on the team that the player is on. The tiebreaker could ultimately come down to which team makes the playoffs. Other factors could include significant, more traditional statistical accomplishments, a la Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown, which appeared to clinch the 2012 MVP award over Trout.
It seems highly unlikely the Angels will make the playoffs at this point, with FanGraphs giving them about 5% odds. However, the Angels’ performance could potentially shine light on Trout’s brilliance in a roundabout way. This will be the first time since 2011 that the Angels will play any significant amount of time without Trout. The Angels suddenly collapsing in Trout’s absence would further highlight how important he is to his team, even if it means making an awful team a mediocre one. Baseball is inherently a team sport, but Trout is as close to a one-man wrecking crew as there is, and we are about to witness the effect of his prolonged absence on his ball club.
The last issue is sheer playing time. Our version of Trout will have only played 117 games, while, presumably, his competition will have played a full season. Has there ever been an MVP winner with a (non-strike) shortened season? The short answer: Yes.
Interestingly enough, George Brett won the 1980 AL MVP while playing exactly 117 games. Brett blew away the competition with an astounding .390/.454/.664 line, good for a 198 wRC+, and leading the AL in fWAR and bWAR by 1.3 and 0.3, respectively. He beat out Reggie Jackson, who had a .300/.398/.597 line and 5.0 f- and bWAR, but tied for the MLB lead in HR with 41.
The closest, most recent example appears to be Josh Hamilton in 2010. He played 133 games, but still led the AL in fWAR and bWAR by margins of 0.7 and 0.6, respectively, while leading the league with a .359 BA and 1.044 OPS. However, in both cases, both Brett and Hamilton still qualified for the batting title, which is arbitrarily defined as 3.1 PA per team game, or 502 over a full 162-game season. In our best-case scenario, Trout would just squeak over the threshold.
This is a long-winded way to say that Trout certainly remains in the discussion for AL MVP. Obviously, his recovery time would need to be short, and his post-surgical production would have to be typically Troutian. But if he comes back as predicted and continues to mash, he has a very real chance to outpace his competition, possibly by enough to make it noteworthy. It may help if he led the league in another, more traditional category when he returns. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, the fact that this is even a discussion further magnifies the greatness of Mike Trout.