By now, we’re long past the point of arguing about whether Mike Trout is the best player in baseball. Trout has taken home the American League MVP in two of the past three years, and a good argument could be made that he deserved it in 2015 as well. Maybe the only thing more reliable than people lauding Trout as baseball’s best is Trout’s own production: He might be the most consistently great player in baseball history.
Trout has averaged 9.4 wins above replacement (WAR) in his five full seasons with the Los Angeles Angels, a career average that ranks him second in history behind some guy named Babe Ruth.1 Trout has also been astoundingly consistent: In each of those seasons,2 he put up between 7.9 and 10.5 WAR. No player in baseball history can match Trout’s combination of excellence (as measured by WAR per season) and consistency (as measured by the standard deviation in seasonal WAR numbers).3
Ruth beat Trout on WAR per season, but he did it with much more variability. Like most players, Ruth got better during his peak. In 1919, his first season with more than 500 plate appearances, Ruth earned 9.4 WAR; he topped out in 1923, with 15.0. Trout, on the other hand, seemed to spring into baseball fully formed, breaking the 10-WAR barrier in his very first full season (2012). Even if you look at Ruth’s most consistent string of five seasons in which he batted more than 500 times,4 he never had a standard deviation of yearly WAR as low as Trout’s.
Trout excels at just about every baseball skill there is, but his offense stands out as the best example of his consistent greatness. According to Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+, an overall measure of offensive production where 100 is average), Trout has been 67 percent to 76 percent better than league average in every single one of his full seasons. The average MLB regular since 1901 sees his wRC+ jump around by 17 points each season; Trout’s hasn’t jumped around even half that much over five years!5
Break it down further, and Trout has been one of the most reliable hitters in baseball on a game-to-game basis, too. Among great hitters (defined as those who have played three or more seasons and averaged over 145 wRC+), Trout is the third-least-volatile since 1974, according to research that Bill Petti conducted for The Hardball Times. In an era of pitching dominance, a shifting strike zone and a potentially juiced ball, Trout is the closest thing baseball has to a metronome.
But hidden in that consistent production is a tremendous amount of variation in how he’s done it. Trout has built up his offensive résumé in every possible way: At times, he’s been a pure masher, leading the AL in slugging percentage in 2015. Last year, he showcased contact skills and plate discipline with a career-best on-base percentage (and the lowest slugging percentage of his five full seasons). And in his first full year in MLB, before his on-base talent was fully developed, he added a win and a half on the base paths. Yet all three seasons were of roughly equal value. No matter the combination of skills he employs, Trout always finds his way to MVP contention.
All the while, pitchers have been revising their tactics against Trout constantly. Here’s a map of where pitchers are trying to exploit Trout, seen from Trout’s right-handed batting perspective. You’ll see a line that shows a rolling 500-pitch average of the locations where pitchers have targeted him, a technique that helps us show what happens when a large number of pitchers simultaneously attempt a new tactic:6
They’ve gone high, and they’ve thrown low strikes. They tried to bust him inside, or to ring him up with unhittable pitches away. But the most opposing pitchers have ever been able to do is slow Trout down — and typically only for a month or two at a time.
In the latter part of the 2014 season, pitchers thought they had finally found Trout’s kryptonite: the elevated fastball. As FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan documented, Trout struggled with contact in that area, especially high and inside. And even when he did put bat to ball that season, he registered a minuscule (by his standards) slugging percentage of only .244. But by next May, Trout had figured it out. His contact and slugging rates in that area shot up to the best levels of his career to date.
So pitchers tried a new strategy. For most of June 2015, they threw outside, in the hope that Trout would chase. It seemed like they were onto something, too: Over the previous month, Trout made contact on only 76 percent of his hacks in that region, hitting poorly when he did connect (.297/.297/.324). So for June, almost half of the pitches he saw were outside, 15 percent more than his career average.
But that approach didn’t work, either. Over the course of the month, Trout learned patience on those outside pitches, and he finished with a wRC+ of 189 in June — even better than his overall average on the year. Pitchers retreated back to the center of the zone, in the hopes of defeating him some other way.
The next major trend was to stop throwing him fastballs. In April and May of 2016, Trout saw the smallest proportion of heaters in his career, bottoming out at only 50 percent in the 500-pitch rolling average. (Over his career, he’s seen fastballs on about 60 percent of pitches.) And his April was poor, at least from a Troutian perspective (“only” a 146 wRC+). But whatever modicum of success pitchers realized that month was undone the next, as Trout’s plate discipline improved and his slugging percentage shot up.
The takeaway from all this: Trout does have weaknesses — but they are only temporary.
Among top hitters, only Trout is treated to such an array of different tactics; it’s the ultimate testament to his ability to adapt. Over the course of the past five years, Paul Goldschmidt of the Arizona Diamondbacks is the only comparably great hitter who has seen anything close to as many changes in where he’s pitched, and Trout has accrued almost twice as many wins above replacement over the same timeframe (Goldschmidt’s at 25.6 and Trout’s at 47.1 WAR).
Despite all the attempts to outsmart him, no player has ever simultaneously been as good and as consistent as Mike Trout. That’s even given him a chance — albeit a small one — to become the most valuable position player of all time, challenging Babe Ruth’s record of 168.4 career WAR. Trout is already almost a third of the way to the Babe’s mark, though he’d have to play 13 more seasons with his current average level of production to beat Ruth. If it were any other player, that goal would be impossible. For Trout, though, it may only be a matter of time.