As a general rule, baseball players — specifically, the non-pitching variety — tend to break into the majors in their early 20s, improve pretty rapidly over their first handful of seasons, peak around age 271 and then begin the inexorable decline toward mediocrity (and retirement). But some special players begin their careers with such a bang that it’s difficult to imagine how they could get better, at least without breaking the game as we know it.
Twenty-five-year-old Los Angeles Angels superstar Mike Trout is one of those players. During his first full MLB season in 2012, Trout burst onto the scene with 10.5 wins above replacement (WAR),2 a tally that not only led the majors but also ranked as the 14th-best season by a position player since World War II. He was only 20 at the time; if he followed the typical aging curve, a 27-year-old Trout would make Babe Ruth look like B.J. Surhoff. Or maybe Trout’s sky-high WAR meant he’d already peaked (in production, if not skill), simply because such a year requires a ton of good fortune and might not be repeatable in future seasons.
And through last season, even as Trout continued to build his case as the potential G.O.A.T., the 2012 campaign still stood as his greatest performance. But that might not be true anymore. Just a third of the way into the 2017 season, Trout is tracking for his best campaign yet.
Trout is on pace for new career bests in almost every offensive category, from the conventional (batting average; slugging percentage) to the wonky (isolated power; walk and strikeout rates3). And while Trout’s batting average on balls in play is outrageously high — currently at .368, a number that would be unsustainable for most players — it’s not too much higher than his career BABIP of .360. The man is simply the best at hitting ’em where they ain’t.
At a more fundamental level, Trout’s plate discipline is approaching early-2000s-Barry-Bonds levels. (Maybe it’s no coincidence that Mets manager Terry Collins considered walking him with the bases loaded over the weekend.) He’s swinging far less at balls outside the zone but offering much more at balls inside the zone. He’s attacking the first pitch more than ever but working his way into some of the league’s highest rates of 2-0 and 3-0 counts. This strategy of selective aggression has only made the game’s top player even tougher to get out.
However, there are also some signs that Trout’s hot start will eventually cool off. Despite the incredible power numbers, his exit velocity is down pretty substantially from the previous two seasons, and he’s making the best kind of contact4 less than he did last year. Trout’s rate of home runs per fly ball — which measures how fortunate a player has been for his deep flies to find the stands (and not an outfielder’s glove) — is far above his career average. Even a player as great as Trout needs a dash of luck sometimes.
To surpass his epic 2012 coming-out party, Trout was always going to need some lucky breaks. But considering that some of the luck he received as a fresh-faced youngster is offset by his improved hitting skills, Trout really only needs a little bit of good fortune to put up career-best numbers. And so far, that’s exactly what he’s gotten.