Mike Trout is squarely in the passing-Hall-of-Famers-in-career-WAR-every-few-days period of his career. He’s 27.
If I tell you that 27-year-old Mike Trout has more career WAR than, say, Goose Goslin, you could hear it as an incredible tribute to Trout, but you could also hear it as a diminishment of Goslin — and if we diminish Goslin, we diminish the power of the tribute. To really appreciate Trout, it helps to appreciate just how incredible the Hall of Famers he is passing were, and to understand how it is plausible that Trout is already, actually better than they were.
Trout started this season with 64.2 career WAR. With another incredible April, he has passed seven more Hall of Famers. In Trout’s honor, we will consider those seven.
Willie McCovey, 64.5 WAR (99th all-time among position players)
How good McCovey was:
1. Before Barry Bonds, McCovey had the single-season record for intentional walks, with 45. The Giants first baseman also had the second-best season, with 40. Only one other hitter in history had ever had even at least 30 — Ted Williams, with 33. “If you pitch to him he’ll ruin baseball,” the great manager Sparky Anderson reasoned. “He’d hit 80 home runs. There’s no comparison between McCovey and anybody else in the league.”
2. Against Hall of Famer Don Drysdale, he hit .336/.459/.759 in 151 plate appearances. Against Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, he hit .260/.376/.584 in 94 PA. Against Hall of Famer Steve Carlton, he hit .301/.395/.507 in 86 PA. Indeed, against all Hall of Famers, he hit .258/.358/.488 — which is, more or less, what Hall of Famers Jim Rice and Orlando Cepeda hit in their entire careers. In other words, against Hall of Famers, Willie McCovey still hit like a Hall of Famer.
3. From ages 30 to 32, McCovey led the league in slugging and OPS all three seasons, and his adjusted OPS+ in those seasons was 188. Only three hitters in history have ever hit better, from 30 to 32, than McCovey did, and when he retired he was eighth all-time in home runs.
How Trout is plausibly better, already: McCovey battled injuries his whole career, which had a few unfortunate effects: He played only eight full seasons; he was limited defensively (he rates out poorly for his career, even at first base) and on the bases; and he had a couple of truly terrible seasons in the middle of his career. In those components of WAR heavily dependent on legs — defense, position, baserunning — Trout has produced nearly 30 more wins than McCovey. Trout is gaining on the offensive side, thanks to a career OBP that’s 40 points higher and a career slugging percentage that’s 60 points higher than McCovey’s. McCovey’s best year, by WAR, would be Trout’s sixth best.
Andre Dawson, 64.8 WAR (97th)
How good Dawson was:
1. The National League’s most balanced speed/power threat throughout his 20s, Dawson came up a total of four home runs shy of posting seven consecutive 20/20 seasons; his five such seasons in his career are the 10th most in baseball history, tied with Trout. He’s one of five players in history (Bonds, Willie Mays, Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran) with 400 career homers and 300 career steals.
2. During a four-year run from age 25 to 28, the Expos center fielder won the Gold Glove each season, and the Silver Slugger for the position three times. He finished second in MVP voting two of those years, seventh in another, and was in a virtual tie (with Robin Yount, Mike Schmidt and Rickey Henderson) for the best player in baseball, by WAR. At that point, he was the 38th-best player in history through age 28.
3. Then his knees began to fail him. He’d suffered his first major knee injury — and had the first of 14 surgeries — in high school, while playing football, but the turf-covered concrete in Montreal famously wore the knee down until Dawson couldn’t play without persistent pain. He became a right fielder. He quit stealing bases so often. He became something else: Feared. Only 32 players in history hit more home runs in their 30s than Dawson did, and at 35 he led the league in intentional walks.
How Trout is plausibly better, already: Trout is 27, with fewer than half as many career plate appearances as Dawson, but he’s already more than 100 walks past the Hawk. His on-base percentage is almost 100 points higher than Dawson’s. Among all hitters with at least 4,000 plate appearances in the past century, Trout ranks 17th in on-base percentage; Dawson ranks 893rd. Dawson’s best season, by WAR, would be Trout’s sixth best.
Craig Biggio, 65.6 WAR (95th)
How good Biggio was:
1. Biggio might be the player most associated with Bill James, and with the version of sabermetrics that James godfathered and popularized. In 1998, James called the Astro one of the five greatest second basemen of all time. Two decades later, WAR suggests James overshot a bit — Biggio is 13th in career WAR among second basemen, but in a tier of comparable keystoners that starts at No. 6 (Lou Whitaker) and lasts through, oh, No. 15 (Jackie Robinson, whose WAR would obviously have been higher but for racist segregation). But only five second basemen ever had a single season as good as Biggio’s 1997 campaign, when he hit a relatively modest 22 homers and a relatively modest .309/.415/.501 but produced 9.4 WAR, the best by any second baseman in my lifetime.
2. As James would write years later,
Craig Biggio emerged as my favorite player. I had a Craig Biggio pennant on my wall. The only other one I ever had was George Brett. I was never an Astros fan; that wasn’t it. It had to do with something Dan Okrent had asked me, in 1980. “Bill,” he said, “you write about the player with subtle skills, the player who isn’t a recognized star but who is just as valuable as the star because of his combination of skills. Who is the player that best exemplifies that other kind of star?”
I couldn’t come up with anybody. I loved Craig Biggio because he was the perfect answer to that question. He was the player who wasn’t a star, but who was just as valuable as the superstars because of his exceptional command of a collection of little skills — getting on base, and avoiding the double play, and stealing a base here and there, and playing defense. Here was the guy who scored 120 runs every year because he hit 45 or 50 doubles every year and walked 70 to 90 times a year and led the majors in being hit with the pitch and hardly ever grounded into a double play and somehow stole 25 to 50 bases every year although he really had very average speed.
3. Fifth all-time in doubles, 15th in runs scored, 19th in times on base.
How Trout is plausibly better, already: Biggio finished as high as fourth in MVP voting, once. Trout has finished as low as fourth in MVP voting — once. Biggio’s best season (by WAR) would be Trout’s fourth best. If Trout went an entire season without reaching base once, he’d still have a higher career OBP than Biggio. If he went two entire seasons without a hit, he’d still have a higher slugging percentage.
Leon Allen “Goose” Goslin, 66.1 WAR (93rd)
How good Goslin was:
1. Goslin, a left fielder whose best years came with the Washington Senators in the 1920s, had no single exceptional skill, but he was good at everything. Think, perhaps, Rafael Palmeiro with a bit of speed and slightly better defense. The last detail was the result of determined improvement, as he was originally a terrible defender even in left field. His nickname, in fact, came from his appearance tracking fly balls: His arms flapped and his routes wandered. He ended up well above average, according to the inexact defensive metrics we use to assess that era.
2. He was exceptional, though, at generating great copy. His SABR biography lists a few of the greatest stories about him, including the time he saw a high school track team practicing the shot put, approached them, “picked up a 16 pound weight and proceeded to toss it like a baseball — for the next 30 minutes. The next morning his right arm was so strained that he couldn’t comb his hair. The arm was swollen and discolored as the season opened … his collarbone was out of placement … nothing worked.” Teams ran on Goslin all season long. And yet, through it all, Goslin hit .379 that year and won the batting title.
3. The culmination of the batting race is another good story. As SABR recounts, Goslin knew the race would come down to the final plate appearance, and if he hit into an out he would lose the crown. He wanted to sit it out, but his teammates shamed him into batting, but when he fell behind 0-2 he realized his best hope was to get ejected mid at-bat. “Umpire Bill Guthrie read through the ruse and told Goslin: ‘You’re not going to get thrown out of this ballgame no matter what you do.’ The ump added that a walk was out of the question too.” Goslin got a hit.
How Trout is plausibly better, already: Goslin’s contemporaries “felt he hadn’t taken the game seriously and never lived up to his full potential,” his SABR bio says. I do not know anything about that, but his stirring offensive numbers — a .316 career batting average and a .500 slugging percentage — are tempered by the outrageous offensive environment of his era. Left fielders (like Goslin) hit .304/.362/.448 during his years as a full-timer; center fielders (like Trout) have hit .262/.328/.411 during his career. Even with that much, much lower offensive bar, Trout has 100 points of OPS on Goslin, he will pass Goslin in career home runs any minute, and Goslin’s best season (by WAR) would be Trout’s seventh best.
Pee Wee Reese, 66.3 WAR (92nd)
How good Reese was:
1. For starters, he was certainly better than to be named in this article. The Dodgers’ longtime shortstop did produce 66.3 career WAR, including 5.7 WAR at age 23 and 6.0 WAR at age 27. But for the three years in between, he was serving with the Navy’s construction battalion in the Pacific theater. Had he lived through a less significant moment in history, one might conservatively estimate a career WAR around 80, which would have put him third all-time among shortstops. So that’s how good he really was.
2. Though his nickname didn’t originate with his size — he got it from finishing second in a pee-wee marbles competition, according to his SABR bio — he was genuinely slight. But unlike the only other major leaguer known officially as Pee Wee (Pee-Wee Wanninger), Reese could put fear into opposing pitchers. He led the league in intentional walks in 1947. True, most of them came when he was batting eighth in front of the pitcher, but he was also Brooklyn’s second-best hitter that year. Over the course of his best decade, only two National Leaguers — Ralph Kiner and Stan Musial — drew more walks, and no shortstop in history has drawn more walks.
3. Reese’s value was so broadly delivered and so readily acknowledged it was taken to be almost nonfluctuating, and from 1946 through 1956, he had a run of MVP finishes so consistent you’d almost accuse the elections of being rigged: 6th, 8th, 6th, 5th, 24th, 15th, 8th, 11th, 9th, 9th, 8th. Reese was considered to be an exceptionally instinctive baserunner, savvy defender, great bunter, “top-notch hit-and-run man” and, crucially, a perfect team captain. So when he hit .309 with a .404 OBP in 1954, he deservedly finished ninth in MVP voting. And when he hit .257 with a .322 OBP in 1956, well, what the heck, he might well have deserved that eighth-place finish, too. After Dodgers GM Branch Rickey left and took the Pirates’ GM job, he tried to trade for Reese. Brooklyn “flatly refused.”
How Trout is plausibly better, already: Trout’s MVP finishes have been just as consistent as Reese’s, except they’re higher: 2nd, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 4th, 2nd. Trout will likely pass Reese in career extra-base hits sometime in May. Reese’s finest season, by WAR, would be Trout’s seventh best.
Joe Cronin, 66.4 WAR (90th, tied)
How good Cronin was:
1. Cronin, a star shortstop in the 1920s and ’30s, did something only five players in major league history — all of them Hall of Famers — ever did: He struck out consecutively against Carl Hubbell in the 1934 All-Star Game. Cronin was HOFer No. 5 in that historic sequence, and also the American League manager who’d set the game’s lineup. He’d been named player-manager of the Washington Senators the year before, at the age of 26, and led them to the World Series. He’d be a player-manager the rest of his career, all the while producing more 100-RBI seasons and more 40-double seasons than any shortstop in history.
2. Remember that story up there about Goose Goslin and the shot put? Joe Cronin’s career comes out of that story. He was languishing behind veteran infielders in Pittsburgh when Washington acquired him. According to Cronin’s SABR bio, the Senators needed a shortstop because their primary shortstop was exhausted — he “began to lose weight rapidly in the summer heat” — from running way out into left field to retrieve every throw from Goslin. “Cronin began as [Bobby] Reeves’ backup, but eventually manager Bucky Harris began playing the newcomer most of the time. Cronin hit just .242 in 63 games but played an excellent shortstop and became a favorite of his manager.” Two years later, he was voted (unofficially) AL MVP.
3. In 1943, when Cronin was 36, he finished 27th in MVP voting in the American League. He had 88 plate appearances that year, starting only nine games in the field. What he did do was pinch hit, and as a pinch hitter he hit .387/.500/.871, with 19 RBIs in 38 plate appearances. I wouldn’t say he was a good MVP candidate in 1943 — he got three MVP points, so either somebody put him eighth or multiple voters put him ninth or 10th — but it was probably as meritorious as Ted Williams’ 110-PA, 26th-place finish in 1953.
How Trout is plausibly better, already: Cronin was, obviously, really good. But his offensive numbers reflect his era along with his talent, and the late ’20s through the early ’30s were bonkers. Cronin hit .301 for his career — but there were seasons when the league hit over .300, and Cronin’s career mark was just 6 percent higher than his era’s. His OBP was 9 percent higher, his slugging percentage 12 percent. All very good. Trout has hit .307 for his career, which is 20 percent higher than his era’s average, along with an OBP 30 percent higher and a slugging percentage 40 percent higher. All of those marks for Trout are among the 15 best of the entire live-ball era. Cronin’s best season, by WAR, would be Trout’s sixth best.
Duke Snider, 66.4 WAR (90th, tied)
How good Snider was:
1. It doesn’t get any simpler than this: People who knew could argue in good faith about whether Snider was better than Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. Not whether he’d become better or could someday be better, but whether he was better. And these were not idiots, nor were they people trying to deduce reality from some shadows in caves. They were die-hard baseball fans who lived within 15 miles of all three center fielders’ home ballparks. Some of them (including Ty Cobb) landed on Snider, and there were years — 1953, 1954, 1955 — when they were very close to right. (Which, to be fair, is a nice way of saying “wrong.”)
2. Through his age-30 season, in 1957, Snider had 316 home runs, which at the time was the fourth most in history through that age. He had a few more than Babe Ruth did through 30 (though Ruth, of course, switched to hitting relatively late), and was coming off his fifth consecutive season of 40 homers or more. He entered his age-31 season with a realistic chance of breaking Babe Ruth’s career home run record. He didn’t come close, but that’s a decade as one of the greatest home run hitters in history.
3. At the time, Snider was also 12th all-time in WAR through age 30. (Of course, at the time nobody would know what I’m talking about.) Over a four-year period, he finished first, second, second and first in the NL in WAR. Four years in which nobody but Mays could top him. “Consistent, reliable, orthodox, the Duke never disappointed,” Jane Leavy wrote in her biography of Mantle, “The Last Kid.” “He hit more home runs in the Fifties than Mantle, Mays, or anyone else. But it was his fate to be overlooked. He was the perfect hero for an underdog borough and every underdog kid.”
How Trout is plausibly better, already: Snider’s best offensive season — 1954, when he hit .341/.423/.647 — was good for a 171 OPS+, 71 percent better than league average. Trout’s career OPS+ is 175, and he hasn’t been as low as 171 since 2014 (when he won the MVP award). But beyond that: When the Dodgers moved West, Snider had just finished his age-30 season, and he was about to get old fast. According to our best estimates of defensive value, he went from an average center fielder to a disastrous one in a single season, slowed by knee and back injuries that would keep him from ever playing an uninterrupted season again. He never had enough plate appearances to qualify for a batting title in Los Angeles — it took him “20 cortisone shots for his ailing knee” just to reach 400 plate appearances in 1959 — and from 31 until his retirement he produced just 8 total WAR, less than one of his peak seasons. His best season, by WAR, would be Trout’s fifth best.
Who’s next: Roberto Alomar. At his normal pace, Trout is about one week away from passing him.
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