Earlier this spring I posted a blog to the Underdog Network titled "If MLB Had A Re-Draft, Who Would You Take With the No. 1 Pick?" It's a thought exercise I like to do once or twice per season, and once upon a time the consensus, obvious, no-doubt-about-it selection was Mike Trout.
Maybe one day I'll do go back and do some years retroactively, but off the top of my head Trout was probably the top pick from at least 2013-18 (after he had established himself in 2012), and possibly for 1-2 more years after that.
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Trout's absolute peak was before some injuries started popping up between 2019-21. For fun, let's review Trout's career to date, on a year by year basis:
2012: MVP runner-up, led MLB in bWAR and fWAR
2013: MVP runner-up, led MLB in bWAR and fWAR
2014: MVP, led position players in bWAR and fWAR
2015: MVP runner-up, No. 2 in MLB in bWAR, tied for MLB lead in fWAR
2016: MVP, led MLB in bWAR and fWAR
2017: Limited to 114 games, 4th place MVP finish, led MLB in wOBA and wRC+
2018: MVP runner-up, No. 2 in MLB in bWAR and fWAR
2019: MVP, No. 4 in bWAR and No. 1 in fWAR (note that Trout didn't play after 9/7 due to a foot injury).
2020: Pandemic season, missed some time, K% rising, 5th in MVP, top-11 in both wOBA and wRC+
2021: Put up a career-best 190 wRC+ but played just 36 games due to a calf injury
2022: Leads MLB in wRC+, No. 2 in wOBA.
Entering '22, Trout's age-30 campaign, it was fair to wonder if he was going to have a Ken Griffey Jr.-like struggle through the second half of his career. The nagging injuries were beginning to pile up, and from 2017-21 Giancarlo Stanton (!) had played more games than Trout.
Ironically enough, last weekend Trout caught up to Griffey in career fWAR. The caveat? Trout did it in less than half the number of games it took Griffey.
But we've always known that, health permitting, Trout is going to smash career WAR records. There will be plenty of time to celebrate his long-term achievements in the decade to come. What we didn't know entering this year was whether or not Trout was beginning his decline phase?
Through one month the answer is vehemently no. Entering Friday the best player of our generation is slashing .316/.447/.671 (224 wRC+) with 6 homers. He ranks 4th in bWAR and fWAR, 1st in wRC+, 2nd in wOBA, and 3rd in BB%.
According to Statcast his barrel rate and expected wOBA are both in the 100th percentile of MLB, and they're both career-highs. He's impacting the ball as well as he ever has, which is a stunning sentence to type considering what he has accomplished. We can only imagine what his surface level stats would look like this year if it wasn't for the deadened ball.
Not only has the age-related decline not come for Trout, but he's still finding ways to get better. When he got off to that thunderous start in '21, it came with a rising strikeout rate (career-worst 28.1%). A continuation of this would've been acceptable. Plate discipline is often the first trait to go for aging bats. If Trout kept mashing when he made contact then he could remain effective.
His 2022 strikeout rate? 21.3%! Oh, and his BB% is still in the 98th percentile according to Baseball Savant. But in order to explain how he has improved this spring we need to look even further under the hood. Specifically, Trout has wildly improved his production against non-fastballs.
The above chart is from a Jay Jaffe Fangraphs article (stats from April 28th) that I highly recommend reading. Jay did the work to show how Trout has fared in his career against fastballs and breaking/off-speed offerings.
From 2011-19 Trout was much better against fastballs than non-fastballs. From 2020-22 he has improved. In 2022 specifically, he's down right obliterating non-fastballs. He's 30 years old. This isn't normal, yet Trout just keeps finding little ways to improve his game.
When factoring in age it doesn't make sense to consider Trout for the No. 1 pick in a league-wide re-draft. Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr. Ronald Acuna, and Vladimir Guerrero are the stars of tomorrow. But the title of Best Player in Baseball? That is more of a "right now" honor, and Trout still has a claim to it.
I view it similarly to boxing -- to become the champ you need to take the belt from someone. Has anyone de-throned Trout for a substantial stretch of time? There have been contenders, even dating back to his early-career apex.
Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson, Mookie Betts, and Jose Altuve all had incredible years in the 2015-17 range. Juan Soto and the Juniors (Guerrero, Tatis, Acuna) are on his tail right now. But nobody has been able to sustain Trout's level of performance for multiple seasons in a row.
Trout could. And so far in 2022 he still is. And that's a wonderful development for baseball fans.