Conventional creed these past few years more or less requires everyone in and around Major League Baseball, from players to coaches to executives to media to fans, simply to accept that Mike Trout is the best player on the planet.
But what if Trout, as undeniably superlative as he has been to this point in his still-young career, isn't even the best outfielder in the sport?
Taking that one step further: What if Trout isn't the best outfielder to share the same large expanse of green this week? After all, Trout's Los Angeles Angels are taking on the Miami Marlins and their very own freakishly gifted superstar, Giancarlo Stanton, for a three-game series that started Monday night.
If you ask Stanton, he's not taking the bait. Here's what he had to say about Trout before Monday's showdown:
Catch that right there at the end? "To be on the same field [as Trout] is gonna be cool."
Well, after Stanton's performance in Monday's game—the first time ever these two baseball behemoths, who are the MVP front-runners at the moment, have been on the same field in a regular-season game—maybe it's the other way around?
"I think it's great for baseball," Marlins manager Mike Redmond told Joe Frisaro of MLB.com prior to Monday's game. "You've got two dynamic young players playing on the same field. I know I'm excited to watch and be part of it. Hopefully our guy puts on great show."
As if on cue, Stanton did just that. Propelled by Stanton's three-run home run in the fourth inning that broke open what was a 4-0 game, the Marlins beat the Angels—the club with the best record in baseball at 77-52 entering the game—by a score of 7-1.
The victory helped the Marlins (65-65) gain a game in the NL wild-card chase, as they're now just three back of the San Francisco Giants, who lost to the Colorado Rockies on Monday.
Oh, and not only was the above blast the 33rd of the year for Stanton—a total that leads the National League and is only one shy of the Baltimore Orioles' Nelson Cruz, who is MLB's leader—there's also this:
While Stanton was busy making history as part of his 1-for-3, three-RBI night with a run and two walks, Trout was going 0-for-4 to drop his average to .285, the lowest it has been since May 28, nearly three months ago.
Heck, Stanton was even responsible for making two of the putouts against Trout, who lined out to him in the sixth and flew out to him in the eighth.
One game obviously is little more than a narrative reinforcement in the still-untested theory that Stanton just might be better than Trout. So how about measuring up each player's 2014 season as a whole then?
|Mike Trout vs. Giancarlo Stanton: Traditional Statistics|
How's that for a pair of seasons, huh? The two studs' production has been about as similar as can be, especially when the numbers are as eye-popping as they are. By most of those measures, though, Stanton has been ever so slightly better so far, but it's extremely close.
To see if we can't get any more separation, here's a check on some key advanced metrics:
|Mike Trout vs. Giancarlo Stanton: Advanced Statistics|
|FanGraphs, Baseball Reference|
So much for that idea. Trout and Stanton are just as evenly matched in the deeper digits. Again, however, Stanton has what appears to be the slightest of edges in most categories, thanks to his big game Monday.
It's worth pointing out for a moment that Stanton is trending positively in both aspects of plate discipline: His strikeout and walk rates are both career bests. Trout, on the other hand, is sporting a career-worst 25.2 percent strikeout rate, and that's something he's working to fix, per Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com. Of course, Stanton's 26.2 percent rate is still higher.
Considering the defensive side, Stanton is no slouch with the glove, but Trout is the better defender, particularly because he plays the more premium position of center field, while Stanton handles right.
What's remarkable is that both players are still so, so young. Everyone knows Trout just turned 23 in August, but Stanton is just 21 months older; he'll be only 25 after the season in November.
That's really not much of a disparity when both players are in the majors and performing at such a high level. It's also at least possible, given their youth, that both of these players are still on the upswing, meaning we may not have seen the best of either one yet.
Even if that's not the case, this indeed is shaping up to be quite the best-player-in-baseball battle over the next handful of seasons, assuming both stay healthy.
That's a factor that has been in Trout's favor to this point but has been Stanton's bugaboo. The 2014 season is really the first time in Stanton's career that he's been fully healthy.
While Trout is on pace for his third straight season with at least 139 games played (and he would have played more than that number in his rookie season of 2012 had the Angels not held him in the minors until late April), Stanton is working on just his second year out of five with at least that many games played.
When you're healthy, you're happy, and Stanton has been both this year. His personality and sense of humor come across in this postgame interview from Monday, so yes, dude has the chops to handle being in the running for the face of MLB with Trout, too:
As for which is the best player in baseball, it's still hard to go against Trout, who owns that throne based on what he's done at the outset of his career these first three incredible seasons.
But if Stanton is going to continue to improve as much as he has this year, Trout better not get too comfy on his perch.
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