Mike Trout Becoming Annual 50-Home Run Threat Would End the MLB G.O.A.T. Debate

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 20, 2018

Los Angeles Angels' Mike Trout watches his solo home run against the Texas Rangers in the eighth inning of a baseball game in Anaheim, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Reed Saxon/Associated Press

Dinger by dinger, it's becoming harder to deny Mike Trout his rightful place among all the players who've ever come through Major League Baseball.

He's going to be the greatest of them all. If not right this moment, then surely soon and probably forever.

The legend of Mike Trout is already that of a player who's always been good at everything yet keeps getting better. For 2018, the Los Angeles Angels star's latest trick is becoming MLB's leading home run hitter with 23 through 74 games. That puts the two-time American League MVP on pace for 50 long ones.

Trout is also doing everything else anyone could ask of him. Beyond being an elite slugger, he's also an extraordinarily tough out, a menace on the bases and a dandy of a defender.

According to Baseball Reference, Trout's many talents have already made him worth 6.4 wins above replacement. As noted by ESPN Stats and Information, a special honor awaits him if he stays on this pace:

Getting to 14.4 WAR would bring the 26-year-old's career total to a whopping 68.6 WAR. That would elevate him over Mickey Mantle (61.4 WAR) and Ty Cobb (63.4 WAR) for the most ever through a player's age-26 season. 

Trout is also accumulating WAR at darn near the same rate as the granddaddy of all WAR producers, Babe Ruth. The Bambino averaged 10.5 WAR per 162 games. Trout is at 9.8.

It's only natural to take all this with a healthy dose of skepticism. One fair question to ask is whether players from past eras had it harder than Trout. Another is an impenetrably complex stat like WAR might be exaggerating just how special his talents are.

But as easy as it is to gaze back in wonder at the non-HD days of Major League Baseball's past, the league's degree of difficulty has never been higher than it is right now.

As MLB has expanded in size, so has its talent pool to fit the best players from around the world. Batters have to contend with things like faster fastballsdefensive shifts and increasingly specialized bullpens. Meanwhile, everyone has to put up with arduous travel and abide by a not-so-blind eye to the use of amphetamines and other performance-enhancing drugs.

Yet through all this, Trout is evolving from a singularly gifted player to a downright perfect player.

Although he didn't make much of a splash when he first arrived with the Angels in 2011, his 2012 season made it clear what he was capable of. He showed a seemingly impossible blend of power (30 homers) and speed (49 stolen bases), plus a measured enough approach to post a .399 on-base percentage and enough defensive chops to rack up 21 defensive runs saved.

The strength of these abilities has wavered over the years, but Trout has refused to let any of them become fatal flaws. This has typically meant addressing them one-by-one.

But in 2018, they're all gone.

Start with Trout's plate approach. It was on thin ice when he tallied 101 more strikeouts than walks in 2014. Now he's rocking an MLB-best .469 on-base percentage in part because he's headed toward a second straight year with more walks (64) than strikeouts (60).

It used to be pretty common for a hitter to have a walk-to-strikeout rate north of 1.0. But in these strikeout-happy times, not so much anymore:

Then there's Trout's defense. The metrics pointed to it as a source of concern in 2013 and 2014, but it's mostly been good in four seasons since. That's especially true of this year, as his seven defensive runs saved have him on track for his best defensive season since 2012.

"There are a lot of defensive metrics out there that you want to get better on," Trout told Pedro Moura of The Athletic in February. "It pops up every once in a while. I'm trying to get better at everything."

A major element of the defense equation is that Trout's speed is dying hard. His average sprint of 29.2 feet per second is the same as Dee Gordon's. In addition to a hard-won Gold Glove, there's a good chance this will also result in the fourth 30-steal season of Trout's career.

But as impressive as all this is, the most visible skill that a baseball player can have is power. And while Trout has always had it, he's only now featuring as much of it as anyone else.

Trout's .354 ISO (isolated power) is merely the latest stop in a steady upward climb. Naturally, this mostly has to do with him turning a higher percentage of his plate appearances into dingers:

To this end, Trout's 50-homer pace shouldn't surprise anyone. It's a natural evolution from where he was last season, in which a serious thumb injury prevented him from realizing a 47-homer pace.

This is partially a testament to how his hyper-advanced approach is allowing for good swings at good pitches to hit.

But more so than that, it's a testament to how his swing itself generates launch angle and exit velocity with the best of 'em:

Data courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com.

Between his approach, his swing and his youth, there's no reason to think that 2018 will mark Trout's last shot at 50 home runs. Even doing it twice would make grant him entry to a shortlist that currently only has nine players on it.

What we're watching, then, is a player of arguably unparalleled ability threatening to take his place among the most dominant sluggers that baseball has ever seen. He's Ruth, Willie Mays or Hank Aaron, except in a more competitive environment. He's Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez, sans juice.

We're watching Mike Trout. The one and only.

    

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant. 

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