By all rights, 2019 should be the Year of Mike Trout in Major League Baseball.
They're all Years of Mike Trout to some extent. According to Baseball Reference, he's led at least the American League in wins above replacement five times since his rookie season with the Los Angeles Angels in 2012. His 72.0 total WAR in this span is 28.9 points better than the next-best player (Josh Donaldson).
Yet Trout is outdoing himself this season. The 28-year-old center fielder is working on career highs with a 1.100 OPS and 42 home runs, plus an 8.3 WAR that gives him a shot at topping his pinnacle of 10.5.
In addition to his talent, Trout's popularity might also be at its peak. Even before his superb season began, he had a best-selling jersey, signed a record-setting $430 million extension and spoke the kicker in MLB's "Let the Kids Play" promotion for 2019:
But with October now in the near future, Major League Baseball is facing a familiar problem regarding Trout: He's the must-see player who will soon be nowhere to be seen.
Despite Trout's excellence, the Angels are only 63-67 and 12 games off the pace for the AL's second wild-card spot. Barring an unlikely chain of events, Trout will still have only three postseason games—all in the 2014 American League Division Series opposite the Kansas City Royals—on his track record by the end of the year.
Until this changes, quips akin to "Count the rings!" will invariably follow any mention of Trout's greatness. Most recently, they were in abundance on Twitter when Trout surpassed New York Yankees legend and five-time World Series champion Derek Jeter in career WAR:
Trout is far from the first superstar athlete whose exceptional talent has come with such a distinct asterisk. Rightly or wrongly, nobody ever has it made until they prove themselves on the biggest possible stage.
But to what is surely Major League Baseball's chagrin, something about the Trout situation is decidedly singular to baseball.
As players like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin have demonstrated, it's indeed possible for superstars in the National Football League, National Basketball Association and National Hockey League to ensure their reputations align with their talent. To varying degrees, each sport allows for stars to call their own numbers and carry their teams as needed.
Baseball is different. It's one thing to see a Jeter, a David Ortiz or a Madison Bumgarner lead a charge through October, but getting there is another matter. There are 162 games in the regular season, and a team can't rely strictly on its best pitchers and best hitters every step of the way.
Trout, for instance, is only going to come to the plate four or five times in a given game. And even if he comes up in a clutch situation, his bat might be taken out of his hands. Since 2012, he ranks third in overall walks and tied for second in intentional walks.
Since he's powerless to change baseball's rules—just imagine if teams could bat who they wanted when they wanted—Trout can only maximize what impact he does have. To this end, his seemingly endless bag of new tricks has produced a lower chase rate against off-speed pitches and a higher barrel rate in 2019.
Up until recently, there was a possible future in which Trout endeavored to erase the lone blight on his record by moving to greener, more championship-friendly pastures via free agency after 2020. But now that he's contracted to play in Anaheim through his age-38 season in 2030, it's all up to the Angels to build a winner around him.
The Angels have won more games (647) than they've lost (617) since Trout's big break in 2012. But they haven't had a winning season since 2015, and Trout carrying too heavy a burden is less of a feature and more of a bug.
To wit, the WAR gap between him and other Angels position players over the last nine seasons is a shocking sight to behold:
Trout generally hasn't had the benefit of a good pitching staff, either. The Angels pitcher with the most WAR since 2012 is still Jered Weaver at 10.4. He was done as a quality pitcher by 2014 and hasn't even pitched for the Angels since 2016.
It's not for lack of trying that the Trout years have been such a disappointment. His rookie season followed the club's nearly $320 million splash on Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. They spent another $125 million on Josh Hamilton a year later. Their signings and trades in the years since then include Andrelton Simmons, Justin Upton, Zack Cozart, Tommy La Stella and, of course, two-way marvel Shohei Ohtani.
However, Pujols and Hamilton are two of the worst free-agent flops in MLB history, and they haven't been offset by a steady supply of cheap homegrown talent. Apart from Kole Calhoun and Garrett Richards, the Angels have had a tough time developing stars not named Trout.
It hasn't helped that their luck has run the gamut from bad to heartbreaking. Richards was cut down in his prime by injuries, and the Angels lost both Nick Adenhart and Tyler Skaggs to tragic deaths.
Mercifully, the Angels do have some silver linings to lean on as they gaze into the future.
According to MLB.com, toolsy outfielder Jo Adell is baseball's No. 4 prospect with a major league ETA of 2020. Assuming he's fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, Ohtani should also return to the mound next year. The Angels should have fully functional versions of Upton and La Stella, too.
There could also be some spending in order during the coming offseason. Although pickings will be slim on the free-agent market, the Angels might be in the running for the grand prize: ace right-hander and Southern California native Gerrit Cole.
The Angels can't afford to dawdle. Although they did well in backing up the ol' Brinks truck for Trout, the big 3-0 is fast approaching. The end of his prime may come sooner than anyone wants to admit.
In the meantime, there's little else that MLB or Trout himself can do to bolster his legacy as a once-in-a-generation superstar. He's taken care of the numbers and, albeit belatedly, the league has gone out of its way to shine a light on him. Elevating him within that light is all up to the Angels.
If they don't get it done, many people might remember Trout as less of a Derek Jeter and more as a Ted Williams or a Barry Bonds.
Sure, he was great. But where was he when it came time to win the big one?