Is Mike Trout Losing His Grip as MLB's Best Player?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 4, 2020

Los Angeles Angels' Mike Trout waits to bat against the San Francisco Giants during the fifth inning of a baseball game in San Francisco, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

The unthinkable happened Monday when Mike Trout was revealed to not be among the three finalists for the 2020 American League MVP award.

Given that the Los Angeles Angels center fielder had a down year relative to his usual standards, this was admittedly more jarring than surprising. And yet, it's as good an excuse as any for a fresh assessment of Trout's place among his fellow superstars.

Is he in danger of losing his crown as the best player in Major League Baseball? And if so, who might he lose it to?

                               

Mike Trout's Resume

  • 29 years old
  • Debuted on July 8, 2011
  • 2012 AL Rookie of the Year
  • 3-time AL MVP: 2014, 2016, 2019
  • 4-time AL MVP runner-up: 2012, 2013, 2015, 2018
  • 8-time All-Star
  • MLB leader in rWAR and fWAR since 2012
  • Youngest player ever to reach 200 HR and 200 SB
  • 2020 stats: 53 G, 241 PA, 17 HR, 1 SB, .281 AVG, .390 OBP, .603 SLG

                                      

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How Trout Is Opening Up the 'Best Player in MLB' Debate

Considering what he can do with his bat and his legs, Trout is still a singularly talented player.

Between 2012 and 2015, his average offensive putout included a .308/.403/.568 batting line and 34 home runs. Yet he got even better with a .307/.445/.610 line and 36 homers per year between 2016 and 2019. By leading the majors in OPS+ in each of those four years, he cemented himself as the league's best hitter.

Though Trout wasn't as productive in 2020, his 168 OPS+ nonetheless ranked fifth among hitters who took at least 200 plate appearances. And he truly crushed the ball, ranking in the 97th percentile in hard-hit rate and in the 99th percentile in average exit velocity.

Throw in how Trout's sprint speed was in the 94th percentile, and what the Angels had in him this season was more or less what they've always had in him: An everyday center fielder with an unrivaled combination of hitting acumen, power and speed.

But at this point, Trout's fading effectiveness as a center fielder can't be ignored. Out of the last four seasons, only one has seen him post above-average metrics (see here and here) across the board:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant

Though Trout's speed is hanging in there, these subpar marks point to flaws in the finer points of his defensive game. His reaction time and route efficiency (i.e., "jumps") have rated poorly since 2017:

  • 2017: 1st percentile
  • 2018: 19th percentile
  • 2019: 19th percentile
  • 2020: 1st percentile

Given Trout's knack for identifying and addressing his problems, it's not out of the question that his defense will get better in 2021 and beyond. To wit, his 2018 performance is proof that he is indeed capable of making adjustments on defense.

For now, though, Trout is not so much a great center fielder as a great hitter who plays center field. That's effectively capping his overall value and setting him up for an eventual move down the defensive hierarchy with a possible shift to left or right field.

In plain English: Trout's case as baseball's best player already has a crack in it, and there's a real chance of it getting wider in the not-too-distant future.

As it is, former New York Yankees ace CC Sabathia thinks that Trout has already ceded the "Best Player in MLB" crown to Mookie Betts:

The Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder certainly looked the part in the postseason. He was all over the place on defense in the National League Championship Series, and his eighth-inning home run in Game 6 of the World Series effectively sealed the Dodgers' first championship since 1988.

Betts, 28, has also played like a superstar in the regular season, particularly since the start of the 2018 campaign. He was worth a staggering 10.6 rWAR that year, and he leads everyone (including Trout) with 20.9 total rWAR over the last three seasons.

Betts' 157 OPS+ in this span ranks third among hitters with at least 1,000 plate appearances. He also ranks first in baserunning value and ultimate zone rating since the '18 campaign. Defensive runs saved and outs above average likewise rate him as one of the best defenders in MLB, further solidifying his case as the most well-rounded and arguably best player in baseball today.

This is not to suggest, however, that Betts is the only suitor for Trout's crown.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

The National League East has two good ones in Atlanta outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. and Washington Nationals slugger Juan Soto. The former is a dynamic power-speed threat in his own right, and he's fresh off an encouraging spike in his walk rate. The latter, meanwhile, is one of the best young hitters ever.

In the National League West, San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. is rising fast as a superstar. He was especially impressive in 2020, ranking in the 100th percentile for both exit velocity and hard-hit rate, as well as in the 98th percentile for sprint speed and the 99th percentile for outs above average.

Acuna, Soto and Tatis are 22, 22 and 21, respectively. So if they're this good already, it obviously doesn't take a great leap of logic to assume that they'll only get better with experience.

Also deserving of recognition are Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, Milwaukee Brewers slugger Christian Yelich and Betts' neighbor in the Dodgers outfield, Cody Bellinger. Though all three had down years in 2020, what came before is evidence of each player's extreme upside.

In 2019, Bregman challenged Trout for the AL MVP by authoring a 162 OPS+ with 41 homers and 9.1 rWAR. Yelich won the 2018 NL MVP and was arguably the brightest star in baseball between the second half of '18 and the end of 2019, wherein he slashed .342/.436/.705 with 69 homers and 40 stolen bases in 195 games. Bellinger was the NL MVP for 2019 on the strength of a 169 OPS+, 47 homers and 9.1 rWAR

If one is inclined to include pitchers in the "Best Player in MLB" debate, it's possible to stump for New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom or New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole. Cleveland right-hander Shane Bieber and Trevor Bauer, who's currently a free agent, also have arguments after standout efforts in 2020.

And on and on the list goes. The big picture of it all is that, as great as Trout is, baseball is flooded with players ready to take over his mantle as the game's best when he's done with it.

Of course, there will be no weeping for Trout when that time inevitably comes. Between a Hall of Fame-worthy track record and not one, but two nine-figure contracts, it suffices to say he's done well for himself during his time as the best player in baseball.

                             

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.