Mike Trout is squarely in the passing-Hall-of-Famers-in-career-WAR-every-few-days period of his career. He is still 27.
If I tell you that 27-year-old Mike Trout has more career WAR than, say, Barry Larkin, you could hear it as an incredible tribute to Trout, but you could also hear it as a diminishment of Larkin — and if we diminish Larkin, we diminish the power of the tribute. To really appreciate Trout, it helps to appreciate just how incredible the Hall of Famers he is passing were and to understand how it is plausible that Trout is already actually more valuable than they were.
Trout started July with 69.5 career WAR. With another fantastic month — he hit .286/.392/.821, ended July leading the American League in WAR and raised his career mark to 71.1 — he passed eight more Hall of Famers. In Trout’s honor, we will consider those eight.
Ed Delahanty, 69.7 career WAR (70th all time among position players)
How good Delahanty was:
1. Across the decade of the 1890s, these are the statistical categories in which Ed Delahanty led all of Major League Baseball: Hits, total bases, doubles, slugging percentage and OPS+. He was second in homers, RBIs, triples and WAR. He was third in runs scored. He was fourth in batting average. He was ninth in on-base percentage, 13th in stolen bases and 19th in walks. He had an excellent defensive reputation. Over the course of a decade, he was either the best or the second-best baseball player in the world, behind Billy Hamilton.
2. “Delahanty was a five-tool player long before the term came into use,” his SABR bio says, and there’s one way his Baseball-Reference page looks more like Trout’s than perhaps any other great player: The distribution of his black ink, which signifies when he led his league in something. Like Trout, Delahanty didn’t just lead the league in power stats, or speed stats, but in almost everything at some point or another. He led the league in average, and in OBP, and in slugging percentage — all in different years. He led the league in homers, doubles and triples, all in different years. He never led the league in walks, though he finished in the top six four times, and never in runs, though he finished third, fourth and fifth twice. He led in RBIs, in hits and over and over in OPS (not that he knew it at the time). In his final full season, he hit .376/.453/.590, all three leading the league, and then — just 42 games later — his career ends, and all the stats stop. And that’s probably what he’s most famous for.
3. In 1903, when he was 35 and coming off one of his best seasons, Delahanty died. It’s one of baseball’s most shocking deaths and enduring mysteries. He was on a train near Niagara Falls. He was drunk — his personal life had been falling apart — and then belligerent. He got kicked off the train. He walked out onto a bridge over the Niagara River. He got in a scuffle with a night watchman, escaped the watchman’s grasp and went over the edge of the bridge and died. It’s not really known what happened: Did he fall in his drunkenness or did he jump? Was he suicidal, as some circumstantial evidence suggests? What sort of tragedy was this? It’s never been known. “His naked body (except for tie, shoes and socks) was found 20 miles downstream at the base of Horseshoe Falls — the Canadian portion of Niagara Falls — seven days later,” the SABR bio concludes. He was, at the time, one of the five greatest baseball players who had ever lived.
How Trout is plausibly better, already: The playing time gap between Trout and Delahanty is considerably smaller than for most of these Hall of Famers. Delahanty only played about 50 percent more games than Trout has already, and his first four years were quite poor. Delahanty’s best year would be Trout’s sixth best.
Gary Carter, 70.1 WAR (69th)
How good Carter was:
1. It’s incredible what catchers used to be asked to do, and Carter even more than most. In 1982, he started 151 games at catcher. Only one catcher since World War II has ever started more, and only two catchers in this decade have started more than 137 (and none more than 143). He took 650 of his team’s 693 plate appearances at the position that year, and if you don’t think that all took a toll on his stats and his career, just look at the splits: He hit .313/.391/.588 in the first half, .271/.370/.429 in the second. “I’m on that burnout pace,” he admitted at the time, citing Johnny Bench as an example. “I feel it in the mornings. Sometimes, it takes me a half-hour to get out of bed. There are days when I can’t walk down the stairs without stretching and popping my legs back into shape.”
2. But the next year — 1983, when he was 29 — he had, arguably, the best defensive season in catching history, 27 runs better than average. Only seven catchers over the past century have even cracked 20. It marked the end of a remarkable run of eight years and more than 100 runs saved on defense.
From a Sports Illustrated profile at the time: “Backup Catcher Tim Blackwell says Carter ‘frames the ball,’ that is, catches it with such a smooth movement of the mitt that every close pitch appears to be a strike, a technique he learned from former Expo Coach Norm Sherry. He can glance at a scouting report and within five minutes conduct a team meeting on it. He’s not merely competitive; he’s aflame…. ‘I like being called the best catcher in baseball. Nobody remembers Number 2.’”
3. His positive attitude was legendary. He talked to everybody — batters, reporters, fans on the edges of the stands — constantly. He estimated that he signed as many as 100,000 autographs a year. “Carter may be that rarest of humans — a truly happy man,” that SI profile said.
How Trout is plausibly better, already:Very few catchers can stay at an All-Star level deep into their 30′s, and Carter was no exception. He had 11 seasons as an above-average player, while Trout already has eight. Carter ranks 107th all time in MVP shares, which is very good. Trout already ranks 11th, and when he wins it this year he’ll likely jump into the top five. Carter’s career-high OPS+ was 146. Trout’s career low is 168. Carter’s best season, by WAR, would be Trout’s sixth best.
Bobby Wallace, 70.3 WAR (67th)
How good Wallace was:
1. Wallace is the 21st Hall of Fame hitter Trout has passed this season, and it’s a strong bet he’s the least recognizable name of them all. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of him. Consider this: “There was one of the greatest ball players in the world, and the chances are that half the young fellows of today never heard of him.” That was written by Honus Wagner, just six years after Wallace retired.
It seems fairly damning to his greatness than the young fellows of the day held him in low regard. But Wagner was writing about Wallace because he was naming him to his all-time team, as the shortstop (with Wagner presumably excluding himself from consideration). Which is pretty supportive of his greatness.
2. “He was such a perfect machine I reckon they just sort of considered Wallace as belonging at short and never thought about giving him a boost,” Wagner reasoned about Wallace’s lack of publicity. “He was so generally good as not to be noticed. Wallace was as sure a fielder and pegger to first as ever lived. He was never regarded as a heavy hitter but he was one of the surest men in a pinch that I ever have seen. To my mind Bobby Wallace was the best shortstop we ever had on making double plays and on coming in for slow-hit grounders. He had studied every batter so that he knew where they would hit certain pitches and he would be right on top of the ball. He was so perfect in this that a lot of folks thought him born under a lucky star. It wasn’t luck at all. He had figured it out that way. Wallace could cover as much ground either to his right or left as anybody — and probably more. I used to wish that I could do some of the tricks that Bobby did. Yes, I have taken into consideration his lack of hitting, and still I select him as the grand All-American shortstop of all time.”
3. He wasn’t a terrible hitter or anything. It’s hard for us to know what to make of hitting stats from such a profoundly different era, but his OPS was better than league average and he was often in the top 10 in doubles or triples (and twice in slugging percentage). But his legacy is as a defender, not just a great one but an innovative one: He’s generally credited with inventing the now-standard continuous motion of fielding and throwing. As Wallace described: “As more speed afoot was constantly demanded for big league ball, I noticed the many infield bounders which the runner beat to first only by the thinnest fractions of a second. I also noted that the old-time three-phase movement, fielding a ball, coming erect for a toss and throwing to first wouldn’t do on certain hits with fast men … it was plain that the stop and toss had to be combined into a continuous movement.”
Fun detail: Wallace retired to become an umpire, but he didn’t like it and returned to playing.
How Trout is plausibly better, already: It’s hard to find any real way to put Mike Trout and Bobby Wallace on the same scale. Trout has eight times more home runs in his career than Wallace had. Wallace played in an era when making 60 errors qualified him as the league’s best shortstop. Wallace played for a team that, after he left, went 20-134 the next season. It’s all too different to truly compare. But his best season, by WAR, would be Mike Trout’s sixth best.
Frankie Frisch, 70.4 WAR (66th)
How good Frisch was:
1. Frankie Frisch played 19 seasons in the majors and collected 2,880 hits.Ronald Acuna Jr.will pass Frisch’s career strikeout total by the end of this season.
Obviously, it was a very different era. But even relative to his peers, by an index stat like strikeout-percentage-plus, Frisch is one of the 30 or so greatest contact hitters ever, and in an era when contact hitting was the skill people valued.
2. In 1927, as a second baseman, he was 37 runs better than average on defense, according to Baseball-Reference. We, of course, don’t have the range of metrics to assess defense then that we do now. It’s all very foggy. But by range factor — which measures how many chances a player had per game, presumably due in large part to his own range — Frisch reached nearly one more ground ball per game than the average second baseman. He set the all-time record for assists that year, a record that still stands today.
3. In “TheGlory Of Their Times,” an oral history of early-century baseball, the catcher and manager Bob O’Farrell says: “The greatest player I ever saw? Oh, I don’t know, there were so many great ones. Guys like Paul Waner, Hornsby, Alex, Terry, Hubbell, Ruth, Vance, Mel Ott, Rixey, Roush. There were too many great ones to say any one is the greatest. Although I’ll say this; the greatest player I ever saw in any one season was Frankie Frisch in 1927. That was his first year with the Cardinals, when I was managing him. He’d been traded to St. Louis for the man of the hour, Rogers Hornsby, and he was on the spot. Frank did everything that year. Really an amazing ballplayer.”
How Trout is plausibly better, already: For all of Frisch’s not striking out, he had very little power during an era when power was easy. Trout passed him in career homers by the time he was 23. He passed him in career walks this year. Frisch’s best season, by WAR, would be Trout’s fifth best.
Barry Larkin, 70.4 WAR (65th)
How good Larkin was:
1. Put him in New York, give him slightly better health, and he might be the most famous superstar of the era:
Larkin: .295/.371/.444, 116 OPS+
Derek Jeter: .310/.377/.440, 115 OPS+
Larkin was the better defender, the more effective baserunner, and even — in a much smaller pool of at-bats — the better postseason performer:
Larkin: .338/.397/.465 (78 plate appearances)
Jeter: .308/.374/.465 (734 PAs)
2. He ranks seventh all time in baserunning runs, with 80 more than average and not a single season in negative territory despite his playing until he was 40.
3. Larkin did everything right, nothing wrong. That was his thing. I once found that he’s probably the best player in history who never led the league in any major offense category. As he put it, in a profile in Sports Illustrated in 1995, the year he won the NL MVP: “I consider myself an amoeba man. I’ll assume any shape to help the team. If the team needs someone to lead by example, I do that. If it needs someone to steal, I do that. If it needs someone to bunt or move a runner from second to third, I do that.”
To really appreciate how strong the sense of Larkin as a do-no-wrong guy was, though, follow me to the insane continuation of that section in the SI profile. After Larkin says he’ll do anything the team needs him to do, his third-base coach, Ray Knight, chimes in with this anecdote:
“Knight recalls a recent game in which Larkin came to bat in the first inning with no outs and runners on first and second. As Gant waited on deck, Larkin glanced at Knight, who gave him the hit sign. Larkin bunted. Strike one. Knight put on the hit sign. Larkin bunted. Strike two. Knight flashed yet another hit sign. Larkin bunted. Strike three. On the dugout steps, Red manager Davey Johnson shook his head in disbelief. ‘Barry knew we were having trouble scoring, and he wanted to get runners in scoring position for Ron,’ says Knight. ‘The point is, Barry’s thoughts are pure.’”
Just think of how powerful the experience of watching Larkin, being on the same team as Larkin, must have been if that anecdote can be offered as a positive. Just total faith in Larkin. That’s what it was like watching him in the 1990s.
How Trout is plausibly better, already: During the decade Larkin was at his offensive peak — from 1989 to 1998 — he only averaged 123 games per season, thanks to some poorly timed injuries and the 1994 strike. All those missed games cost him a dozen or so WAR that would have held Trout off for another season. His best season, by WAR, would be Trout’s seventh best.
Ron Santo, 70.5 WAR (64th)
How good Santo was:
1. When he was a high school senior, Santo says, the Cubs’ head scout told him “there’s no way you’re ever going to be a third baseman in the major leagues, son.” They drafted him as a catcher. But Santo improved from not very good at the position, in his early 20′s, to extremely good. He won five Gold Gloves.
2. Here’s another story from when he was young: In 1959, when he went to rookie camp, Rogers Hornsby was the Cubs’ hitting instructor. “At the conclusion of the three-week camp, Hornsby assembled the prospects in the bleachers. He went down the line, critiquing each player: ‘You might as well go home’; ‘You won’t get by A ball’; ‘Forget A ball, you won’t get past C ball.’ He got to Santo and said, ‘You can hit in the big leagues right now.’”
A year later, Santo was a league-average hitter as a 20-year-old rookie. In the deadest era of offense of the past century, he would hit 30 homers four straight years, and lead the league in walks four times, winning Gold Gloves the whole time. From ages 24 to 27 he produced 35 WAR, the eighth-most ever across those ages, behind seven pantheon names.
3. For a couple of decades, Santo was arguably the best eligible player not in the Hall of Fame. Various reasons were posited for the snub: Third basemen have historically been overlooked by voters, a lot of his value came from walks, which were also historically overlooked, he played for mostly mediocre teams, and he had irritated too many writers and peers with his habit of celebrating victories with a leaping heel-click (which was popular in Chicago, less so elsewhere). “Santo was never quite sure where to direct his disappointment, but he knew that somebody had screwed him out of his spot in baseball’s Hall of Fame,” Phil Rogers eulogized in 2010. It was a shame, because it was never a given that Santo would live long enough for voters to get it right: He’d been battling Type 1 diabetes for most of his life, had already outlived his life expectancy by many decades, had lost both legs to the disease, and had helped raise tens of millions of dollars for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. He died in 2010, and was inducted in 2012.
How Trout is plausibly better, already:In 1964, Ron Santo was the National League’s second-best hitter. He played an important defensive position, and he was better than average at it. You put that together and it’s 8.9 WAR, a titanic season, an MVP season most years, better than any number of Hall of Famers have ever done. That is Trout’s average season so far: 8.8 WAR, an average that will go up as he adds to his total this year. Every year he’s the best hitter in his league, at an important defensive position, which he plays better than average (while also adding baserunning value). Which is just all to say the answer to this question isn’t about Santo — it’s that Trout more or less matches the typical Hall of Famer’s best year every year. Santo’s best season, by WAR, would be Trout’s fourth best.
Alan Trammell, 70.7 WAR (63rd)
How good Trammell was:
1. There are five components to Baseball Reference’s WAR model: Hitting runs, fielding runs, baserunning runs, double-play runs (the ability to avoid double plays) and positional runs (an adjustment for the difficulty of the position the player plays). Of the 50 Hall of Famers who have debuted since 1955, only four had positive values for all five of those categories: Larkin, Ryne Sandberg, Ken Griffey Jr. and Trammell.
2. Trammell’s Hall of Fame candidacy always seemed stronger than writers gave credit for — he was elected by the veterans committee — but he seems to be a victim of his particular peers. In the 1980s, he was the second-best offensive shortstop, slightly behind Cal Ripken and miles, miles ahead of No. 3. (But as Gary Carter once said: Nobody remembers No. 2.) He was arguably the second-best defensive shortstop too (or maybe third), but behind Ozzie Smith — the greatest defensive shortstop of all time. He did win three Silver Slugger awards and four Gold Gloves, but he never started an All-Star Game.
3. Trammell “does have one fault,” Steve Wulf wrote in 1983. “He’s a klutz. ‘He is the world’s worst eater,’ says First Baseman Enos Cabell. ‘You better sit on his left side or else he’ll spill on you.’ Says Third Baseman Tom Brookens, ‘Alan has to Scotchgard all his pants.’ Says Castillo, ‘His hands are like Mel Tillis’ speech: Mel stutters when he talks, but he sings perfectly. If it’s not a baseball, Alan drops it.’”
How Trout is plausibly better, already: Trout’s on-base percentage is higher than Trammell’s slugging percentage. Trammell’s best season, by WAR, would be Trout’s sixth best.
Johnny Mize, 70.9 WAR (62nd)
How good Mize was:
1. Mize was so good. Over a nine-year stretch, these are Mize’s MVP finishes: 10th, 12th, 2nd, 2nd, 9th, 5th, 16th, 3rd, 17th. Except, right in the middle of that run, he enlisted in the Navy and missed three seasons to serve during WWII. It’s no stretch at all to assume he lost three MVP-level seasons. What’s absolutely wild is that Hall of Fame voters didn’t seem to care; he never topped 50 percent of the vote and had to be inducted by the veterans committee almost 30 years after he retired, presumably because his career home run and RBI totals weren’t quite as high as other Hall of Fame first baseman. Wild.
2. Since 1901, Mize is 16th all time in OPS and 13th all time in OPS+. He was a better hitter than Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Hank Greenberg and Edgar Martinez. He had a masterful blend of power (he was large, for the time, and often swung a huge bat) and bat control. Adjusted for era, he’s seventh all time in isolated power, and of the six batters ahead of him, only Ted Williams had a lower strikeout rate. His defensive reputation at first base was enough to earn him the nickname “The Big Cat.”
3. According to his obituary in The New York Times, he also “took special pleasure in laying a perfect bunt down the third-base line.” Data aren’t complete for his career, but sure enough, he got at least seven down for hits.
How Trout is plausibly better, already: Because Mize missed those three years for the war, and spent the final four years of his career as a part-timer on great Yankees teams, he really only had 10 full seasons. They were incredible seasons, among the greatest offensive seasons ever. But Trout is still a better hitter: Mize is 13th all time in OPS+, but Trout is fifth. His best season, by WAR, would be Trout’s sixth best.
Who’s next: Harry Heilmann, though at Trout’s regular pace it could take a few weeks to get there.
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