You’re almost tempted to send Mike Trout sympathy cards and wreaths. While his Angels—through no fault of his—are spending another season in the tank, Trout is making history almost too quietly.
The Angels are 13.5 games out of the American League West hunt and unlikely to hit the kind of streaks needed to flip that around, not with the team as it is now, but Trout is twice that many games ahead of the rest of the game and maybe even beyond.
If you don’t believe me, you might believe Jayson Stark, who’s mulcted that a) Trout is likely to finish the season leading the American League in wins above a replacement-level player for the fifth straight year; and, b) the last man to lead his league in WAR that many consecutive seasons or more (specifically, from 1926-31) was some guy named Ruth.
Think about that for a moment. Only three men in major league history—two position players and one pitcher (Walter Johnson, 1912-16)—have led their league in WAR five or more years in a row. One of them (Johnson) played the bulk of his prime in the dead ball era; one played the bulk of his in the live ball, pre-integration/pre-night ball era; and, the third is playing today on the levelest playing field baseball’s ever known.
“I’m not going to argue that Mike Trout is underrated,” Stark writes. “I’m not that demented. But here’s what I think I can make an excellent case for: We’re taking Mike Trout’s greatness for granted. And it’s time to stop ho-humming this guy right now. Got it?”
The sad part is that “we” seems to include the Angels. Oh, they know how to promote the living daylights out of Trout. What they don’t seem to know how to do anymore is to put a team around him that knows as much as he does about how to play the game to win.
Trout this season has a 4.2 win probability added—yes, he leads the league in that, as he’s done twice before. His overall performance with men in scoring position isn’t as high as you’d expect, but a) it isn’t weak, and b) doesn’t someone have to have men in that position for him in the first place?
You could make a fine argument that the Angels are taking Trout’s greatness for granted and have been since his stupefying arrival. Their scouting system and farm system have gone from one of the best to one of the worst.
They’ve just dumped Ric Wilson as scouting director, a job he held since 2011, after a tenure in which only two drafted players (C.J. Cron, Jett Bandy) have positive WARs and in which the Angels—handcuffed to a certain extent by the Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton contracts—drafted largely from among college players the Los Angeles Times describes as “closer to the big leagues but (having) less upside,” compared to the previous emphasis on high-risk/high-reward high school players.
Players like Trout, drafted in 2009.
As if the Angels’ farm system wasn’t enough of a mess, the best of the crop drafted during Wilson’s tenure overseeing their scouting—pitchers Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis—were traded to the Braves in the deal that also sent the Braves Erick Aybar in a swap for Andrelton Simmons. Who missed over a month this season after needing thumb ligament surgery in May, and who’s been solid in the field if modest at the plate.
It’s his value in the field that has Simmons with 2.2 WAR to date this season. The bad news: If Trout wasn’t an Angel, Simmons’s WAR would lead the team this season.
Getting Simmons may have given them a field upgrade at shortstop but sacrificing two touted pitching prospects by a team whose total earned run average this season is 4.41—with no active starting pitcher under 3.50, no full-time reliever (26 games or more) under 4.40 other than Cam Bedrosian (who’s working a lights-out 1.12 ERA through this writing)—wasn’t exactly the ideal deal.
And Bedrosian has become the closer by default now that Huston Street—who rushed it back from an oblique strain that cost him five weeks and collapsed as a result—is back on the disabled list with an inflamed right knee.
Trout isn’t without his flaws (God only knows, neither was Ruth), and he’s getting a serious challenge from Houston’s Jose Altuve this year, largely because Altuve plays on a better team that affords him more run production opportunity and because Altuve’s a little better at laying away from the strikeout this year.
On the other hand, what would you rather have—a guy who strikes out often enough, or a guy who hits into double plays more often? Through today, Trout’s hit into four. Altuve has hit into eleven. Trout has cut his strikeouts considerably from earlier in his career. (He’s also leading the AL in on-base percentage.) Both men are even up in run production and power hitting, more or less, but Trout’s team is likely to cost him another MVP award while Altuve’s is likely to secure one for him. So far.
Think about this. You’ve got the greatest all-around player in the game but you’re 13.5 out of first in your division, you have about as much chance of making this year’s postseason as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have of keeping their feet out of their mouths, and you’ve never known him to carp publicly about it.
You’re stuck with Albert Pujols’s contract through 2021, though Pujols at least continues to give you decent production when he’s able to play (injuries took a toll on him almost from the moment he landed in Anaheim). That’s the worse news, even if Pujols is the team’s leading home run and steak man this year thus far. (In case you forgot, Pujols is twelve bombs from 600 career. He just might get them before the season is over. Might.)
The better: Forget for a moment how wrong you were handling Josh Hamilton in 2015, he has an opt-out clause at this season’s end in the fat contract you’re still paying the Rangers to keep him away from you and you’re praying he exercises it. That’ll get you slightly off the hook, maybe enough to think hard about next year’s draft.
And you can’t bear to utter the R word yet. But you’d better. Because you have only four more years of the greatest player in baseball under contract, you used to be considered a divisional powerhouse, and you don’t have that much time left to get him back to the postseason.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia says there’s no white flag being run up. General manager Billy Eppler—who got the job after his predecessor Jerry Dipoto lost a kind of power struggle with Scioscia, who still manages like it’s 2002 but doesn’t have the team (other than Trout) to play it—said the same thing in spring training.
Incidentally, the Mariners, who hired Dipoto after he took his hike from Anaheim, are still on the periphery of the postseason hunt after Dipoto’s offseason makeover, though Dipoto seems to know he has stronger chances at a 2017 run.
That’s still better than the Angels seem to have. Despite the best all-around player in baseball hitting the field every day in their fatigues, doing the things he’s been doing from square one, playing winning baseball for a team that’s lost its way to winning little by little since he’s been here.