To say that Mike Trout is a generational talent rings hollow. We all know Mike Trout is incredible -- he was the best player in baseball at ages 20 and 21. We're all aware of the many things that can go wrong over the course of a player's career, but if you wanted to start on the path to being the best player in baseball history, you'd probably start your career like Trout did over the last two seasons. Trout isn't just a great player, he's potentially the best player of all time.
The wonderful thing about a statement like that is that the odds of a baseball player becoming the best player of all time start out extremely small and collapse almost immediately. Trout is 1490 plate appearances into his career and, while the odds are against him, by virtue of being the best player in history through age 21, he has a shot. The question now is what would it take?
Instead of taking Babe Ruth's 168.4 fWAR and dividing it by the number of years we expect Trout to play, let's take a slightly more interesting approach. We know that through age 21, Trout has accumulated more fWAR (21.1) than anyone else. He had the best age 20 season in history and the best age 21 season in history. What we want to know now is how many wins he would need to add on average in order to have the most fWAR at every age?
The method is quite simple. We'll take the current leader through each age, subtract Trout's current fWAR, and then divide that by the number of years he has to reach that age. For example, the leader through age 22 has 25.9 fWAR, and (25.9-21.1)/1 = 4.8. Trout needs 4.8 fWAR or higher to have more fWAR through 22 than anyone else. Here is the full breakdown through age 40.
In the short run it's a cake walk, but it settles into the mid-8s rather quickly. Cobb, Hornsby, and Ruth are pretty hard to catch. Imagine how impossible this would look if Trout wasn't coming off back to back ten win seasons! Bryce Harper had the best age 19 season of all time but he followed it with a pedestrian 3.8 fWAR at age 20 to virtually kill his chances. It's certainly more likely for Trout than anyone else, but averaging eight wins for the next 19 years seems very unlikely. What if we just look at the best seasons at a given age? Could Trout add to his collection of "best age __ season ever?"
This is an impressive list for two reasons. First, no one on this list other than Appling and Fisk at the very end are anything short of inner circle Hall of Famers. This is a list of some of the best position players in baseball history. Even if Trout isn't going to catch Ruth on the all-time list, he's already made his mark. Second, Babe Ruth is on this list seven times. That seemed worthy of recognition.
Trout should have a few chances to add to his two "best at age" seasons, especially with the Williams seasons in the 11-12 WAR range coming up next. But even if he doesn't, he's already in great company.
I think there's a natural feeling among statistically minded baseball fans and analysts to be careful about projecting Trout's true talent level up here around 9-11 wins because that number just seems crazy. He might do it again, but at some point you expect him to regress back to the rest of humanity. I wonder if we're looking at Trout incorrectly. Maybe he really is going to be on the Mount Rushmore of baseball. Getting on this list in the first place is hard enough. The only players with more than two "best at age" seasons are Bonds, Ruth, and Williams. That's the entire list.
Trout is entering his age 22 season about one third of the way to the Hall of Fame and one third of the way to the largest contract in baseball history. There are so many things that could go wrong, but players who are this good this early tend to do great things. It's never likely that a given player will grow into the best player of all time, but Trout has a really good chance at an inner circle Hall of Fame type career even if he isn't going to catch Ruth at the very top. If nothing else, one more "best at age" season and he joins a club populated by Bonds, Ruth, and Williams.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Neil Weinberg is a writer and editor at Beyond The Box Score, contributor to Gammons Daily, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter at @NeilWeinberg44.