The Hall of Fame announced its latest class yesterday evening: Tim Raines, Jeff Bagwell and Ivan Rodriguez are your newly minted Class of 2017. Usually, this announcement signals the end of the mostly horrible Cooperstown talk for another year. Not today, friend. I’m sorry to say that you’ve got a whole lot of words coming at you here, and almost all of them are about the Hall of Fame.
This is a website devoted to writing about baseball, and as such, we are legally required to talk about Mike Trout at least six times per month, lest we be thrown into the internment camps with the tax cheats, sexual predators, and people with bad hair. But enough about the president-elect!
This article explores several divergent paths Mike Trout’s career might take from its incredible genesis, and his chances to reach Cooperstown under each scenario. All stats below are from Baseball-Reference, kind of — I mostly made them up, but I used Trout’s career to date, as well as the careers of some other pals (cited appropriately), as a starting place. For an explanation of JAWS, head here to get it straight from the source, Jay Jaffe.
What if Mike Trout…
…stayed the course?
In general, the production curve for players goes up until around 28-29 (or their first major injury), after which they start to decline. Trout is 25, so he's still got about four more years of getting better to go, but I'm just not sure how much farther up there is. By bWAR, Trout already owns two of the 25 best single seasons in MLB history, and improvement as he fully ages into his body and learns more about the game leading into the prime of his career leaves Trout on the same level as Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds during his artificially-enhanced peak at the turn of the decade.
If that were to happen, you're obviously looking at a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Beyond that, if Trout stays on the trajectory he's on, you could very well be looking at the first player to be unanimously elected to Cooperstown. Stodgy old traditionalists have long prided themselves on the tradition of letting no man hold that honor, but changing rules for who gets to vote and the slow, cruel and inevitable progress of time have removed many of those types from the voter rolls. Additionally, the removal of the veil of anonymity may push those who previously sent in bad ballots in secret toward taking the privilege of Cooperstown suffrage more seriously.
Ken Griffey Jr. came closest to unanimous selection with 99.3 percent of the vote in 2015, and Junior took a nosedive from Great to Pretty Good almost overnight when he hit age 30 (largely due to nagging health problems). If Trout continues to improve, avoids major injury and sticks around the league until age 40, it'll be impossible for any member of the BBWAA — yes, even you, Murray Chass — to leave him off the ballot.
Hall of Fame:
Yes, unanimously on his first ballot. In this scenario, Trout is the greatest baseball player to ever live.
…got even better?
Deep in the heart of Peru, buried among the snarl of roots in the darkest part of the Peruvian Amazon, lies an ancient evil no mortal man may look upon and live. Its name, unutterable by human voices, drives all those who hear it in the ancient tongue mad, twisting their minds until only a wispy, knotted coil of consciousness remains. Formed in the old days before time itself, it lay dormant these past millennia, waiting for The Anointed — that astral being of good foretold by the primeval scribes — to manifest herself in human form so that he may strike, scrubbing the universe of the only being that can oppose him so that he might devour all of reality.
Should it come to pass that Mike Trout continues to get better at baseball, he would reveal himself to be The Anointed made flesh. Having exposed herself while still in human form (not to mention in the weaker, male version of the species), she would trigger the chain of events that would summon that unnameable primordial evil from his slumber of aeons, and bring about apocalypse.
It is imperative that this string of events not come to pass. Mike Trout must not improve at baseball. The fate of all of reality hangs in the balance.
|∞ Years||Neverending||Opened Wide to Consume||10227||3540||666||8888888|
Hall of Fame:
Destroyed by The Great Storm and later consumed along with the rest of the Eastern Seaboard in the final days of the universe.
This is the scenario where someone writes the Buzzfeed article, "You Can Get Mike Trout Out With This One Neat Trick!" and it actually works. He isn’t bad, by any means, but he’s no longer special — he has seasons where he almost looks like his old self again, and he has seasons that make the next generation of baseball fans wonder what all the fuss was about.
We actually have a blueprint for this, and we mentioned him before: Ken Griffey Jr. Griffey had a longer track record than Trout does now when his decline began, but it was by no means more impressive on a per-year basis. The "worst" season of Trout's career, when he won the MVP in 2014, was better than all but three of The Kid's campaigns. This is what Trout’s career looks like if we splice in Griffey’s post-30 years — with some padding to correct for Junior’s prolonged injury absences.
Hall of Fame:
Yes, and likely on the first ballot. A decade of mediocrity isn’t enough to make people forget what Trout did during his first five years, and he plays long enough to garner the minimum in counting stats required for entry.
…suffered catastrophic injury?
In this macabre scenario, Trout’s career is over before the 2017 season begins. Perhaps it’s a devastating collision with the wall (or a teammate) in the outfield during Spring Training, or some mishap at home in the coming weeks. As we’ve seen very recently with the late Jose Fernandez, even the most promising careers can be cut short in a single instant.
No one wants to imagine such things, of course. Still, Trout’s production through just over five years has been so incredible that he already has the numbers to make this a conversation worth having. The career statistics below are, of course, Trout’s statistical totals to date.
Hall of Fame:
Yes, in a special election. In the tragic event of his untimely death or permanent disability, the BBWAA almost certainly either tweaks the rules or agrees to break them on a one-time basis to allow for Trout’s admittance. Even though he only appeared in three career playoff games, going 1-for-12, it would be hard to tell the story of baseball this decade without Trout. When one also considers that Trout’s numbers already compare favorably to several enshrined center fielders, it’s hard to imagine anyone would oppose bending the rules for him.
…became Yuniesky Betancourt?
In this version of history, the sequel to Space Jam is real, but the Monstars spurn LeBron and his silly game of shooty-hoops to take a whack at baseball this time. Mike Trout is very reasonably their first target, and his talent is sucked into a swirling green baseball like so many dust bunnies in the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim trophy case (ZING!). As the fight for the fate of … I don’t remember, an amusement park? … takes place on some far-off, animated planet, Trout is forced to carry on trying his best as a floppy, hollow shell of himself.
To simulate this, we replace the balance of Trout’s career with that of the century’s worst player (min. 3000 plate appearances), Yuniesky Betancourt. It takes everyone about three months to realize that it’s not just a slump, three years before the “What’s Wrong With Mike Trout?” pieces slow down, and another five before the league finally realizes he’s never coming back.
Being Mike Trout buys him a few more years in the league than Betancourt got, so we need some more seasons. Let’s see … a young, toolsy prospect who burst onto the scene in historic fashion only to flame out and wind up doing — BAH GOD THAT’S FRENCHY’S MUSIC!!
Hall of Fame:
This is the hard one. Even after a decade of being one of the worst players in the game, no one has forgotten young Trout, and the promise of an all-time player that was lost to some unknown force. Still, it’s hard to enshrine someone who spent a decade playing worse than your run-of-the-mill Quad-A organizational player — you don’t see many players with a higher JAWS than career WAR.
One of his closest Hall of Fame comparisons by bWAR in this scenario wold be be Roger Bresnahan, considered by many to hold the dubious honor of being the worst player in the Hall of Fame. There’s no precedent here — no one has ever been as good as Trout and as bad as Betancourt in the same lifetime — so it’s hard to say what the voters would do. I would guess that his poor performance for so long keeps him out of Cooperstown.
. . .
Travis Sarandos is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score, a Taylor Swift enthusiast and a very nice person. You can follow him on Twitter at @travis_mke.