Imagine an alternate universe in which Mike Trout was born on August 7, 1941 instead of August 7, 1991. In this alternate universe, Trout puts up the exact same numbers (relative to the league) as he has in his current iteration; he’s just doing it in the 1960s instead of the 2010s. Trout would undoubtedly still be thought of as one of the best players in baseball — after all, this is a man who has led the league in runs scored four of his five full seasons, has two walk crowns, an RBI title and a stolen base title — but would he still be the undisputed Best Player Alive?
Trout rose to prominence just as WAR (wins above replacement, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you) was entering the public consciousness. His rookie season, we heard plenty about how incredible he was, but it was in his second season that “Trout” and “WAR” arguably became as intertwined as any player and any stat in MLB history (hold that thought).
There were hundreds of articles espousing the true value of Trout and this “new” stat that lent itself so well to article title puns. On the other side, there were even more articles, many proclaiming that WAR was a silly stat that lacked seeing the big picture and was for nerds who never played the game.
Don’t believe me? Or do you simply want a trip down memory lane? Here are some of the headlines from that season: “WAR is stupid, people are stupid (Or, Trout vs. Cabrera)”; “Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera a proxy battle in a larger cold war”; and from GOAT hot take artist Bob Ryan, “WAR stat in baseball is complete nonsense.”
As a baseball community we seem to have reached the point where even the old-schoolers admit the new stats have their place in baseball, and the new-schoolers recognize there is a lot to be said for scouting and seeing players live. It’s a lot calmer now. But the 2012-2015 seasons were a nonstop war, and the 2013 American League MVP race was Gettysburg. Because it was such a flash point, and because Trout has continued to do the damn thing since, Trout has created an unbreakable bond between his career and WAR.
It’s four years later, and “Trout” and “WAR” are still popping up in headlines with incredible regularity. There’s a good section of baseball fans (this one included) who check the FanGraphs WAR leaderboards daily to see how close Trout is to the number one spot, despite his six-week absence this season. (For the record, I think he’ll manage to pull it off and top Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge. Really going out on a limb, I know.)
There are very few players in MLB history who have had that ability on us. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did it for a while during the magical 1998 season, and whenever a player approaches a milestone there is plenty of leaderboard hawking, but in terms of one player, throughout his career, being tied to a stat as closely as Trout and WAR, it’s tough to find.
With that in mind, here are five players and stats that come the closest. For each we’ll discuss the player/stat relationship for a bit and decide if the Trout+WAR combo has them beat or not.
Mariano Rivera — Saves
When one thinks of closers, it is immediately Rivera who comes to mind, thanks in large part to his ability to come through when it mattered most. Rivera won five rings with the Yankees and was on the mound as the team celebrated four of those. He has 652 saves (first all-time), 952 games finished (first all-time), and an ERA+ of 205 (first all-time).
Because Rivera pitched in an era when closers were regularly racking up 40+ saves a season, and because he was so incredible for so long, Rivera’s record seems like a tough one to break. But the Trout+WAR combo have one big advantage over Rivera+SV. As noted before, Trout’s ascension and the rise of WAR coincided so beautifully that fans will never truly be able to think of one without the other. For Rivera, his rise came after the save statistic became accepted by the baseball public, so we were spared hot-take headlines with terrible puns like, “Can Mariano Rivera save the dire future of MLB bullpens?” Those headlines (and articles) may be annoying, but they undoubtedly help to create an unbreakable bond between player and stat.
Rickey Henderson — Stolen bases
Of the major statistical categories, there’s no gap greater than Henderson and his next closest challenger for the all-time stolen bases lead. For those who don’t have the all-time stolen base leaderboard memorized, Henderson (1,406 career steals) has basically 50 percent more career steals than second-place Lou Brock (938). That 468-steal gap is an insane disparity, and with the way the sport is headed these days, it is likely to stay that large of a gap for the foreseeable future.
There’s likely an argument to be made that Henderson’s name is tied to the steal more so than Trout is to WAR, but here’s the thing: WAR already has a much bigger place in the public consciousness than steals.
Stolen bases have always had their place in the game, and, during the heyday of Henderson and Tim Raines running rampant in the eighties, they were thought of as a big part of the game. But steals have never held the same cache as many of the other statistics on this list. A player who stole and did nothing else (e.g. Vince Coleman) has never been thought of in the same sense as a player who only hit homers (e.g. Harmon Killebrew) or only hit for average (e.g. George Sisler).
I’m willing to say that Henderson and the steal are equal to Trout and WAR in terms of name recognition, but Trout+WAR gets the edge due to the importance of the stat itself.
Ty Cobb — Batting average/Cy Young — Wins
Now, a modern fan may look upon batting average and wins as even more dated and irrelevant than stolen bases, but the fact remains that for a very good chunk of baseball history (and to a very big chunk of fans even today) they were among the most revered statistics in the sport.
And these two men were (and are) the preeminent names for each metric.
Both players are the all-time leaders in their respective statistic, but even more than that, they are the first name that comes to mind when you think of batting average and wins. I have to admit that I did have to double-check that Cobb was for sure the all-time leader in batting average, but there was no hesitation before that when I was thinking of who the first name on the list might be. Cobb was a hitter who perfected the art of hitting for a high average, topping .400 three different times and never hitting below .323 in a season (min. 50 games).
Young is even more intrinsically tied to wins than Cobb is to average. Not only would no one ever have to look up whether Young was indeed the all-time wins leader (he holds that distinction by an easy 94 victories), many fans even know the exact number of wins Young has in his career. Five hundred and eleven is a magical baseball number, like .400, 300, or 3,000 — just with no arbitrary base-10 cut off.
It is because of that final note, that people not only think of Young as the wins king but that they also know his exact career total, that he gets the advantage over Trout here. Trout may reach that peak one day, but for now he falls short of Young. Cobb+BA is a closer matchup, but I think Trout+WAR gets the slight nod if only because this article is being written in 2017 and batting average is simply on its way out as a measurement. Sure, the same can be said for wins, but there’s no doubt that Young will always be remembered as the wins king no matter how little emphasis is put on the pitcher win in the future, I’m not sure Cobb can say the same.
Advantage: Young+W > Trout+WAR > Cobb+BA
Babe Ruth — Home runs
This is the easy choice for number one MLB player/stat combo. Not only does Ruth have the same distinction as Young in that most baseball fans can say exactly how many homers Ruth had for his career (714), but he basically reinvented the sport with his home runs. Although Ruth is no longer the actual all-time leader in home runs, his name is undoubtedly tied to the stat even more so than Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds. Before Ruth, MLB simply didn’t put an emphasis on the long ball, as teams relied much more on small ball. Then Ruth came along and totally reinvented the sport.
Of all the comparisons in this article, this is most likely the closest one to Trout and WAR. Ruth changed the way the general public followed baseball. The timing of his rise to prominence came at the exact time that the stat he is best known for made its own rise. That’s exactly what is happening with Trout and WAR. If you go back deep into the archives, there are plenty of newspaper articles from Ruth’s time declaring that home runs took less talent than hitting for average and that Ty Cobb was actually the G.O.A.T. It’s almost eerie how similar the arc of Ruth and the home run is to Trout and WAR.
Now, Trout obviously has a lot of work to do before he can be realistically mentioned in the same breath as Ruth and the home run, but man, is he on his way there. We’ve seen this season that even injury can’t slow this maybe-human down. There’s a non-zero chance that one day, in the year 2050, fans will think of Mike Trout and the evolution of WAR the same way we think of Ruth and the evolution of the home run in baseball with our modern lens.
Advantage: All of us baseball fans who get to see Mike Trout right now.
A previous version of this story said that McGwire and Sosa had their record-chasing season in 1996.
Jim Turvey is a baseball diehard who also writes for DRays Bay. You can follow him on Twitter @BaseballTurv.