Making the comparison: Mike Trout

What can we expect from Mike Trout‘s major league career? The expectations and comparisons have been, for lack of a better term, absurd. At one point, a scout was quoted as seriously comparing Trout to Mickey Mantle.

Even if that scout is right, the comparison just isn’t fair to a teenager.

So let’s be fair. It’s time to break Mike Trout down systematically and make our realistic four-part comparison.

First what we know: Trout is right-handed, 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, and has torn up the minor leagues with numbers that are almost too good to take seriously.

What we are going to assume: His brief cameo in the majors means nothing, Trout will be able to consistently hit .300, has 20-homer potential, will play in center field for the majority of his career, and should be able to steal 20 bases a year in his sleep

So let’s start there. Our first search will be for players who are shorter than 6-foot-2 but over 195 pounds, bat right-handed and played primarily center field (at least 75 percent of their games in a season), regardless of actual talent. That gives us the following result:

Rk                  Yrs
1      Mike Cameron  13
2      Vernon Wells  12
3      Torii Hunter  12
4      Andruw Jones  11
5      Aaron Rowand   7
6    Dave Henderson   7
7       Ron LeFlore   7
8       Tommie Agee   7
9     Gorman Thomas   6
10      Marlon Byrd   5
11   Mike Devereaux   5
12         Don Lock   5

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 7/22/2011.

That’s a good start. There’s more to the list, but these are the players who met the criteria in at least five seasons.

For this exercise, we are looking to find four players as comparisons for Trout—his high-end comparison (meaning the best he could be), his realistic high-end and low-end, and his worst-case scenario. They may not all be on this list, but we’re heading in the right direction.

A quick caveat on Trout’s minor league numbers. They are off the charts, and are indicative of his abilities. They can’t be properly translated to major league numbers, but can’t be ignored either. For instance, there hasn’t been a teenager with an OPS in the .900s in the Texas League since 2005. Trout was doing that before his promotion. The argument against that? The last player to do it was Daric Barton. Just store that away in your noggin somewhere.

For Trout’s high end, we’re going to use the following criteria: .300 batting average, .400 OBP, .500 SLG, 35 stolen bases, and playing primarily center field (we’ll say 50 percent of a player’s games this time). The justification for these numbers? Well Trout has shown decent power in the minors, especially gap power for doubles and triples. He has also shown a plus batting eye at the plate. His speed is literally at the top of the charts (and by charts, we mean at 75 or 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale). This means that his major league success depends solely on two things—how well he ultimately hits, and if the home run power develops. For our best-case comparison, we’re going to say they both work out well for the Angels.

It’s only been done once by a right-handed hitter (Kenny Lofton did it once). Rickey Henderson did it in 1985. Just ask Rickey.

Of course Rickey stole 80 bases that year, but that was a different time. He did however post a line of .314/.419/.516, with 28 doubles and 24 homers, and that year played mostly center field. He came in third in the MVP voting on a good Yankees team despite posting a WAR of 10, which was far and away the best in the American League that season, a mark that has only been reached 81 times in baseball history.

Despite these facts, this high-end season doesn’t seem all that unrealistic for Trout. There are certain aspects of Trout’s game that are not in any real question. He is already a Gold Glove caliber center fielder, and has demonstrated that in his brief major league career. His speed is unquestioned, and he has stolen bases at an 80 percent clip in the minors. He should be, at worst, an adequate base stealer. We know that plate discipline typically translates pretty well to the majors, and his career BB:K ratio of 133:180 is on the right side of the equation. So if he can hit .300, the .400 OBP will almost certainly be not too far behind, and that many times on base should equal 35 steals without too much difficulty.

But we’re in the business of being realistic here, so let’s leave Young Rickey as the high end comp for Trout for now, while making note of the obvious differences: No one steals bases like Rickey (or with the frequency they did in the minors), and Trout will likely strike out more than Rickey ever did (also a sign of the differences in baseball over the past 30 years). In fact, Trout could be an evolutionary-molded Rickey. Rickey was shorter and ran more, Trout is bigger and more built, both of which are signs of the times.

On to the realistic comps. A season of .300/.400/.500, 35 steals may not be out of reach for Trout, but even the greatest leadoff hitter of all time only did that twice in his career. Trout might do it once or twice, but it will have to be his career year(s) if/when it happens. For a realistic career prime, lets search for .280/.375/.450 with 25 stolen bases and 75 percent of a player’s games in center. These are the results:

Rk                   Yrs
1       Cesar Cedeno   3
2          Matt Kemp   1
3     Doug Glanville   1
4         Eric Davis   1
5   Rickey Henderson   1
6        Dale Murphy   1
7          Amos Otis   1
8       Garry Maddox   1

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 7/22/2011.

My first thought on this list? How freakin’ good was Eric Davis? Holy cow, if that guy could have stayed healthy…. He’s a bad comp here because Trout will likely never hit 30 home runs in a season, which Davis did twice, but still. What a shame.

Kemp also needs to be removed from the list, mostly because the season in which he met the criteria is this year, and he’s going to end up with well over 30 homers this season too. Henderson can be removed because that’s his 1985 season we already discussed.

I’ll admit I was disappointed when I saw Cesar Cedeno at the top of this list as the only player to fit the criteria more than once, but after looking at his numbers, I realize that’s only because I’m too young to remember just how good Cedeno really was. Think about the characteristics: a five-time Gold-Glover (realistic for Trout), hit over 20 homers three times but never broke 26 in a season (likely Trout’s ceiling), debuted in the majors at 19, hit over .280 nine times, hit 30 doubles seven times (Trout had 28 last year in 131 games), and stole over 45 bases seven times (which Trout did in the minors in half a season of A-ball). In his prime from 1972 to 1976, he recorded five straight seasons of a 6.0 WAR or higher. Cesar works for me.

Now let’s say the power never develops. In this scenario, Trout is still a nice all-around hitter, hits for average, but the power doesn’t come along quite the way scouts expect. We’ll use the same criteria as before, but drop everything down just a bit (.270/.350/.420, 25 steals), because if the power isn’t there, pitchers can attack the zone more fearlessly and Trout won’t walk as much, no matter how good his eye is.


R     2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+
80    26  4 15  79 52  8 40 74 .301 .345 .443 .789  124
74    30  7 22  96 32  8 66 54 .298 .380 .525 .905  150
100   28  2 18  90 30  5 68 92 .295 .369 .444 .813  117 


Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/22/2011.

How do those years look? Those are the ones that fit the criteria we’ve put forth. Can you name the player? If you can, then you have issues.

The player is Amos Otis, and these are three of his better seasons, but his overall body of work isn’t too far off from a possible Trout comparison. In fact, Otis was in many ways a poor man’s Cesar Cedeno. Broke 20 homers only twice but was in double-figures 11 times. He stole 30 bases five times but hit only .300 twice, posted OBPs over .350 five times and slugged over .500 once.

But there’s an even better comp on the list, fitting the criteria only once, but displaying a better overall career profile was Marquis Grissom. Look at the prime of his career:


Year   Age  Tm  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+
1991    24 MON 558  73 149 23  9  6  39 76 17 34 89 .267 .310 .373 .683   93
1992    25 MON 653  99 180 39  6 14  66 78 13 42 81 .276 .322 .418 .741  110
1993    26 MON 630 104 188 27  2 19  95 53 10 52 76 .298 .351 .438 .789  106
1994    27 MON 475  96 137 25  4 11  45 36  6 41 66 .288 .344 .427 .771   99
1995    28 ATL 551  80 142 23  3 12  42 29  9 47 61 .258 .317 .376 .693   80
1996    29 ATL 671 106 207 32 10 23  74 28 11 41 73 .308 .349 .489 .838  113 


Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/22/2011.

Again, we need to tailor the steal totals to the era, but otherwise it’s a nice low-end realistic comp for Trout. Grissom won four Gold Gloves during this stretch (the only four of his career), but posted on OPS+ of 101 during this time. Grissom never hit more than 23 homers in his career and retired with an OPS+ of 92. He turned out to be, at his best, a slightly above-average offensive player but over the long haul was just slightly below. He was, however, a premium defender in center field until he was 30 and could still man the premium position into his mid-30′s, which Trout should undoubtedly be able to do. Since Otis is too similar to Cedeno, lets use Grissom as Trout’s realistic low-end comp.

Now what if it all falls apart. Trout just never hits like we expect. Never develops much power, and pitchers attack him at the plate. He can still go get it in the outfield and still steal bases when he gets on, but other than that it never really comes together. Who do we have?

Darren Lewis, formerly of the Boston Red Sox. Let’s look at his prime:


Year     G  PA  AB  R   H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+
1992   100 362 320 38  74  8  1  1  18 28  8 29 46 .231 .295 .272 .567   67
1993   136 572 522 84 132 17  7  2  48 46 15 30 40 .253 .302 .324 .626   70
1994   114 513 451 70 116 15  9  4  29 30 13 53 50 .257 .340 .357 .697   87
1995   132 527 472 66 118 13  3  1  24 32 18 34 57 .250 .311 .297 .607   64
1996   141 405 337 55  77 12  2  4  53 21  5 45 40 .228 .321 .312 .632   65
1997   107 178 154 22  41  4  1  1  15 14  6 17 31 .266 .339 .325 .664   80
1998   155 670 585 95 157 25  3  8  63 29 12 70 94 .268 .352 .362 .714   86
1999   135 538 470 63 113 14  6  2  40 16 10 45 52 .240 .311 .309 .620   57 


Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/22/2011.

Lewis was a regular player and even won a Gold Glove during this stretch (remember, it’s hard to win one without being a good hitter, you know, because one has to do with the other). He never posted an OPS+ above league average, but he was a serviceable major leaguer because he could play a premium defensive position well and could generate some extra offense with his legs, both of which Trout will do. Lewis works for me.

So after breaking it down, here’s what we know: Trout is a difficult comp because most players who are built like him, especially as we go further back in baseball history, were power hitters, not speedy leadoff/center field types. We know Trout will field his position and we know he will run on the bases; the only question is how well he hits. His power and plate discipline will play off that.

At the high end of the spectrum, we could see a more modern version of Rickey Henderson: a player who can change the game with his speed both on offense and defense, but hits for enough power to be feared at the plate. Trout won’t steal bases like Rickey, but no one ever will and no one even tries anymore. He has the potential to have a similar eye at the plate, especially if he hits for enough power to be pitched to carefully, but will strike out more frequently, which is also an evolution of the game. Put Rickey’s longevity aside (as no one could predict that for any player), and Trout’s prime could model a modern version of what Henderson did 30 years ago.

Realistically, Trout will fall somewhere between Cesar Cedeno and Marquis Grissom, which makes him a multi-time all-star and multi-time Gold Glove-winning center fielder. Four or five of each is well within reach. If it doesn’t work out, he’ll end up in the Darren Lewis mold as a player who can man center field effectively and do a few things, but will bat at the bottom of playoff lineups rather than at the top.

Either way, the Angels have a usable piece in Trout, but there’s a good chance he’s the player the next generation of Angels playoff teams are built around, and a possibility that he’s the best of the recent generation of truly five-tool players who can affect the game every time they step between the lines.

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Comments

  1. Nick said...

    Good piece.  I wouldn’t have thought of Cedeno.  What do you think of Bobby Abreu as an offensive comp?  He wouldn’t have fit your search, since he bats L and plays a corner spot, but he’s got the same mix of speed, batting average and OBP.  He’s probably got more power than Trout will ever develop, but, in many respects at least, he looks like another good everything-goes-well comp.

  2. Dave Studeman said...

    Fantastic article, Jeff (though we’ve got to work on your table formats)  smile

    Cesar Cedeno was amazing.  Don’t forget that he reached those numbers playing in the ASTRODOME. If you adjust for era and ballpark, at age 25, his career was on track equivalent to Mays, DiMaggio, etc.  A phenomenal player who will probably never be fully appreciated.

    Kind of the opposite of Mike Trout.

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