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We're still not paying enough attention to Mike Trout

Mike Trout is still getting lumped in with some of the other best players in baseball. Stop that.

Back in April, when Bryce Harper was following up an MVP season with something even more Bondsian, I wrote a stupid column. The headline:

Bryce Harper is going to overshadow Mike Trout for the next decade

Since then, Harper has spent months reminding us that baseball is very, very hard. That no young player has to get better and better just because he’s young. That an MVP season one year doesn’t automatically translate into an MVP season the next year, even after an unfathomably hot start.

Since then, Trout has spent months reminding us that baseball is very, very easy. For him. He’s leading the league in on-base percentage and adjusted OPS, cutting down on his strikeouts and walking as much as he ever has. He’s having a very Mike Trout season, which is to say that he’s so clearly the best player in baseball again that it’s almost boring.

Also, Trout has not been overshadowed by Harper. Sorry. Sorry about that.

If I had to do it over, though, the thesis of that article wouldn’t change. Only the specificity. Here, I’ll redo the headline on the fly:

There’s always going to be a random player or five who will overshadow Mike Trout in almost every season over the next decade

The Harper/Trout binary choice was always artificial, and I’m guilty of helping it along. It’s also probably time to stop treating Manny Machado people like the Green Party, even if it was a lot of fun to watch them get mad online, but that’s a topic for another day. The end of the season is here, and that means there are MVP discussions going on. And in the American League, there is an actual debate about who the MVP should be.

People are pretending there’s a conversation.

There’s ... wait, an MVP conversation? A real conversation, or the kind of conversation like the ones I pretend to have with my cat, who isn’t paying attention, doesn’t care, and would feast on my flesh if I died and nobody discovered me for a week?

It’s the first one. It’s a real conversation. Here’s the headline for Mookie Betts’ case:

To teammates who know, Mookie Betts has the look of an MVP

Here’s the headline for Jose Altuve’s case:

One nearly unbelievable stat captures why Jose Altuve is the AL MVP leader

There will be more to come. Machado. Josh Donaldson. Heck, Zach Britton will probably get some votes. That’s not to say that Mike Trout isn’t a strong contender to the typical voter, or that there shouldn’t be a conversation. These players are all having historically outstanding seasons, so converse, sure.

It’s just that Mike Trout is clearly better than all of them because he’s always better than all of them, and it doesn’t really matter how "them" is defined.

This is the part of the program where I amaze you with Mike Trout facts. It’s your favorite part of the program. Mine too.

There have been 15 Hall of Fame outfielders who have had a season in their career that was worth nine wins above replacement or more, according to Baseball-Reference. There are 44 Hall of Fame outfielders who have not. Mike Trout has had four of these seasons now. The only Hall of Fame outfielders with more are Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, and Babe Ruth. You can include Barry Bonds, too, if you want to remove the Hall of Fame part.

Trout just turned 25.

With his nine-win season (and counting) this year, Trout has 47 WAR for his career. He’s passed Lou Brock and should pass Jim Rice before the end of the season. Next year he should pass Ralph Kiner, Kirby Puckett, and Sam Rice. There’s a chance that in two years, he’ll pass Dave Winfield, Richie Ashburn, and Willie Stargell.

Trout just turned 25.

If Trout’s average WAR is cut in half for every season between now and his age-30 season, he’ll still pass Reggie Jackson and Tony Gwynn before turning 30. If he’s just a little better than that, say 75 percent as good as he is right now, he’ll pass Joe DiMaggio before turning 30. If this is really a baseline for him — and we have five seasons of evidence suggesting it might be — he could be a top-10 outfielder in terms of career value sooner rather than later.

Trout just turned 25.

He’s already the most valuable position player in the history of the Los Angeles Angels, a 56-year-old franchise. The odds are strong that he’ll take over the top spot for all players next season, passing Chuck Finley.

See, Trout is young for all of these accomplishments is what I’m getting at.

But it’s easy to conflate career value with the arguments for the 2016 MVP, so let’s stop with the fun facts and focus on this season. Trout leads everyone in WAR according to Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs because of course he is. Focus on everything else, then. He has nearly a 100-point advantage over Mookie Betts in OBP, and if you’re pretending that can be made up by defense, then you’re a dogmatic WARrior at heart, but you just don’t know it yet. Trout grades out better than Altuve at every category except for hits, while providing more defensive value.

Or, you can dumb it down to the basics: Mike Trout is better at baseball than everyone else, again. He helps his team win more baseball games than anyone alive, again. If there’s an argument that he’s not the MVP, it’s basically an argument that the award should be renamed the Most Valuable Player On A Team That Didn’t Mess Around With Jered Weaver And Tim Lincecum award, which is what the only-on-contending-teams qualifier really means. A vote for anybody else is a vote that says, "Mike Trout helps his team win more games than anyone else, but a lot of his teammates had rough seasons, so he can’t be more valuable than a player with better teammates." In the FanGraphs argument for Manny Machado, all of the fancy graphics do a better job showing how much of a burden Trout has been carrying.

Yet there’s a conversation. Not only a conversation, but there’s a real chance that someone else might win the MVP, which would mean Trout would still be behind Juan Gonzalez on the career MVP leaderboard, despite his fifth straight season with more than twice the WAR as Gonzalez had in his first MVP season.

So let’s revisit the headers in that Trout/Harper article from this year and see if they still apply:

  • Trout's superior value requires context (i.e. defense, baserunning)
  • Trout's numbers are always going to be hurt by Angel Stadium
  • Trout is really into weather (i.e. kind of boring)

They all still apply. And how. In retrospect, I should have added one more.

  • Trout plays on an astoundingly bad team that’s perennially frittering away one of the best head starts in the history of the 25-man roster.

So we won’t get to watch him in October. Again. It’s easy to ignore him in September. Again. He just keeps doing his thing, and we’ll only check in when we have to, which is a shame. This could have been his fifth straight MVP season. Instead, it might be his second, but only if people pay enough attention to just how magnificent his season has been. I’m not sure that enough voters will notice.

Which means that Trout is going to be overshadowed. Again. That we’ll be taking him for granted. Again.

It might not be Harper who does it, but this is going to be a theme for the next decade. There will always be someone fresher. There will always be someone having a season that would be MVP caliber if Mike Trout didn’t exist, and that will make it easier to pretend that Trout and the Angels don’t exist. This is never going to go away.

No matter. Trout will just sit over here, being better at baseball than everyone else. It’s the only thing he can control. And the only thing we can do is make sure we remember it every so often.