What Would It Take for Mike Trout To Not Be the Best?on November 5, 2020 at 5:06 pm

What Would It Take for Mike Trout To Not Be the Best?

It’s November, which means it’s time for an offseason tradition: asking whether some player who had a great season is now better than Mike Trout. Is it a reasonable tradition? Not particularly! But whether it’s Bryce Harper or Mookie Betts, Fernando Tatis Jr. or (in the mind of some wildly optimistic scout) Luis Robert, the tenor of the story is the same: this one guy is a good hitter now, and so maybe he’s a better hitter than Trout, the old best hitter.

One way you could handle this pointless speculation is to ignore it. You’d be totally justified in doing so. Trout is great! He had his worst year this year, and he was still great. Thanks for raising this silly question, enjoy the offseason, see you in February.

As you might have guessed based on the fact that this is an article, however, I’m going to do a little more than that. I’m not going to get into the hot-take-ness of it all, but there are ways to examine this question with a little bit of intellectual rigor. Also, while I’ve got you here, I might as well steal whole cloth from an old Tom Tango idea and make some simplistic projections, all the better to understand our site’s more complicated projections with.

The Marcel projection system is named after a monkey, and it also doesn’t exist anymore. But the concept still makes a ton of sense. Take a player’s actual performance in the last three years, do a little weighting, do a little mean reverting, and call it a projection. That probably sounds too simple, but that’s really how Marcel works. It’s not supposed to be the best projection system in the world, merely the minimum sufficient projection system.

For an example, let’s take a quick look at how Trout’s Marcel projections would have looked going into the 2020 season — when it was still supposed to be a full 162 games. Here are his previous three years of data:

To do Marcel projections correctly, we also need to create a weighted league average batting line for all non-pitchers. It’s weighted by Trout’s plate appearances in each year, so it won’t look exactly like a weighted average, but here’s that line:

The way Marcel projections work is, essentially, by weighting each of the past years a little bit and the average a little bit and creating a delicious mean-reverted blend. You can take a look at the exact method Tango devised here, but here’s Trout’s 2020 projection by this simple model:

Neat! A projection! If you’re curious, it’s reasonably close to ZiPS’ far-more-informed guess for last season, as well; ZiPS liked Trout a little more, because it had more than three years of history, and has him at .294/.438/.617 in slightly more plate appearances with a similar home run rate.

Needless to say, Trout had the best projection going into 2020. He fell a little short of that, hitting .281/.390/.603, but of course the playing time was a giant pile of nonsense given the condensed season. At this point, we get to our first question: does our simplistic projection system think Trout will be the best hitter in 2021?

To figure that out, we’ll have to do some clever weighting of 2020 data. To the Tangomobile again! This time, we’re grabbing an intuitive way of turning partial-season projections into full-season lines after an abridged 2020 season. Here’s Trout’s actual line:

If you apply some Tango magic, Trout looks worse — just like everyone else, because we’re weighing him down with a big old pile of average plate appearances:

That’s not a Trout-caliber batting line, and I think you can argue that Marcel’s position of extreme agnosticism to prior talent level undersells Trout. With that in mind — Trout is likely going to be better than this, in other words — here’s a Marcel-ized projection for 2021 based on the normalized 2020 numbers:

Steamer thinks Trout will hit .281/.423/.571 in 2021, a more aggressive forecast than our own. I’m inclined to agree with Steamer’s view — so let’s alter our own method slightly. Rather than weighing down Trout’s short-season performance with a bushel of league-average plate appearances, we’re going to blend it with Trout’s own projection. Why? Think of it this way: If Trout and Austin Hedges put up the same batting line for 100 plate appearances, who would you predict would do better in the next 100? Yeah, I thought so.

This method isn’t perfect, but we’re not aiming for perfection here, instead merely trying to give Trout a bit of credit for his own past performance. Here’s his new projected 2021 line, adjusted for the fact that we knew going into the season that he was Mike Trout:

Splendid! With that in mind, I’m going to do something that requires only a few words here but a metric ton of background calculations: work out every batter’s Marcel projections going into 2020 using the same method I just laid out with Trout. A few short lines here, a few grueling spreadsheet pulls there, and here’s the list:

One quick note: I’m ignoring aging here for two reasons. First, I’m lazy. The aging calculation isn’t hard, per se, but it would require a different database than the one I’m using, and all the attendant merging. More importantly, I don’t want to let age determine this one, as silly as that sounds. When someone projects to oust Trout, I don’t want it to be because his knees are creaky; I want it to be because they just hit better than him. You can fold aging back in on your own time if you’d like, but I’m ignoring it here.

You can still see Marcel’s mean-reverting nature at work. Yordan Alvarez was nearly Trout’s equal in 2019, but it was in a tiny sample and he had no previous major league experience, so he falls off the pace. Christian Yelich out-hit Trout in 2019, but he was a mere mortal in 2017. Juan Soto and Charlie Blackmon are just on and just off the list in 10th and 11th, respectively, which shows you some of the shortcomings with this system — Soto had only two years of data, while the model was still pulling more of Blackmon’s glory days.

Next, I used these projections and actual 2020 lines to create everyone’s 2020 Marcel weights, the same process I used for Trout up above. From there, I produced next year’s projections. Without further ado, here are the extremely rough translation 2021 Marcel projections for some great hitters:

It’s still Trout, but the projected gap has narrowed somewhat. You might be surprised to see Yelich so high, but our earlier method of feeding in 2020 projections to ballast actual 2020 production makes his year project better, and his so-so 2017 falls out of the sample. Soto is just a hitting god, Mookie Betts is always great, and so on.

That brings us to our next question: how bad would Trout have to be in 2021 for us to start saying someone else was the best hitter in baseball? I took two passes at this — one where he ends up worse than Yelich and one where he ends up worse than Soto. Something felt a little weird about passing the mantle to Yelich after his down 2020.

One quick note: I’m holding the other hitters’ projections static into 2022, because trying to project and roll back their own data defeats the purpose of this exercise. With that in mind, how bad would Trout’s 2021 need to be to project below a .400 wOBA in 2022? Not that bad! Here:

This is roughly George Springer‘s 2019, and Springer was worth 6.5 WAR with a 156 wRC+ that year. If we see that kind of performance out of Trout next year, it’s time to wonder whether he’s slipping just a little bit. How about passing Soto? That’s a little harder; now we’re looking at a line that resembles 2019 Josh Donaldson:

Keep pushing Trout’s 2021 line worse, and we can keep pushing his 2022 expectations lower and lower. That’s all you need — one down 2020, an even worse 2021, and Trout would look like merely one of the best couple hitters in baseball rather than the unquestioned best.

Don’t go counting on it, though. Like I said, Trout is still projected for the best batting line in baseball this year, whether you use complicated projections or, like me, the simplest possible ones. It doesn’t have to be hard: every year, Trout is one of the best handful of hitters in the league while the supporting cast changes. Consistency is the name of the game, and until his consistency falters, Mike Trout will remain the best.

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