(*) BATTING: Sell Trout Now!
“So there’s this kid playing in southern California, just in his second year in the big leagues, 20 years old. Looks like the real deal – hits for average, has some pop, runs the bases well, dandy with the leather. He could be great.”
This sounds like something we’ve all heard: Mike Trout, right? And you’d never trade Mike Trout! Not even for a parcel of players who could set you up for the next few seasons.
But what if we told you that the year is not 2012, but 1999? And the player is not Mike Trout, but ... Adrian Beltre?
Trout is the hottest story in the big leagues this season, with his gaudy offensive stats (on pace for 27-92-67-.349/.403/.574) and Web-gem defense. When a guy like this comes along, we naturally start wondering what he might be worth as a fantasy batter in the longer run.
We were curious about this, too, so to find batters who seem to meet Trout’s surface profile, we looked at the always invaluable baseball-reference.com (which lists one of Trout’s nicknames as “The Millville Meteor,” making him sound like something from the 1940s).
We used b-r.com’s excellent “Play Index” feature (subscription required) to filter for batters in the free-agent era (1975-2012) in their second MLB season, with at least 300 PA in that season.
To get Trout’s youth component, we further filtered for batters who were age 20 or 21, because Trout turns 21 on August 7 of this season.
Although this set of filters appears pretty loose, covering tens of thousands of player-seasons, only 48 met all three criteria (an asterisk * indicates an active player):
Washington,Claudell Lemon,Chet Manning,Rick Randolph,Willie Valentine,Ellis Templeton,Garry Wynegar,Butch Puhl,Terry Trammell,Alan Whitaker,Lou Horner,Bob Hubbard,Glenn Norman,Nelson Henderson,Rickey Moseby,Lloyd Brunansky,Tom Ripken,Cal James,Dion Schofield,Dick Canseco,Jose Browne,Jerry Sierra,Ruben Alomar,Roberto Sheffield,Gary Griffey,Ken Olerud,John Sosa,Sammy Rodriguez,Ivan Cordero,Wil Floyd,Cliff Jones,Andruw* Renteria,Edgar Beltre,Adrian* Chavez,Eric* Rivas,Luis Crawford,Carl* Cabrera,Miguel* Cabrera,Melky* Zimmerman,Ryan* Young,Delmon* Upton,Justin* Andrus,Elvis* Castro,Starlin* Freeman,Freddie* Heyward,Jason* Stanton,Giancarlo* Tejada,Ruben* Trout,Mike*
Trout's fantasy owners — and their leaguemates — look at this list and see Hall of Famers like Cal Ripken, Roberto Alomar and Rickey Henderson, and sure thing HoFer like Ken Griffey, Jr. Trout’s speed/power combination might create visions of a Griffey/Alomar hybrid. Or, for the truly hallucinatory, a Rickey/Junior combo platter.
That’s an idea you can sell, especially in a dynasty or long-term keeper league: “What would you give me for the next Rickey Henderson or Robbie Alomar?”
On the other hand, looking elsewhere on this list is not quite so inspiring. You’d get different replies if you asked, “What would you give me for the next Nelson Norman (or Dion James, Dick Schofield or Jerry Browne)?”
You Show Them Achilles, But You See The Heel(s)
It's pretty clear that Trout will not be another Nelson Norman. But while he has shown ridiculous results so far, it is far from certain that he will be the fantasy ubermënsch the pundits have already declared him to be.
First, it's extremely unlikely that Trout (or anyone, for that matter) will be the next Rickey Henderson, arguably the most valuable fantasy batter ever. Henderson stole 100 bags in 158 GP in his sophomore season in 1980. Trout’s current rate of SBs, pro-rated to the same 158 GP, projects to about 70. And Henderson was doubly unusual in that he kept stealing, well into the latter part of a long career.
This despite SBs, as we know, not being a stat that ages well.
Look at this list of the 26 batters age 24 or younger who had 40 or more bags and at least 5 HR in their second big-league season. Note how few managed to lodge 40+ SB seasons past their 20s:
Campaneris,Bert (51 SB in 1965, age 23). Stole 50+ seven more times, the last at age 34.
Bonds,Bobby (51 SB in 1969, age 23). Stole 40+ six more times, the last at age 32.
Henderson,Rickey (100 SB in 1980, age 21). Stole 50+ 13 more times, the last at age 39.
Now those who did not steal 40+ into their 30s, if at all:
Washington,Claudell (40 SB in 1975, age 20). Never stole 40 again.
Samuel,Juan (72 SB in 1984, age 23). Stole 53 the next year, 40+ twice, the last at age 28.
Duncan,Mariano (48 SB in 1986, age 23). Never stole more than 23 again. Leg and other injuries.
Alomar,Roberto (42 SB in 1989, age 21). Stole 50+ twice, 40+ once, the last at age 25.
DeShields,Delino (56 SB in 1991, age 22). Stole 50+ once, 40+ three times, the last at age 28.
Lankford,Ray (44 SB in 1991, age 24). Stole 40+ the next year, never again.
Curtis,Chad (48 SB in 1993, age 24). Never again stole more than 27.
Rollins,Jimmy (46 SB in 2001, age 22). Stole 40+ three more times, the last at age 29.
Crawford,Carl (55 SB in 2003, age 21). Stole 60 once, 50+ three more times, 40+ twice, the last at age 28. Leg injuries.
Ramirez,Hanley (51 SB in 2006, age 22). Stole 51 again the next year, never again had 40+. Leg injuries.
Ellsbury,Jacoby (50 SB in 2008, age 24). Stole 70 at age 25, 39 at age 27, injured other years.
The pattern of almost all these players is steady decline in SB totals, with odd outliers like Campaneris and, especially, Henderson.
But, you’re thinking, 30-40 bags a year with a .350 BA and 30 HRs would be worth keeping, wouldn’t it? Indeed, and we’re already hearing plenty o’ pundits breathlessly raising Trout's long-term projections from 20-40-.280 to 30-50-.310 or even higher.
All based on a whopping sample of 305 PA.
The Achilles’ Heel in Trout’s results is that while he’s been very good and very valuable this season, he’s also been very lucky. He has a Hit Rate (h%) of over 40% and a HR/FB (hr/f) of 17%. He is reaping the h% benefits of using his speed with an outsized GB rate, without paying any of the HR costs of the resulting low FB rate.
He also has unimpressive plate skills, with a 79% ct%, a 9% walk rate and 0.45 Eye Ratio. Even allowing for some bunt and leg hits from his extraordinary speed, these are not the skills of even a .300 hitter, much less a .350 hitter.
Assuming those luck levels cannot hold, we corrected them to 34% h% and 10% hr/f, converting the few extra HR into flyball outs. The result was a normalized stat line of .283/344/.452 (.796), with 16 HR/150.
This line looks a lot more representative, given the aforementioned plate skills, or lack of them, and exaggerated hr/f. The 16 HR will probably grow as Trout adds physical strength, but keep in mind his power growth will likely be somewhat offset by declining SB totals.
We compared Trout’s normalized results to the list of second-season comparables, filtering for BA within 10 points of Trout, OPS within 20 points, and HR/150 within five. Three batters made it through these filters, and all are still playing, suggesting (without proving) that there might be style-of-play differences affecting batters of previous eras.
Two of them – Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton – are still relatively early in their MLB careers, and their similarity to Trout makes them look more attractive than we might suspect, especially with Upton currently in a slump that has him the subject of trade rumors.
The third was Adrian Beltre.
This is not to suggest that Trout will have Beltre’s career or its arc. The most obvious difference is that Beltre was never in Trout’s league as a base-stealer; Beltre’s 18 swipes in that second season were his career high, and he has more regularly filched in the single digits.
But the similarities are intriguing. Look at their second-year plate skills, for instance:
Batter ct% bb% Eye ========== === === ==== Beltre '98 80% 10% 0.58 Trout '12 79% 9% 0.45
Some analysts have noted Trout’s high whiff rate and relatively low walk rate as evidence that he might come to have trouble reaching base (auguring poorly for SB opps) or getting pitches to hit. But plate skills are often shaped by experience, and Beltre’s pattern at least suggests that Trout’s normalized performance levels are a baseline – a floor rather than a ceiling.
Beltre’s ct% floated around the low- to mid-80%s for many years, and started climbing in 2010, to 89% and 87% the last two years. His walk rate, however, did not improve, and his Eye Ratio peaked at 0.70 in 2000 before sliding back; it has been in the mid- to high-0.4s the last few years.
If Trout plays a long, rich career and retires in, oh, 2027, having had a 15-year run with Beltre’s annual 25-85-.280 line, he’ll have well over than 300 HR, about 1,300 RBI, and 2,500 hits. It's a Luis Gonzalez/Tony Perez career. Throw in even 500 SBs and his defensive prowess, and he’ll be a better bet for the HoF than Beltre himself.
But pity the fantasy buyer who handed over a big package of talent back in 2012 to put Trout onto his roster. And happy was the owner who accepted a big package to establish a winning squad for the next three or four years.
Betting on 15 years of anything is a longshot. Heck, betting on five years of baseball performance is very optimistic.
It wasn’t that long ago that the pundits were saying all the same things about Jacoby Ellsbury that they’re saying now about Trout.
Fifteen years ago, the list of the biggest companies in the U.S. was topped by GM and Ford, and the Top 30 included such can’t-miss players as Citigroup, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, AIG and Sears. Your top computer firms: Hewlett-Packard and Compaq. And everyone had their eye on the most daring and spectacular company of the bunch: Enron.
Nobody is suggesting that Trout is an Enron. But consider: His hellbent style makes him look like prime injury fodder. He has to improve his plate skills. His SBs will almost certainly decline. And his value might ever be greater than it is right now.
Of course no Trout owner should accept any old package of schlubs for what appears to be a rare talent.
But in short-run, non-keeper leagues, it might be worth exploring what you can get before regression and luck equalize things for Trout.
And even in long-run keeper and dynasty leagues, a career is a long time to bet on. A Trout ower might be better off entertaining offers that include more young players (like Trout’s peers Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman, both of whom have been somewhat disappointing and neither of whom has the pundit support, but both of whom have skills and talent) and prospects, to ameliorate the risk.
At BaseballHQ, we've long warned owners about falling for the hype surrounding young players. Usually, we're talking about a guy who is yet to debut in the big leagues. But sometimes, the opportunity to sell is even better after a fast start.