Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels took the MLB by storm two years ago, winning the AL Rookie of the Year in 2012, and finishing (a distant) second in the MVP race behind Miguel Cabrera. Though his MVP candidacy created a divide between the traditional and sabermetric fans of the game — with the traditional fans supporting Cabrera and his Triple Crown, and the analytical side clamoring for Trout and his 10 wins above replacement — most of us have been able to agree that Trout is one of the better all-around players in the game.
That idea is slowly turning into a well-known fact, as Trout continued his dominance in his sophomore campaign, and it has been more of the same this season as well. At least, for the most part.
Trout holds a career 165 wRC+, an offensive metric that takes into account every aspect of hitting, while also adjusting it for the park and league, making him 65% above average at the dish. However, that is weighed down by the 87 mark he posted in 40 games in 2011. In his three full seasons, that number jumps up to 170, with a 167 in 2012, 176 last year, and another 167 so far this year.
That puts him in first since 2012, ahead of Cabrera’s 166 wRC+ over that time. There is no longer a compelling argument that Cabrera trumps Trout on offense, or at least certainly not enough to say that the offensive advantage is larger than the gap Trout has on defense and on the base paths.
But there is a small problem for Trout. It has been well documented that he added weight, and may be trying to become a more true power hitter. And that is fine, in and of itself. But so far, there have been some negative changes to Trout’s game that could be attributed to his style change.
The power is up, with Trout currently holding a .273 isolated power (slugging minus batting average), well above his career mark of .242. But he is also striking out 25% of the time, compared to 21.7% for his career. His average is at a career low .291, and he hasn’t walked enough to offset that, so his OBP is a career low as well.
Now, as stated earlier, his total offensive output is right around where it was before. But Trout was plenty powerful last year (.234 ISO, 27 HR) without having to sacrifice his outstanding on-base ability.
The defensive side is harder to read in small samples. The metrics have not liked him as much over the last two seasons, with -15 defensive runs saved, and a -2.8 UZR. Those aren’t conclusive numbers yet, but if Trout’s added bulk could have slowed him down and made him less mobile in the field. If that’s the case, a big portion of his overall game could take a hit going forward.
Enter Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton is one of the three young stars to enter the league around the same time, the others being the aforementioned Trout, and Bryce Harper. To this point, Trout seemed like the runaway leader of the group. But if the recent patterns shown by Trout continue, Stanton has a chance to move to the front of the pack.
For his career, Stanton owns a 144 wRC+, well below Trout. He also plays a less valuable position than Trout, and doesn’t have quite as much speed.
But Stanton may very well be better as his position than Trout, with a career +24 DRS, +5 this year. Trout has gone the wrong direction in that regard, as discussed earlier. Stanton has also started closing the gap on Trout at the plate, with a 162 wRC+ this year, just 5 below Trout, and there is a chance he develops even more power going forward.
In terms of total value, Trout has still been better this year. His 6.3 fWAR leads the American League, on top of besting Stanton’s 5.6 mark on the season.
So as of now, Trout still has an edge over Stanton, offensively, and overall. But the factor that could end up changing that is the direction both players are heading.
Trout matched his rookie year production in his sophomore year. But this year, he has failed to do the same. He is on pace for roughly 8 fWAR on the year, compared to the 10+ he posted in both 2012 and 2013. The defensive metrics play the biggest role in that, but there is reason to believe the drop there is legitimate.
Stanton, on the other hand, has progressed this year, as a player entering their mid-twenties should. He is on pace for 6.5 fWAR or more, about 1 win above his previous career high. He is healthy, the defense is back up, and he is reaching the offensive potential everyone knew he had.
I am not confident in saying Stanton will overtake Trout in the future. Trout is still as good a hitter, probably better, and he plays a premium position. While it’s possible that his defense could regress as he gains mass, going from a +20 defender to a -10 defender seems extremely unlikely, and he is probably somewhere in the middle.
I am, however, confident in saying that Stanton is one of the better players in the league as well, and if he continues to get better while Trout takes steps back in certain aspects of his game, he has a chance to be at least mentioned in the same breath as Trout.