March 8, 2017
Players Prefer Presentation
Mike Trout Hypotheticals
If we were shelving baseball articles in a baseball library, we would be mocked for constructing a physical archive of internet printouts and have to devote a large section to Mike Trout hypotheticals. March is as good a time as any for Mike Trout hypotheticals or at least a very prolific time for them. How could we make Mike Trout less good at baseball? It says something about how singular a talent Mike Trout is, and how broken we are as human beings, that we spend so much time imagining the conditions under which he would be less good. Why can’t we just enjoy things? I posit that Mike Trout hypotheticals are about enjoying something. They’re about enjoying something new. Here are four such possibilities.
What if he carried a bunch of coins in his pockets?
The first question, naturally, is why would Mike Trout start carrying coins in his pockets? Baseball players keep all sorts of things in their pockets, which is weird. They’re out there sporting, and they bring snacks. They chew tobacco out of little metal containers. It’s unathletic and weirdly urgent with the dugouts so close, but they do it anyway. It’s habit. Maybe Mike Trout carrying coins in his pocket becomes a habit. Maybe one day he drops some change on the clubhouse floor and stuffs it in his pocket rather than fiddle with his wallet. Casual. He doesn’t think about it, but then he goes 3-for-4 with a home run, and a rad catch, and he wonders if the coins had a part to play. Maybe they’re lucky somehow. Maybe he keeps adding coins, just to see. For a while, this is fine. He’s got stuff in there already. But then he goes in pursuit of other, luckier coins.
The US Mint currently sells its America the Beautiful 2017 proof set for $14.95. These are Trout’s coins—one of them is for a monument in New Jersey. The complete set weighs 5.67 grams. Let’s assume that he buys four sets-- two for each pocket. One can’t be too lucky after all, and they’re reasonably priced. Mike Trout is now playing baseball with 20 coins on his person. It’s about to stop being fine.
First, there are the injuries. Below is one of the seven times Mike Trout was caught stealing in 2015. Imagine if he had coins on him. Imagine if this is the first day of him having too many coins in his pockets, so that he’s not used to sliding with them. I would think this feels like stepping on a Lego with your butt.
He bruises and misses a day, or has to run gingerly. He’s spent a lifetime sliding with abandon or at least without coins, and is working against habit. He’d probably make this mistake again. I’d guess he’s caught three more times, and spends two more days as a DH and gets another three off entirely. We’ll joke about his bruised butt because we are children. It doesn’t have a huge effect on his value, but it has some. His luck is starting to betray him.
Let’s stick with baserunning for a moment. Trout stole 30 bases last year, good for 4.8 baserunning runs. The coins are about to change that. Below is Trout stealing third base in 2015. He was initially called out but the call was overturned on replay. Trout knows he is safe and immediately gestures for a review. Why? Well first, he actually executed this swim move because he wasn’t worried about 20 America the Beautiful quarters tumbling out onto the field. He actually stole the base. More importantly, he wasn’t busy picking those quarters up from the infield dirt. He was focused. But would he maintain the same level of concentration if he were worried about losing all of his luck? This is the perfect being the enemy of the good.
Lastly, there’s the general hit to efficiency. Trout hit 32 doubles in 2016. I watched all of them. Three looked as if they could become close plays at second base if he slows up hearing the coins jingle in his pockets. Maybe those become outs. Two more would hurt a lot because they feature hard slides on his butt, so there’s another two days at DH. One was very clearly a foul ball that was called fair by the third base ump; the coins would presumably have little effect on that one. Two more feature Trout almost over sliding the bag; the weight of 20 coins probably isn’t sufficient to pull a man who can do this off the base, but perhaps.
Then there’s this “double” that should have been a triple. This is a look into the future to the moment Mike Trout realizes he’s taken this whole thing too far. He’s running hard and suddenly thinks, “I have all this loose change in my pockets. What am I doing? And I brought snacks?!” The idea literally knocks him over. He goes back to second base. Oh Jose. Another year without an MVP award. He’s realized his mistake. He gives the coins to a kid.
What if he thought he had a bunch of spiders on him?
“What’s that? What. What was that? Was it on my arm? Was it ... did it crawl in my shirt? Oh god, it’s in my shirt. It’s in my shirt!”
This is a tricky needle to thread. Baseball requires a great deal of concentration. Prolonged slumps can be a function of any number of things, but I usually assume that when a player has a particularly bad game, just lays a complete egg, he’s worried that he forgot to take a completely full recycling bin to the curb, or that his kid is sick, or he rolled his ankle a little, or that his partner made a series of small but pointed observations about him before leaving for the ballpark that force him to consider both himself and his partner. It’s distraction.
We’ve all had the experience of seeing a spider in our kitchen at 3:00 pm and being haunted by it at 1:00 am. What if it’s in the bed and it’s going to bite you over and over? You can feel it on you, and nothing short of being able to visualize your entire bed and all of your skin will dissuade you from thinking it is there somewhere. So I imagine if Mike Trout got it in his head that there was one spider on him, he’d be distracted until he was able to get back to the dugout and ask an honest person, “Hey, is there a bug on me?” Don’t ask a trickster that question.
If he got it in his head that there were two spiders, we’d get a lot of footage of him rubbing his arms and shaking his leg for seemingly no reason. He’s trying to get it off, to be free. We’d find his pain funny. We’d be saved from being called horrible because we don’t know about the spiders. If he thought there were three, he’d misplay a few balls in the field, and flinch in the batter’s box, and shave 20 points off his on-base percentage. You could see such a distraction wreaking havoc on plate discipline. If he thought there were five, the equipment manager would lose his job. If he thought there were 10, he’d be out of baseball entirely, driven to insanity and exhaustion by a hunt for phantom arachnids. Ten would be too many. There’s a limit to how much shaking and itching a person can take.
So I think the answer is six. The equipment manager is gone, and he still feels them on him. He starts to think they’re real and he can’t keep track of where all of them are. They could be crawling into his ear. At six spiders in semi-permanent residence, Mike Trout would be replacement level. Maybe he could adapt to five. Maybe he could convince himself it was just a matter of suggestive nerves. Maybe at five. But not at six.
What if he tried less hard?
Talent is tricky. It’s hard to know exactly how much of a guy’s success is a result of effort and how much is innate ability. As the old adage goes: some guys try forever and are Willie Bloomquist; some guys don’t try at all and become Willie Bloomquist. Mike Trout is not Willie Bloomquist. Mike Trout appears to try very hard, and there is something virtuous in that. He is clearly incentivized to be good in order to earn as much as possible in free agency, and I’m sure it’s amazing to know that you’re the best player in baseball. I bet he takes pride in that. But he plays for a middling West Coast franchise with a grumpy manager that most people don’t watch. And he has this innate gift. Whatever the split between give-a-crapness and aptitude, it’s easy to imagine Trout being uniquely positioned to skate. Being good isn’t altruistic, but Aristotle might find it admirably persistent.
Part of me has always wondered how much less hard he could try before we’d notice. Is it two percent? Ten percent? And for how long? If Mike Trout tries four percent less hard than he does now for a week, do we see it at all, or do we think he was a little dehydrated? You know, it’s probably a weird BABIP thing. He’s still hitting it hard. At 10 percent less effort for a month, are we starting to worry about an injury? Is he no longer the best player in baseball? I submit that whatever this percentage is, it’s significantly higher than it would be for another player. Imagine Shawn O’Malley tried 10 percent less hard. Ten percent less try-hard from Shawn and he’s probably unplayable.
Here is Mike Trout robbing Jesus Montero of a home run in 2015.
This play is incredible. He times the climb perfectly. He gets great extension over the wall. It’s probably not the best baseball play I’ve ever seen, but watching it back, I’m struggling to think of a better one. It’s such a Mike Trout play. But what if he just didn’t get there? What if he waited a half-second on his first step? “I’ve tried enough today.”
Being able to grab that thing is part of what makes him Mike Trout, but in isolation would we notice if he didn’t? Maybe, although maybe not. After all, the first little few seconds of this play are indistinguishable from the first few seconds of this play minus the catch. It is only after making the play that we imagine losing a half-step mattering. With Mike Trout trying 10 percent less hard, I think we’d still give him credit for trying. It’s no longer such a Mike Trout play, but man, it’s such a Mike Trout effort.
Of course, eventually we would notice. We fret over this stuff. Let’s assign an arbitrary, potentially too-high value to this. Let’s assume for a moment that for every one percent decrease in sustained try-hard, Mike Trout suffers a corresponding one percent decrease in his eventual season WARP. Who does Mike Trout become? Using his 2016 WARP of 8.58 as a starting point, we get the following.
Mike Trout is amazing. Ninety-percent-of-himself Mike Trout is Nolan Arenado, who is very good at baseball. But when he got down into Hunter Pence territory, we’d start pressing. Mike Scioscia would get asked every day if he were hurt. Columnists would speculate that he was already thinking of free agency. Philosophers would be reminded that Immanuel Kant thought man had an imperfect duty to cultivate his talents, which was his judgmental way of saying, “You don’t have to, but it’d be better if you did.” It would take a lot of dedicated nothingness from Mike Trout, day after day.
I think it would probably settle around Joey Votto, for a month. If Mike Trout were Joey Votto for a month, what was in his heart would be on the field and he’d have to step it up again. He’d be tired of us asking. He’d go back to being Mike Trout, and end up as Nolan Arenado, and chalk it up to injury, and we’d believe him. Then the next year, he’d win MVP again, and we’d forget the whole thing. But he’d always have this little joke with himself.
Of course, this makes it hard to avoid a disconcerting notion: What if Mike Trout is, out of laziness or boredom or pure mischief, not trying 100 percent right now? Makes you think.
What if he just ate a lot of meat?
In 2015, in response to a question about his diet, Mike Trout told the Los Angeles Times:
The most relatable Mike Trout has ever been is admitting that his natural culinary impulse is to eat a bunch of meat. Protein is, as he points out, an important part of a balanced diet, but he doesn’t want that. He adheres to that because he is a professional, but that’s not what he’d order with his last meal, or on his birthday. He’d order meat, meat, meat. That could mean different sorts meat, or just one kind of meat, but a voluminous amount of meat. Normally, he doesn’t succumb to his baser food instincts. But let’s say that he did. What sort of player would he be?
Russell A. Carlton has done some work on the potential effect of improved nutrition on minor leaguers, who are in need of far better options. Exactly how much of an effect would an all-meat diet have on Mike Trout? Well, he’d get meat sweats. There would be yucky stuff with his regularity. He might get scurvy. He’d be slower in the field, and look unwell on TV, and probably be surly. Plus, there would be the emotional toll. His parents taught him to eat his greens, remember. Every time he gets an all-meat sub sandwich at Subway, he’s defying them. They raised him right, and he didn’t listen. Meat, meat, meat, like some slow dirge on familial tranquility. All that together is probably worth a win, possibly two if the All-Star break doesn’t shake some sense into him.
It isn’t that there aren’t plausible circumstances under which Mike Trout becomes markedly less valuable. He could break his leg horribly. He could lose a hand in a car accident. He could decide to devote himself to god or country or car sales. He could become a stay-at-home dad. There are a lot of ways, some awful and some not, that he could become a less good baseball player, or stop being one at all. But it’s hard to imagine them.
It’s difficult not to mentally add “, baseball god” to the end of Mike Trout’s name, and so we look for baseball ways to make him less good. Only, Mike Trout is so good at all the ways of doing baseball. All of his goodness taken together make him the best. The hypotheticals I’ve posed are ludicrous. All Mike Trout hypotheticals are ludicrous. We have to imagine something silly to make it real. But that’s the thing about baseball. We want to see something wild. Of course we are forever posing hypotheticals to make Mike Trout less good, or replacement level, or awful. It’s baseball. We want to see something almost entirely new.