Mike Trout is unique. The meaning of that word has expanded somewhat, so that it can mean either a) generically special or b) truly one-of-a-kind, without peer or comparison. Mike Trout is the latter definition.
Trout is closing out his age-24 season–his sixth year as a major leaguer and his fifth as a full-timer–and in doing so, is closing out the best stretch of baseball by a young player, ever. Not in the modern era, or with any other qualifiers attached, by but any player. During his time in the majors, he’s accumulated 48.3 WAR by Baseball Reference’s version of the metric, more than a win greater than Ty Cobb’s 46.7 in second place and nearly a full season above Mickey Mantle’s 40.9 in third.
WARP only extends back to 1950, but Trout’s 46.6 WARP is in first place among players in that period, leading Mantle by nearly four wins. And, just for completeness, Trout also leads using FanGraphs’ fWAR, with 47.4 to Cobb’s 47.2. Nor is it only a matter of playing time; to find a player with a higher WARP per plate appearance, you need to drop the minimum PA threshold to about half a season’s worth. By basically every measure we have, Mike Trout is the best player through age 24 baseball has ever seen.
If you Google “Mike Trout Mickey Mantle” you can see a real progression over time.
And from this year: "Vin Scully on Mike Trout: ‘Bigger than Mantle, sometimes bigger than life'"
Collectively, we have gone from dismissing this comparison, to making it in a self-consciously ambitious way, to embracing it in spite of how unbelievable it is. The data backs that shift up, too; after 2016, Trout has no comps who were better than he was, only worse. He’s comp-less.
It’s difficult to overstate how amazing this is, but it is possible, so let’s head that off right away. Trout is not the best in any single category, though he’s close in several. Per Baseball Reference, he’s the second-most-productive offensive player through 24, behind only Ted Williams, and the ninth-most-productive baserunner. He’s not even top-200 in fielding.
The components of Mike Trout’s career to date are not completely new to us, so projecting his future performance is not a completely speculative affair. And even if projection was done just via overall measures of value and not piece-by-piece, it’s not as if we’d be completely in the dark. The 2016 Rangers have the best record in one-run games by an enormous margin, but we still have a pretty good idea how they’ll do in future one-run games. Trout may be comp-less, but we can make do.
Nonetheless, Mike Trout is a baseball player like we’ve never seen before, and we should treat him as such. I don’t just mean analytically, though that’s certainly true. PECOTA, for example, has consistently missed low on Trout, projecting him for 7.2 WARP in 2015 and 7.3 in 2016, years in which he reached 10.0 and 9.0 (so far). PECOTA is designed and run by people much smarter than myself, but I know that it basically works by identifying comparable players and seeing how they did; it stands to reason that Trout’s incomparability might present a challenge to that process.
More important than that, however, is what this means about how we should watch Trout play. Baseball’s history is in many ways its biggest strength, but it can also limit it. Nearly everything we ever see happen on a baseball diamond has happened at least once in the century-and-a-half of baseball that preceded it. Mike Trout has never happened before. There are plenty of “we should pay more attention to Mike Trout” takes already, but everything Mike Trout does is a step into totally uncharted territory, something baseball almost never sees.
The only other player who has done anything similar in the quasi-recent past is probably Barry Bonds. Like Trout, Bonds did things which literally no other player had ever done, or has done since. I was a kid in Bonds' heyday, and not paying much attention to baseball, but my sense is that the extraordinary nature of his feats was never appreciated to quite the extent that it deserved. I know why–if you search for "Barry Bonds" and limit the results to 2004, the first two hits are about his grand jury testimony, and only after those do you get results about his performance on the diamond–and I’m not trying to say that the ambivalence the baseball world felt toward Bonds was deserved or not.
But in the early 2000s, baseball had the rarest of experiences–something utterly and completely new–and it slipped by without enough fanfare because of various factors. In recent years, we’ve done a good job of appreciating exactly what Bonds did in those years, but in Mike Trout, we are watching a player do the same thing at this very moment in time, in a different, equally astounding way. Hopefully we do a better job of appreciating it this time around.