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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.

From 2014: "Trout Not Quite in Mantle’s League"; "Mike Trout: The Next Mickey Mantle… or Vada Pinson?"

From 2015: "Mike Trout looking like modern Mickey Mantle"; "Mike Trout vs. Mickey Mantle"

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.

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ErikBFlom
9/26
This raises the issue of how PECOTA handles players with no quality comparison players, and in turn how BP chooses to project those players. If PECOTA had a comp-quality measure, it could cry out for help: "Please project these players a different way."
WoodyS
9/26
While we're picking on PECOTA, take a peek at the Prospectus and compare the 2017 forecast with the 2016 forecast for your favorite young players. For some reason, PECOTA appears incapable of predicting much improvement.
hdruschel
9/26
PECOTA definitely can defend itself, but I'll quibble a bit with your word choice of "incapable." PECOTA is designed to do a very specific thing – maximize the accuracy of its predictions across thousands of players – and young players are going to challenge that goal, almost by definition. Lots of youngsters have flamed out or, more mundanely, failed to take a big step forward, so it's hard to blame PECOTA for failing to accurately identify the young players who will make that leap. The next projection system that is able to do that consistently will be the first.
jssharo
9/26
Not quite on topic... but part of me wishes that Bonds had been juicing from the beginning. Considering what he did as a (relatively) old man with the stuff, think of the peaks he would have reached and the numbers he would have accumulated had he been doing it all along! Then we might have had a comp for Trout?
ravenight
9/26
Having been an avid baseball fan when Bonds was at his peak, I will say that I was both amazed by what he was doing and perhaps under-appreciating it. One aspect of that is probably just that it's very difficult to revere a thing that's actively occurring - much easier to write and appreciate legends after the fact, and I'll bet that most of the best players of all time were under-appreciated at their peak (though most of them didn't "retire" while still at that peak). In the case of things like the single-season HR record, though, McGuire had just set it, so while Bonds accomplished something that may last for a generation or two, it seemed almost inevitable that the record be pushed upwards at the time. For the career HR record, people were already aware of the steroids allegations and it all seemed pretty damning. For any of the other measures by which he was amazing - a lot of those measures weren't really mainstream. Only those of us following sabermetrics at the time had any idea. I will say that Bonds was an impossibly dangerous hitter, even before the juice (though I guess we don't know exactly when that started). I remember watching Buck Showalter call for an intentional walk with the bases loaded and thinking that move actually made perfect sense (Bonds was basically averaging a double per hit, which means any hit he got was likely to clear the bases, therefore the slightly lower chance that Brent Mayne would get a hit seemed worth it).
hdruschel
9/26
Like I said, I didn't want to turn this into a hectoring "pay more attention to Trout" article, because I think there's just something about the sport and our brains that makes it really difficult to fully appreciate these amazing players as they're doing amazing things. I don't know if that's good or bad, but it sure seems like a thing. Mike Trout is the greatest young player of all time, but his team doesn't even sell out every game! That should be crazier than it is!
BarryR
9/27
They don't sell out because they're bad. They don't come out to see Trout because as valuable as the skill is, nobody goes to a ball game to watch the best player draw a walk. The margin by which he is leading the league in OBP is Votto-esque, but no one is paying money to watch that. Fans don't go to games or watch them on TV and tell the neighbors "You see the game last night? Trout went 1 for 3 with a walk and scored on a double" It doesn't diminish his greatness, but it makes it harder to appreciate on a day to day basis.