Mike Trout is on pace for the highest WAR through an age-21 season in baseball history. (Getty Images)
On Wednesday night, Mike Trout celebrated his 22nd birthday in much the same way he did his 21st: by hitting a home run. As he did a year ago against Oakland's Travis Blackley, Trout went deep against the Rangers' Alexi Ogando for his 20th homer of the season, and he also robbed Craig Gentry of a homer with a leaping catch at the wall. Quietly, he's having an even better year with the bat than last year, when he was a unanimous choice for AL Rookie of the Year and finished second to Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera in a hotly debated MVP vote.
With the Angels mired below .500 since April 4 -- the third game of the season -- more of the focus has been on the disappointing seasons of free agent acquisition Josh Hamilton, the hobbled Albert Pujols and an injury-riddled rotation where only C.J. Wilson has made a full complement of starts. Because of that, Trout's performance has flown under the radar somewhat, but since a lackluster April (.261/.333/.432), he's hit a searing .357/.454/.631, a performance covering 390 plate appearances. Since the beginning of July, he's hit .387/.515/.689 with seven homers in 136 PA. Three of those homers have come in his last four games, though alas, Los Angeles has lost them all to fall to 51-62. Here's the homer off Ogando:
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Via his extended hot streak, Trout has improved his hitting performance across the board relative to last year:
Trout has cut his strikeout rate significantly while increasing his unintentional walk rate, to the point that his ratio of the two has improved from 2.2 to 1.4. Thus he's putting the ball in play more often while getting hits at virtually the same rate (.381 batting average on balls in play last year, .372 this year). Though his home run rate has fallen slightly, from 4.7 percent of his plate appearances to 3.9 percent, his isolated power has increased by nine points (.from .138 to .147) because he's already surpassed last year's total of doubles (32, compared to 27 in 2012) and equalled his total of triples (eight). Via Baseball Prospectus' True Average stat, which expresses runs created per plate appearance on a batting average scale after adjusting for park and league scoring conditions, he's been an even more effective hitter than last year. Like Cabrera (.377), he's on pace for a season that would rank among the top 25 since 1950, which is as far back as BP's stats go.
Trout's all over the AL leaderboard, currently topping the Junior Circuit in hits (145), walks (67), times on base (219), runs (80) and triples (8) while ranking second in batting average and on-base percentage and fourth in slugging percentage. Though he's got a slight edge on Cabrera in terms of Offensive Wins Above Replacement, 7.5 to 7.1, his defense according to Defensive Runs Saved has taken a big step back, from +21 last year to −14 this year. You wouldn't know it from those leaping catches on his highlight reel, though, and in fact the other major defensive systems don't portray the drop as nearly so drastic (from 8.6 to −0.6 in Fielding Runs Above Average, and from 13.3 to −0.5 in Ultimate Zone Rating).
With DRS making up the defensive component of Baseball-Reference's version of WAR, Trout trails Cabrera by a whisker in that department, 6.2 to 6.1, despite having 50 more plate appearances. If he continues his pace, he'll finish with 8.7 WAR, down from last year's 10.9. This just in: It's tough to surpass a season that ranked as the most valuable of the last decade and the 21st most valuable among position players since 1901.
Even so, it's hardly a shabby season. In fact, with 49 games to go, Trout is within a couple runs of surpassing Mel Ott as the most valuable player through his age-21 season (such designations hinge on the convention of using a player's age as of July 1 of a given year). Check out this company:
Ken Griffey Jr
Fourteen of the top 25 position players in terms of WAR through their age-21 seasons went on to the Hall of Fame (denoted by an asterisk), a count that will increase via the eventual addition of Griffey if not Rodriguez or Jones. Quite possibly by the end of this week, Trout will have outdone them all despite playing in considerably fewer games than all but a few.
Bubbling under on this list are Trout's two top rivals for the title of the game's best young player, Bryce Harper (27th at 7.3) and Manny Machado (tied for 29th at 7.0), both of whom are in their age 20 seasons. Harper bolted from the gate looking as though he might overtake Trout early this season, but he's cooled off considerably while battling injuries and missing a month. Though his performance with the bat (.271/.366/.528) represents a step up in all three categories, his defensive value has declined (at least via DRS), and as such, he's been worth just 2.1 WAR this year. Machado is hitting .297/.327/.454 with a league-leading 40 doubles, and thanks to a staggering 25 Defensive Runs Saved he ranks fourth in the league with 5.4 WAR. Until recently, he was ahead of Trout on the WARboard, but a .196/.226/.314 July cost him the higher ranking.