A fun riddle to consider on the day Mike Trout made history: Can the richest player in baseball history still be underpaid?
If that seems like a silly question to ask of someone due to earn nearly half a billion dollars over the next decade, then welcome to the world that is Trout hypotheticals: a world where all numbers attached to him melt the brain. Since Trout reportedly just signed the biggest contract—both in terms of total and average annual value, at $430 million and $35.8 million per year—in baseball history, it’s worth wondering if he somehow left money on the table after agreeing to an extension with the Angels.
Before we dive into that, though, a caveat, which is that applying projection systems—all of which dutifully assume regression for a variety of factors—to as singular a talent as Trout tends to throw this whole exercise into flux. The math of baseball assumes players are mortal, doomed to decline as the years pass. So what do you do with someone like Trout, who is far and away the best player in the game—and still two years shy of 30?
The answer is you plug the numbers in anyway and then try to make sense of the carnage. For this, I’m turning to Tom Tango’s WARcel forecasting system, which, if you’re a regular SI.com reader, you’ve seen used in years previous by Jay Jaffe in his “What’s He Really Worth?” series. For the uninitiated, the WARcel system basically forecasts future Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference version) with a weighted projection—6/3/1, or 60% of the most recent year’s WAR total, 30% of the year prior to that, and 10% of the year before that one—to arrive at a baseline total for the upcoming season, then chops 20% off that for regression. For each subsequent season, you subtract 0.4 WAR for future regression, as well as a small yet increasing fraction for every year past the age of 30.
In order to determine what that player will be worth over the length of his contract, you also need to know how much one win is worth. The most conservative estimate for that is somewhere between $5-6 million. Add in annual inflation—which we’ll set at 6%—and you arrive at a total value by multiplying Trout’s projected WAR total by that year’s estimated $/WAR figure. That sounds complicated, but remember: This is simple back-of-the-envelope work to try to determine how much value Trout can produce. It isn’t meant to be definitive.
With that in mind, I’ve made one tweak. Trout’s single-season WAR totals over the last three years are 10.2, 6.7, and 10.5. That middle one—2017—might look like an outlier, and that’s because it is: Trout played just 114 games that year due to a torn thumb ligament sustained sliding into a base. It feels unfair to penalize him going forward for a fluke injury, so I pro-rated his WAR out over a full 162 games, moving him up to 9.6 WAR. (I could’ve done the same with last year’s total, as Trout played only 140 games due to wrist inflammation, but seeing as he put up 10.2 WAR in that span alone, it feels equally unfair to add to that absurd total.)
So, weighting out those three seasons, we land at a baseline of 10.1 WAR for 2019. Subtract 20% for regression, and you land at 8.1; add a little WAR back because Trout isn’t yet 30, and your projected total for next season is 8.3. Things decline from there, albeit gradually, until you reach 2030, when Trout will be 39 and, by these metrics, worth 2.7 WAR.
Two things stand out from that. First is the idea that Trout will be worth “only” 8.3 WAR next year; he’s topped that total in five of his seven full seasons so far. The other is that, at the end of this contract, he’ll produce more WAR than 300 position players did in the 2018 season. This projection estimates he’ll be worth about as much at age 39 as Yasiel Puig and Anthony Rizzo were at ages 27 and 28, respectively. By starting from such great heights, Trout breaks the scales.
Anyway, here’s the full year-by-year projection for Trout—and I promise you, that value figure is actually what the math spit out.
Yes, that’s correct: With those projected WAR figures and $/WAR amounts, Trout will be worth nearly a billion dollars over the next 12 years (and also add nearly 70 WAR to his already grand total of 64.3). Ant no point during that contract—even in his last year—will he be worth less than the $35.8 million the Angels will be paying him on average. In fact, by 2024, he’ll have already produced more value than the entirety of his contract.
There’s a lot there you can quibble with, and understandably so. In particular, the value of a win is likely less than $9 million, as that figure is inflated by what teams have paid for relievers on the open market. Per the research of Fangraphs’ John Edwards, the cost of a win for position players is closer to $6 million. Even if you use that far lower figure, though, Trout’s contract value still adds up to $529.4 million—and that’s using highly conservative WAR projections for one of the greatest players of all time.
Even if the math is fuzzy, the conclusion is ironclad: Trout is an immense value at almost any imaginable contract, given how good he’ll likely be going forward. Keep in mind, too, that he’s been getting better as time has gone on. Who’s to say that 2019’s WAR total won’t be another double-digit figure, or that he won’t keep racking those seasons up through his early 30s?
None of this takes into account injury or other such career-altering events, but the point remains the same. Even if Trout were to turn into mid-30s Alcides Escobar, who is worth a combined 0.4 WAR over his past four seasons, the Angels would still be getting their money’s worth and then some. And if Trout stays Trout through the end, then Los Angeles just locked up one of the biggest bargains in the history of the game at the highest price anyone has ever paid for talent. That may seem paradoxical, but as is the case with all things Trout, nothing is impossible.