Guys that can do what Mike Trout did last year are a rarity at any position. Trout played in 139 games, but he ran the bases, hit for average, hit for power and defended terrifically at a premium position. That added up to a mammoth total of 10 WAR. Doesn’t sound so big? Miguel Cabrera has never come close. Albert Pujols did better than that ONCE, with 10.1 in 2003. Ken Griffey Jr. did better ONCE, with 10.2 in 1996. Sammy Sosa did better once too, when he hit 64 home runs in 2001. Barry Bonds did it 5 times, but he’s a freak. And that’s it – those are the only seasons “better” than Trout’s 2012 in the past two decades. Go back a few more decades and you’ll add a few more names, most of them in the Hall of Fame: Johnny Bench, Cal Ripken, Joe Morgan, Rickey Henderson, Robin Yount and even an amazing year from a young Darrell Evans. Clearly that year alone puts Trout in elite company.
That isn’t really what makes it so remarkable, though, is it? He did it as a rookie. And though he was certainly a heralded prospect, even heralded prospects just do not get called up a month into the season and immediately embark upon a season for the ages. This does not happen. Heralded prospects that do well, as opposed to ones that flop, play like Bryce Harper: an .817 OPS and 4.9 WAR – and everyone maintains that they haven’t yet hit their peak. Trout? The only comparable splash by a guy so “green” in recent memory would be Alex Rodriguez‘ 9.8 WAR as a 20-year-old in ’96 (both he and Trout turned 21 during those seasons) in his first full season in the bigs. There is a difference, though: ARod got called up in ’94 and ’95 without really lighting the world on fire – Trout came out of nowhere and immediately began playing at an elite level.
Now obviously we have all heard a lot of Trout hype and we all know that the HoF is already working on his plaque, but while it’s great for the Angels to have such a terrific young player and at such a low price that isn’t what this is really all about. What I’m pondering is whether we are already seeing a “Trout effect” on the talent market in the MLB. Everybody sees that Trout and everybody wants one. Everybody starts looking for the next Trout. Everybody starts imagining that baseball has become like certain other pro sports, where prospects immediately become key contributors.
It still isn’t, of course. A town that sells a winning Lotto ticket is going to see a spike in Lotto ticket sales – it’s only natural, but that doesn’t make it smart. Most prospects don’t pan out at all – even elite ones. Those that do don’t often turn out to be elite major leaguers. As I wrote in a piece here on MCB a while back, the typical sort of regression that we see as a prospect moves from the minors to the majors is about the same as we saw with failed super-prospect Delmon Young. The guys who play better are all guys who made that transition unusually smoothly. Teams valued prospects before – largely because they are at least perceived to be a cheaper route to contention. Now they might have begun to overvalue prospects. For a team, like Detroit, that would really like to add a quality AAA shortstop to the organization and has a 3rd starter to spare it might be the “Trout Effect” that is preventing this from happening. That is unfortunate, but something that has to be dealt with.
How can a team take advantage? The first way is to be the team – like the Cleveland Indians – that signs top free agents at bargain prices because nobody is willing to cough up a draft pick (even though those draft picks often flop). What if it turned out to be a Trout you gave up? Fat chance. The second way is to deal prospects (and preferably have a scouting and developmental machine capable of keeping the pipeline full). Few sober heads would argue that the Reds failed to get value for Didi Gregorius. The third way is to plain old sign free agents. Decent guys, cogs. If other teams are set on giving such and such a spot to such and such a prospect (who – by past experience – will probably underperform) that means that some middling veteran is having a hard time finding a job and a doubly hard time finding somebody who will pay him his “value”. I’m not talking about guys like Josh Hamilton: I’m talking about guys like Jason Bay, Maicer Izturis, Eric Hinski and Kelly Johnson.
In essence, the Tigers are doing things right for this new state of the world (though they might prefer – all else equal – to be doing otherwise). It has become cripplingly hard with the new CBA to try to improve the talent pipeline by devoting resources to player acquisition. But, the value of first round picks has never been higher – even if you will ultimately be using these as chips in a trade – so it does not make sense for most any team to throw away a pick on a free agent that they can do without (Nats?). The CBA makes it necessary – as a long run strategy – to win through major league payroll. The Mike Trout Effect will – it seems – convince many teams that this isn’t the right plan and in so doing make it easier for the canny to do it, by making veteran pieces easier to acquire and afford.