We’re all aware of Mike Trout’s story at this point. From falling to the end of the first round in the 2009 draft, to his home run-saving catches, and the multiple 10-WAR seasons to start his career, the 28-year-old certainly has had a storied career up to this point, and there isn’t any reason to believe that won’t be the case moving forward. In fact, with a 73.4 WAR over the first 1199 games of his career, he even is making a case as one of the greatest players of all time. Meanwhile, although Miguel Cabrera, Josh Donaldson, Bryce Harper, and Jose Altuve have all stolen the spotlight from him in a single season, no one has been able to challenge Trout as the best player in the game. Yet, at some point, we have to acknowledge that his reign as the undisputed top player in the MLB is going to end, right? According to ZiPs projections, that is supposed to end in three years, with Ronald Acuna Jr. expected to be his greatest challenger. However, after delving into this topic, I believe there are two players that are making a serious run at Trout’s throne.
Based on the research I’ve conducted on what the most stable metrics are for hitters, as well as what correlates to offensive success and adjusting for positional value, I’ve created a system for grading every player in the MLB. After going position-by-position, there are three players that are in a clear tier of their own: Trout, Mookie Betts, and Cody Bellinger. Not only could both of these players challenge Trout in the future, but they could do so as soon as when play resumes.
Let’s start with Trout. To be frank, it’s incredibly difficult to find any sort of red flag with his offense. He ranks in the 100th percentile in walk rate, has had a weighted-runs-created-plus (wrc+) of 180 or higher in each of the past three seasons, and has also accumulated an 8.3 WAR or higher in all but one season. Nevertheless, even he will need to make some adjustments to avoid any sort of regression. In 2019, his launch angle jumped to 22.2. While launch angle is generally associated with success, having too high of a launch angle can lead to too many popups, and although that didn’t affect Trout, it could in the future. Meanwhile, his line drive rate peaked at 26.6% last season, yet not only does that not correlate with his average launch angle (22.2 is still line drive range, but getting too close to fly ball/popup territory), but the correlation of line drive rate from year-to-year is pretty unstable; any regression in that category, and those perfect points of contact could turn into more outs, which in turn would obviously hurt his overall numbers.
Then, there is Betts. The 27-year-old beat out Trout for the AL MVP in 2018 with a 10.4 WAR, yet compared to his other seasons, that would appear to be an outlier. However, that would only be if you just looked at surface-level statistics, which aren’t a reliable way of gauging a player’s overall abilities. Over the past two seasons, Betts has made drastic improvements in each of the following categories:
- He has walked at a higher rate
- He has hit fewer balls on the ground
- He not only has continued to not chase pitches, but he also has been able to do so while being more aggressive with pitches in the zone.
Plus, whereas Trout’s normal statistics and surface-level statistics have usually lined up with one another, that wasn’t the case with Betts last season. His .408 expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA, .408) was .28 points higher than his actual wOBA, and overall, his batted ball profile is better than Trout- he hits the ball harder, relies less on sprint speed, and has a more optimal launch angle:
- Trout: 81st Percentile Hard Hit%, Too High of Launch Angle
- Betts: 88th Percentile Hard Hit%, Perfect Launch Angle
In the end, it’s the unstable metrics where Trout has Betts beat, outside of walk rate, but with a little more luck, Betts could easily match Trout’s offensive prowess- he did so in 2018, after all.
If you’re looking for more of an ascending player, Bellinger fits that bill. After an “okay” second season, the 24-year-old reached another level in his third season, posting a 7.8 WAR and 162 wrc+. Heck, his expected statistics even indicate he deserved better, and although his line drive rate may regress, the decrease in his pop-up rate shouldn’t- a 17.6 launch angle is right around the perfect place to be. Additionally, if you look at his batted ball numbers for his career, his past season is very similar to his rookie campaign, and to that end, it’s hard to see it as a fluke:
- 2017: 45.7% Hard Hit Rate, 12.2 Barrel%, .471 xwOBACON
- 2018: 38.6% Hard Hit Rate, 8.6 Barrel%, .393 xwOBACON
- 2019: 45.5% Hard Hit Rate, 13 Barrel%, .486 xwOBACON
In fact, Bellinger’s 2019 may be more of an accurate baseline of his abilities, and if that’s the case, watch out.
Sure, worrying about Trout’s launch angle and ability to maintain his line drive rate may be nitpicking, but Betts and Bellinger are clearly closing the gap on him offensively. The two Dodger outfielders have made noticeable improvements in sustainable areas, and not only have superior batted ball data, but have proven the ability to maintain those high-level peripheral statistics. Meanwhile, they each have Trout beat in defensive ability; Trout has had a negative Outs Above Average (OAA) in three of the four last seasons, while Betts and Bellinger are elite defenders, even when adjusting for the fact that they’ve spent much more time in the corner outfield spots than Trout. Therefore, they may actually have a higher floor, and that’s before mentioning that they also have proven to be more durable.
Based on previous statistics, Mike Trout is the best player in baseball. In fact, in my grading system, he slightly beats out Betts and Bellinger in terms of efficiency. Yet, the goal of front offices is to project future performance, and with that, the gap between those three appears to be minimal. After all, the Dodger outfielders are more durable players and better defensively, which makes them less susceptible to a random decrease in performance, should any of them deal with poor offensive luck. Plus, Trout has ranked near the top in several unstable metrics, while the same can’t be said for the other two- Betts and Bellinger also have more upside than him. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who you think is the best player in the MLB, as all three have legitimate cases. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be right to assume that there is much of a gap between Trout and either of those two players. Trout has probably reached his peak, while there is natural room for improvement with the other two.
Betts/Bellinger= Higher Floor and Upside= Better Than Trout???
Believe it or not, but going into 2020, my money is on Betts for being the best player over the next 2-3 seasons, whereas Bellinger is definitely the game’s best young superstar. The idea that these two players could usurp Trout will likely get a lot of pushback, but, at the end of the day, the right numbers don’t lie.