Betts arrival: you can’t honestly call Trout the single best player anymore

For years, baseball writers and bloggers have properly referred to Mike Trout as the best player in baseball.

Now, they need to break themselves of that habit, and they’re really struggling with that. So I’m here to help them.

They’re struggling because Trout hasn’t received the kind of acclaim a player of his talents ought to deserve. They look and they see perhaps the best baseball player ever, going by WAR. For example:

Mike Trout is already an all-time great (Jordan Shusterman, Cut 4, September 2018)

GOAT vs. BOAT: Mike Trout already is best of all-time (Jim Turvey, Beyond The Boxscore, June 2018)

And they also look and see little fanfare. It doesn’t seem right, and by golly, they’re going to correct it, with articles like:

Mike Trout, the best player in his sport, is the mostly unrecognizable face of baseball  (Bill Shaikin, Los Angeles Times, July 2018)

The Incredible, Unprecedented but Unseen Greatness of Mike Trout  (Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated, July 2018)

Mike Trout May Be the Greatest Baseball Player of All Time. And Hardly Anyone Even Knows Who He Is. (Will Leitch, New York Magazine Intelligencer, March 2019)

And it’s been that way for so long, it appears they’ve stopped bothering to check whether anyone else has become his match.  Baseball America seems to do so in their October 2018 article Trout Delivers ‘Best Year’ Yet, Wins Player Of The Year .  But the worst offense comes in Fred Bowen’s August 2018 article for The Washington Post’s KidsPost, Who’s the best player in baseball? The obvious answer is ‘Mike Trout’.  In this he writes “Mike Trout … has taken the fun out of the argument of who is the best player in Major League Baseball (MLB). It’s Trout, by a lot.”  His evidence?  Stating some of the really good numbers that Trout had to that point in 2018.  That’s it, which of course by itself doesn’t show that Trout is the best “by a lot”.  For that, he’d have to compare to other players’ numbers, and doing that would have shown that Mike Trout and Mookie Betts were neck and neck at that point in OPS, base stealing, and WAR.  That’s not even the best by a little.

Yes, I’m here to say that if you do your best to evaluate who is the best in the game today, you have to concede that it’s a tie between Mookie Betts and Mike Trout.  Yet nobody’s conceding that, which you can see in these quotes about Trout from some of those articles I mentioned above, from last season:

“The best baseball player in the world”

“The best player in his sport”

“The best player in baseball is better than he ever has been”

… and continuing just this past week, after news of Trout’s contract extension broke:

 “undisputed best player in baseball since his debut” (Anthony Witrado, Forbes)

“The best player in baseball” (Charles Curtis, USA Today)

“the best player in the game … considered the consensus best player in baseball since early in his career” (Dave Sheinin, Washington Post)

“The game’s best player” (Will Leitch, New York Magazine Intelligencer)

I find this frustrating.  I want all these writers to take a good close look at this question of whether Betts is now Trout’s equal.  So right now I’m going to help them do just that.

We’ll do this in two ways.  We’ll look at WAR totals take cumulatively over the last 3 seasons.  Then to take a different perspective, we’ll compare all-time WAR numbers over the first five years of each players’ career.

It is common practice to examine only the last 3 seasons of a player’s career when projecting how they will play in the future, as prior seasons are not likely to be relevant to where the player is at right now.  That’s why it makes sense for us to focus on just the last three seasons of WAR.  Given that within a single year, players whose WAR totals differ by less than one are considered effectively tied, then over a three year span, we will presume a difference in total WAR of about 1.7 or less to be a tie. (There’s some math behind that statement involving the square root of 3.)

For advanced players, WAR acts like a cumulative stat (instead of a rate stat), so I prefer comparisons of WAR per 150 games played for such players, which acts like a rate stat.  We’ll consider differences of less than 0.6 WAR to be a tie, for this.

Over the last 3 seasons, Mike Trout’s 27.3 WAR and Mookie Betts’ 27.0 WAR qualify as a tie:

bWAR leaders 2016-2018

This chart of the top 10 players shows not only are Betts and Trout tied, but they are far apart from the remaining players.  Jose Altuve achieves some separation from “the pack”, yet he’s still about 6 WAR below Trout and Betts.

The WAR per 150 games list has Trout with a slight edge over Betts, but the two of them still closer to each other than to the rest of the pack:

WAR per 150 games over last 3 seasons (243 G min.)
Player G WAR/150G
Mike Trout 413 9.9
Mookie Betts 447 9.1
Jose Altuve 451 7.1
Aaron Judge 294 6.7
Kevin Kiermaier 291 6.7
Josh Donaldson 320 6.3
Nolan Arenado 475 6.1
Jose Ramirez 461 6.1
Andrelton Simmons 428 6.1
Francisco Lindor 475 6.1

Where things really get interesting is when we look at their first five seasons compared to all other players in Major League Baseball history.  For cumulative WAR, we consider a difference of about 2 or less to be a tie.  In the table below, we see that that’s about the gap between Betts and Trout, with Trout ahead.  But what is especially interesting is their overall positions on the list:

Total WAR over first 5 (* or 6, ** or 7) seasons
Player G WAR
Ted Williams 736 45.1
Albert Pujols 790 37.6
Mike Trout 652 37.0
Mookie Betts 644 35.2
Jackie Robinson 751 35.2
Wade Boggs 725 35.1
Arky Vaughan 723 34.3
Joe DiMaggio 686 33.6
Johnny Mize 728 33.6
Barry Bonds 717 33.3

They are right next to each other, numbers 3 and 4 on the all time list.  Albert Pujols is the only other active player on this list; next comes Evan Longoria, in 23rd place with a 29.7 cumulative WAR over his first 5 seasons.

For the WAR per 150 games version of this list, I should point out that I made adjustments for players whose first few seasons of play were extremely short ones.  I treated those combined seasons as effectively the player’s “first season”, to get a more apples-to-apples comparison.  In this chart, we consider a difference of about .4 or less to be a tie.  The results:

WAR per 150 games over first 5 (* or 6, ** or 7) seasons
Player G WAR/150G
Ted Williams 736 9.2
Mike Trout 652 8.5
Mookie Betts 644 8.2
Stan Musial 611 8.0
Willie Mays 610 8.0
Shoeless Joe Jackson** 601 7.9
Lou Gehrig* 613 7.8
Eddie Collins* 560 7.5
Joe DiMaggio 686 7.3
Wade Boggs 725 7.3

Trout and Betts are again right next to each other.  The gap between them is again just small enough to be considered a tie.  Only the great Ted Williams surpasses them.  They’re smack in the middle of a top 5 full of guys who are household names and some of the biggest legends of the game.

There are no other active players on this list.  The next two are again Albert Pujols, in 12th place with a 7.1 WAR/150, and Evan Longoria in 18th place with a 7.0 WAR/150.  Among the players of today, they are in a class by themselves.

I hope you are now convinced, as I am, that there is no significant difference at this moment in time between the greatness of Mike Trout and the greatness of Mookie Betts; the only real difference at this point is years of playing time.  This could, of course, change in the coming years, but as of right now, it’s a tie.  I just hope all the writers out there will catch on.

There is one that sort of already has.  In his article AL MVP Mookie Betts is the first real challenger to Mike Trout’s throne as baseball’s best player published last November, Mike Axisa points out some of this sustained success that Betts has had, and also compares Trout and Betts tool for tool, and concludes that Betts could stick with Trout for the long haul.  Good work, Mike.  You actually bothered to look.

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