I brought this up a couple of weeks ago while pinch-hitting for Buster Olney on the Baseball Tonight podcast: Not factoring in salaries, who would you rather have for the next 10 seasons, Mike Trout or Fernando Tatis Jr.?
That was just three weeks into the season, but Tatis hasn’t really slowed since, hitting .313/.395/.660 while leading the National League with 13 home runs and the majors with 33 RBIs, stealing bases, making acrobatic plays in the field, hitting grand slams on 3-0 pitches, and helping transform the San Diego Padres into the most exciting team in baseball. All at 21 years of age.
Trout, meanwhile, is now a grizzled veteran of 29, playing in what we call his age-28 season (he turned 29 in August). He’s hitting .269/.359/.602 with 12 home runs and 32 RBIs. It’s not the best triple-slash line of his career, but it’s only 32 games and it’s also a 56-home run pace over 150 games.
Trout has essentially been the unquestioned best player in the game since the Angels called him back up to the majors in late April 2012, after a 40-game cameo in 2011. He hasn’t won the MVP award every season — but he has won three and finished second in the voting four times, and fourth once, and that was while playing in only 114 games that year. There have been temporary contenders to the throne: Mookie Betts won MVP honors in 2018 with a heroic season, maybe Cody Bellinger and Alex Bregman had better seasons last year. But no player has displaced him yet, and that eight-year run as the best in the biz is remarkable.
Tatis, however, is making a run. There are certainly other stars who could be the heir apparent — not just Betts, Bellinger or Bregman, but even younger players such as Juan Soto or Ronald Acuna Jr. — but the narrative in our shortened 2020 season belongs to Tatis, so we’re going to focus on him.
In fact, you might argue that the above question is silly. He has outperformed Trout so far this season, he’s eight years younger, and including his 84-game rookie season of 2019, he’s credited with 6.5 WAR in 121 career games — that’s 8.1 prorated over 150 games. Trout, with that career-low .359 OBP so far and some poor defensive metrics has been credited with just 0.8 WAR — or 3.8 over 150 games.
That’s hardly case closed. Consider:
• Don’t overreact to 30-something games, either positive or negative. Trout is hitting just .269, but his Statcast numbers suggest there has been some bad luck there, with an expected average of .292 based on his quality of contact. His walk rate is well below his career norms, but it has been spiking back up again. He drew only five walks in his first 16 games but 12 in his next 16, so look for the batting average and OBP to climb.
• Tatis has a .316 career average, but he’s also riding a career BABIP of .394. As hard as he hits the ball, that’s not sustainable over the long haul. For him to keep hitting .300, he’s going to have to strike out less. Indeed, his overall approach doesn’t yet meet Trout’s high standards — even as a 21-year-old Trout who walked 110 times and posted a .432 OBP. This year, Trout has a chase rate of just 14% compared to 25% for Tatis.
On the other hand:
• The defensive metrics are a little concerning for Trout — minus-5 defensive runs saved. Statcast metrics rank his jump rating — how quickly he reacts to the ball — in the first percentile, with first being lowest and 100th being best. So his reactions have been slow this year. Could be something, could be nothing, but it could mean an eventual move to left field sooner rather than later. Tatis, meanwhile, after some concerns as a rookie as to whether he’d remain at shortstop long term has alleviated those worries with improved defense.
• Sure, maybe Tatis will never walk 100 times a year like Trout, but he’s hardly a hacker in, say, the Javier Baez mode. His chase rate is just barely above league average, he has improved from last year and is likely to keep improving. As for strikeouts, he’s actually striking out less often than Trout this year.
As exciting as Tatis has been, we have to remember he hasn’t even played a full season of games. Remember when Jason Heyward was a star at 20 and only going to get better? We’re also comparing him to not just a generational talent but an all-time talent. While you would usually take the 21-year-old star over the 28-year-old star, Trout is not your normal superstar. Then again, what we’re saying about Tatis is what we were saying about Trout when he was 21.
Before making your decision, I thought it would be fun to look back at history and draw from similar comparisons. All “best player in the game” players are from their age-28 seasons and we’ll find a corresponding young star from the same season.
Pujols won his second of three MVP awards with maybe his best season. It’s not often a first baseman is acknowledged as the best player in the game, but Pujols finished lower than third in the MVP only once between 2002 and 2010, a remarkable run of consistency. First basemen don’t often age well, but as the best hitter in the game, Pujols seemed like that rare hitter who would remain among the best in the game well into his 30s.
Longoria was the best young player in 2008, the AL Rookie of the Year for the Rays after they improbably went from last place to the World Series. He hit 27 home runs and drove in 85 runs in only 122 games while playing excellent defense (he’d win a Gold Glove the next two seasons).
Pujols next 10 seasons: 36.2 WAR
Longoria next 10 seasons: 48.7 WAR
Pujols had only two more superstar seasons, started to decline in his final year with St. Louis in 2011 and of course his time with the Angels has been disappointing. Longoria was terrific from 2009 to 2011 (average WAR of 7.5), although more steady than spectacular after that. As a 22-year-old, he wasn’t on the level we’ve seen from Tatis or Soto, so I would have been inclined to take Pujols back in 2008, but Longoria was better the next 10 seasons.
Alex Rodriguez, 2004: .286, 36 HR, 7.6 WAR, 14th in MVP voting
Miguel Cabrera (21): .294, 33 HR, 3.5 WAR, 22nd in MVP voting
This was A-Rod’s first season with the Yankees — although not his best, as he won MVP honors with the Rangers in 2003 and won again in 2005. Still, he would have been right up with Barry Bonds and Pujols as the best player in the game (Vladimir Guerrero won AL MVP honors with a 5.6-WAR season). Cabrera was in his first full season and clearly looked like a future star given his power and ability to hit for average at a young age. His defensive shortcomings (he was playing in the outfield in 2004) cut into his value, but he certainly had best-hitter-in-the-game potential.
Rodriguez next 10: 44.6 WAR
Cabrera next 10: 55.8 WAR
Cabrera had big numbers in 2004 — but so did a lot of hitters. He ranked just 38th in the majors in OPS. Throw in his defense and I think you take A-Rod for the next 10 seasons. Indeed, A-Rod would win two more MVPs (adding a third in 2007 when he hit 54 home runs with 156 RBIs), Still, it was the younger player who was more valuable. A-Rod would battle injuries and decline in his mid-30s. Cabrera, meanwhile, did blossom into the best hitter in the game — although not until 2010 at age 27, when he got into better condition. His numbers actually got better from 27 to 33 as offense around the game was declining.
Ken Griffey Jr., 1998: .284, 56 HR, 6.6 WAR, fourth in MVP voting
Andruw Jones (21): .271, 31 HR, 7.4 WAR
Griffey had won MVP honors in 1997 and followed that up with a second straight 56-homer season and another Gold Glove. His average did dip below .300 for the first time since his rookie season (other than his injury year of 1995) and he was overshadowed that year by Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, but he was still generally considered the best player in the game (along with Barry Bonds).
We didn’t have WAR in 1998, of course, so nobody then realized how valuable Jones was — but that’s how good his defense was. If you’re old enough to remember a young Jones owning center field, you will appreciate and understand Baseball-Reference crediting him with 35 runs saved on defense.
Griffey next 10: 18.2 WAR
Jones next 10: 48.5 WAR
This is a fun one since we’re comparing two center fielders. As good as Jones was on D, he wasn’t the hitter Griffey was (a 21-year-old Griffey hit .327). Jones had power, but this was peak steroids era and Jones’ 31 home runs were tied for just 27th in the majors. At this time, Griffey still looked as if he’d be one of the 10 greatest players of all time. I think you would have taken Griffey’s next 10 years. Instead, he got traded to the Reds, couldn’t stay healthy and Jones was much more valuable — although Jones in his 30s had a rapid downfall like Griffey.
Joe Morgan, 1972: .292, 16 HR, 9.3 WAR, fourth in MVP voting
Cesar Cedeno (21): .320, 22 HR, 8.0 WAR, sixth in MVP voting
This is a good one. Morgan and Cedeno had been teammates with the Astros in 1971, but the Reds acquired Morgan in one of the best trades of all time. Removed from the cavernous Astrodome, Morgan blossomed into the best player in the game. Cedeno had one of the great age-21 seasons of all time (fifth-highest WAR), hitting 22 home runs despite playing in the Astrodome, stealing 55 bases and winning a Gold Glove.
Morgan next 10: 59.5 WAR
Cedeno next 10: 38.9 WAR
Of course, nobody in 1972 knew Morgan was the best player in the game — although he did finish fourth in the MVP voting that year. If we take a 2020 mindset to these players and pretend we’re back in 1972, the edge has to go to Cedeno. You would envision him perhaps getting even better and hitting for more power. Morgan was a small second baseman and you would have to worry about how he would age.
Instead, Morgan would be one of the best players in his 30s of all time — winning MVP awards in 1975 and 1976, and ranking 14th all time in WAR from ages 30 to 39. Cedeno had one more monster season but was never able to replicate what he did at 21 and 22. He was a good player but not the superstar everyone projected. The Astros moved the fences back in 1977, which hurt his power numbers. One theory, however, is that Cedeno was never the same after an incident in the Dominican Republic in December 1973. Cedeno was in a hotel room with a woman who died after a gun was discharged; authorities decided the two were drinking and playing around with the gun and Cedeno was charged with involuntary manslaughter and spent 20 days in jail.
Carl Yastrzemski, 1968: .301, 23 HR, 10.5 WAR, ninth in MVP voting
Johnny Bench (20): .275, 15 HR, 5.0 WAR, 16th in MVP voting
Yaz’s famous Triple Crown season was 1967, but he posted a second straight 10-WAR season in 1968. His numbers don’t look great, but it was 1968 and he was the only AL hitter to hit .300 and he led the league in average, walks, OBP and OPS. Bench was the Rookie of the Year and so impressive on defense that he won the Gold Glove.
Yastrzemski next 10: 43.8 WAR
Bench next 10: 59.5 WAR
This would have been a tough choice. Yaz was SO good in 1967 and 1968, and a great left fielder, that it would have been hard not to pick him. On the other hand, Bench was already a superior defender at a premium position and showed power potential at the plate.
Yaz’s career after 1968 was a little all over the place. He did hit 40 home runs in both 1969 and 1970, but then never hit 30 again. He hit .329 in 1970 but topped .300 only once after that. He played forever, but 1970 was his final top-10 MVP finish. Bench, meanwhile, became perhaps the best catcher of all time, winning MVP honors in 1970 and 1972.
Frank Robinson, 1964: .306, 29 HR, 7.9 WAR, fourth in MVP voting
Jim Fregosi (22): .277, 18 HR, 7.9 WAR, 13th in MVP voting
OK, maybe Robinson wasn’t quite the best player in the game in 1964 — he was playing at the same time as Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, after all. But he was right up there. Fregosi was the best young player, making the All-Star team for the Angels and combining good power for a shortstop with a .369 OBP.
Robinson next 10: 47.5 WAR
Fregosi next 10: 34.8 WAR
Reds owner Bill DeWitt would trade Robinson after the 1965 season, declaring him “not a young 30.” So DeWitt definitely would have gone with Fregosi. Robinson won the Triple Crown and MVP honors for the Orioles in 1966 and remained one of the best power hitters in the game deep into his 30s. Fregosi is best remembered for when the Mets traded Nolan Ryan to get him in 1972 — at which point Fregosi’s knees had gone bad. He made five more All-Star teams after 1964 and was certainly a good player, but his age-22 season proved to be his best season.
Willie Mays, 1959: .313, 34 HR, 7.8 WAR, sixth in MVP voting
Ernie Banks, 1959: .304, 45 HR, 10.2 WAR, MVP
Vada Pinson (20): .316, 20 HR, 6.5 WAR, 15th in MVP voting
This is a fun one, because we have two 28-year-olds who could lay claim to best player in the game (along with Hank Aaron). Banks won his second straight MVP award so he would have probably drawn the consensus vote as best in the game at the moment in time. Pinson looked as if he would be joining their ranks soon enough. A speedy center fielder for the Reds in his first full season, he led the league in runs (131) and doubles (47), and hit 20 home runs and stealing 21 bases. Who do you take for the next 10 years?
Mays next 10: 84.2 WAR
Banks next 10: 26.0 WAR
Pinson next 10: 41.6 WAR
Well … it wasn’t close. Mays would remarkably average 8.4 WAR over the next 10 seasons. He could have won seven or eight MVP awards (he won only one more, in 1965). Banks’ knees went bad, he moved over to first base and he wasn’t the same player. Pinson had a very good career — he finished with 2,700 hits and hit .343 in 1961 — but always lived under the shadow of how good he was at a young age. The burden of expectations.
Duke Snider, 1955: .309, 42 HR, 8.6 WAR, second in MVP voting
Al Kaline (20): .340, 27 HR, 8.3 WAR, second in MVP voting
Hank Aaron (21): .314, 27 HR, 6.2 WAR, ninth in MVP voting
One more. Snider was right there in 1955 alongside Mays and Mickey Mantle as the best in the game — the three center fielders in New York. But which of the young right fielders would you have liked better? Probably Kaline, right? He was a year younger, had been a little better, had that great throwing arm …
Snider next 10: 21.0 WAR
Kaline next 10: 53.6 WAR
Aaron next 10: 80.9 WAR
How good was Aaron? Kaline went on to a first-ballot Hall of Fame career — and yet Aaron still easily surpassed him. Snider didn’t age so well. He led the NL in OBP and slugging in 1956 and hit 40 home runs in 1957, but after the team moved to Los Angeles in 1958, his numbers dipped. The 440-foot fence in right field at the L.A. Coliseum obviously didn’t help, but he also had a bad knee after he suffered a spring training auto accident and he would also deal with back problems after that.
Are there any conclusions to draw from these comparisons? I guess you would lean toward the younger player in a blind draw, even if it seems obvious to bet on the older superstar. The older player will decline at some point and then faces the double whammy of increased likelihood of injuries. But as Cedeno and Pinson showed, a young star doesn’t always improve. Sometimes he’s as good at 21 as he’ll ever be — and today’s young players like Tatis and Soto are already so polished.
Trout is so often and rightfully compared to Mays that we assume he’ll dominate well into his 30s just as Mays did. Mays won that MVP in 1965 at age 34 — when he hit .317 with a career-high 52 home runs. Mays, of course, is an outlier. Only Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner earned more career WAR from ages 29 to 38.
Can Trout keep playing at the same level the way Mays did? Given what we’ve seen from Tatis, if he wants to keep his crown he just might have to.