It has been clear for years: Mike Trout will go down as one of the best baseball players who ever lived. Since 2013, when he was in his second full year in the major leagues, the players with the closest statistical match to him (according to Baseball Reference’s similarity scores by age) are Mickey Mantle and Frank Robinson, two of the most iconic Hall of Famers and all-time greats. Even early in his career, Trout established himself as a player of similar caliber.
By now, Trout’s consistency has become so mind-numbing that it’s easy to forget he’s the perpetual best player in the world. He made the All-Star game every year since 2012 (his first full year in the bigs), he has won the American League MVP title three times, and he has finished in the top five in MVP voting every single year of his career.
Trout is 29 now. In his career, he has generated 76 wins above replacement (basically, how many wins he has earned for his team compared to what an ordinary minor league fill-in would net), which puts him in the top 75 of all time before his 30th birthday. Even if he never picked up a bat again, he deserves a spot in Cooperstown.
But something astonishing has happened in 2021: Mike Trout has become even better.
His 2021 offensive numbers are beating his career averages across the board.
In his first 32 games, Mike Trout is hitting .355 with a .477 on-base percentage and an outrageous .673 slugging percentage. He has hit eight home runs in his 132 plate appearances so far, which puts him on pace for around 36 homers this season. Although he’s striking out in 28 percent of his plate appearances, the highest rate of his career, he’s crushing the ball whenever he makes contact. Across nearly all of his stat line, Trout is doing better than before.
He’s hitting significantly harder in 2021.
Despite having the most impressive numbers in the sport for years, Mike Trout isn’t the hardest-hitting slugger in the world. Since 2012, the average ball has come off his bat with an exit velocity of slightly more than 91 mph, which puts him just outside the top 30 among qualified hitters in that time, according to Statcast data at Fangraphs. He has hit the ball on the barrel of the bat––the sweet spot––15 percent of the time, which is sixth in the same span. Trout hits the ball hard, but not quite like a rocket.
That has changed in 2021. Trout is hitting the ball on the barrel 20 percent of the time, a career best, and better than 55 percent of the balls that come off his bat qualify as “hard-hit,” also a career high. (A hard-hit ball has an exit velocity off the bat of 95 mph or more.) He’s near the very top of the league in a whole suite of batted-ball stats. The numbers don’t lie: Trout has really started hitting the laces off the ball this year.
He’s on pace to break records.
Buoyed by hitting the ball that hard, Trout’s batting average on balls in play––that is, his average when he doesn’t strike out, doesn’t hit a home run, and puts the ball in play for the defense to field––stands at .484. In the history of baseball, nobody has ever finished a season with a figure higher than .480. In the current century, only three players have had an average better than .400 over a 162-game-long season.
Trout will certainly come back to Earth a bit as more of his batted balls find their way into defenders’ gloves and get turned into outs. Even so, when we’re talking about Trout, “coming back to Earth” means he can still be the best player in baseball.
Trout’s career average on balls in play is .349, and the league average usually comes in around .300. Add in that he’s hitting for more power than just about anybody, and you get a picture of a player who, even in a reduced form, will keep putting up eye-popping numbers.
The only question: Will the Angels continue to waste his talents?
Mike Trout’s team has made just one playoff appearance in his tenure: the 2014 AL Division Series, which resulted in a sweep at the hands of the Kansas City Royals. Owner Arte Moreno has given the team the funds to make a handful of splashy free agent signings, but most of those have failed spectacularly (Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton), fallen short of expectations (C.J. Wilson), or not yet had time to help the team get over the hump (Anthony Rendon).
The Angels cut Pujols last week in the final year of a 10-year, $240 million contract that worked out miserably. The sour deal defined the team’s last decade—even while the Angels had one of the best players ever on their roster.
This year’s team is hovering just below .500 but should be pretty good. Fellow stars Shohei Ohtani and Rendon lead what should be a strong offense, and the club has a couple of useful starting pitchers in Dylan Bundy and Andrew Heaney. The projection systems at Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus give the Angels around a one-in-three chance to make the playoffs.
If they squander yet another year of Trout’s brilliance––and this arguably his most brilliant season yet––it’s not just a crime against Trout. It’s a crime against all baseball fans, who’d like nothing more than to watch the best player of this era play in games that matter in October.
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