Mike Trout probably isn’t going to win the MVP today. I’ll be honest with you: It’s hard for me to care very much. I know that it would mean something to Trout, and I know we’re all supposed to rail against arguments we disagree with, and I do disagree with the argument that Trout isn’t the league’s most valuable player. I just don’t see how it really matters. All Trout’s missing is a piece of hardware, and a nice moment with his friends and family. As recognition goes, he’s already widely recognized as the best player in the game. Even the people who don’t vote for him say that. And, down the line, Trout’s numbers will speak for themselves. His Hall-of-Fame candidacy won’t come down to the number of awards he picked up. Voters look beyond that, and, even more importantly, Trout’s unlikely to be a borderline case. He’s on track to coast into Cooperstown, and he’s on track to be one of the best players ever. Everybody sees that, and missing an award won’t slow him down.
In a way, Trout might even benefit from not winning. An award, sure, is an excuse to try to appreciate a great player. But when Trout finishes second or third, then people get to argue the voting’s unjust. The conversation revolves around Trout, and it sheds light on how much better he is than the rest of his teammates. In short, when MVP voting comes around, Trout’s greatness is widely broadcast. People hear about it, regardless of who actually wins the damn thing.
I now want to touch on that greatness one more time. One thing that separates great players from good ones is that great players are never satisfied. Every player is to some degree motivated, but the great players make improvements. If you look at Trout, along the line, he improved his power hitting. He improved his contact ability, and he improved his approach. He improved against high fastballs. There’s recently been one more improvement. We’re pretty much out of things that Mike Trout doesn’t do.
This is easy. Does Mike Trout make contact? Yes, Mike Trout makes contact.
Does Mike Trout hit for power? Yes, Mike Trout hits for power.
Does Mike Trout know how to walk? Yes, Mike Trout draws his walks.
Does Mike Trout steal bases? Yes, Mike Trout steals bases.
Does Mike Trout run the bases well in general? Yes, Mike Trout is good overall on the bases.
Does Mike Trout field well at a premium position? Yes, Mike Trout is a pretty good center fielder.
Does Mike Trout stay on the field? Yes, Mike Trout has almost never missed a game.
Now, I can’t speak to anything behind the scenes. It’s possible, I guess, that Trout is still growing into some kind of leadership position. Maybe he could be a better teammate? Maybe he’s already the best teammate. In terms of performance on the field, there was always one persistent negative. When Trout arrived, he didn’t feature that good of a throwing arm. It’s what kept him from being a true five-tool player. Well, the arm got better. It’s not great. Not by our measurements. But it’s fine. Mike Trout is out of negatives.
This table has everything you need. We have two different arm ratings — one based on Defensive Runs Saved, and one based on Ultimate Zone Rating. They tend to be similar, but I’ve included them both. For the last column, I calculated the average of the two, and then I ranked out of all outfielders with at least 1,000 innings.
|Seasons||Innings||DRS Arm||DRS Arm/1000||UZR Arm||UZR Arm/1000||Assists||Assists/1000||Percentile|
|2011 – 2014||4140||-15||-3.6||-13||-3.0||7||1.7||9%|
|2015 – 2016||2623||0||0.0||0||-0.1||14||5.3||48%|
Over the first 3+ years of Trout’s career, his arm was a problem. It wasn’t a huge problem — he was still the best player in baseball, and the best and worst arms are worth only a handful of runs in a season. This is a secondary skill. Yet you see Trout there ranking in the ninth percentile, among outfielders. That’s the bottom tenth. Every so often, Trout would cost the Angels a run. Now look at the last two years. To be clear, Trout’s arm isn’t good, relatively speaking. Not by these measurements. But the arm has jumped up to league-average. There’s not really anything sexy about saying Mike Trout has a new league-average skill, but considering where he used to be, this is fairly remarkable. As Trout has gotten older, the arm is no longer a negative.
It’s not like Trout didn’t know he had a weakness. Here’s an article from all the way back in April 2014. Trout, even then, was hard at work trying to improve how he threw. He was feeling good this most recent April. An excerpt from that recap of a game in which Trout recorded an assist against Adam Lind:
Arm strength used to be considered the only tool Trout lacked. But as he’s gotten older, and maintained his long-toss routine with right fielder Kole Calhoun, Trout’s throwing arm has actually become a weapon. He thinks it’s gotten “a lot better” since his first full season in 2012 and he’s even seen improvements from last year, when he recorded a career-high seven assists.
There’s not that much you can do to improve a throwing arm, as an outfielder. So much of it comes down to optimizing your throwing mechanics, and cementing those motions through consistent long-toss programs. We don’t have any Statcast information from before 2015, so we don’t know how Trout was throwing in his weaker days. We have to go by the information we do have, and it does paint a rosy picture.
I should caution you that outfield assists can sometimes mislead. For example, on this play, Trout got credit for an assist, even though it was Andrelton Simmons who made the convincing deke.
But misleading assists might balance out. I don’t know why Trout would be more able to get misleading assists now than he used to be. And it’s not like he hasn’t gotten his primary assists. As weird as this sentence is, behold Trout gunning down Clayton Kershaw at third!
Mike Trout doesn’t have the best throwing arm in baseball. He doesn’t even have the best throwing arm on his team. While his arm has taken a significant step forward, it’s still perhaps the least impressive of all of Trout’s skills. When you think about what he can do, throwing well might be the last thing that comes to mind. But there’s also some insight here to be gleaned. When a younger Mike Trout was the best player in baseball, he still had this one little problem. He made it a point of his focus, and it’s not a problem anymore. At this point, Mike Trout doesn’t have a single negative. The best players in baseball are allowed to have negatives, but the best of the best never stop trying to improve. The quality of his teammates be damned, the only thing Trout can control is Trout himself. He’s showing the world the best Mike Trout that he possibly can.