The Complicated Legacy of Mike Trout

How will Mike Trout be remembered when it's all said and done?

Over a lifetime following baseball, we get to learn about the history of the sport and the handful of players who appeared to truly transcend the game. Hearing about the likes of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Bob Feller, Nolan Ryan, and other inner-circle Hall of Famers is integral to the experience of baseball, as the ever-evolving sport relies on the connection between the past and the present like no other. While the ’90s and early 2000s were not short on stars and memorable players, the next decade gave us Mike Trout, who appeared to be our generation’s defining player – a true baseball chosen one.

After a brief debut in 2011 showed only flashes of his potential, the Millville Meteor burst onto the scene with a historic 2012 season, leading the league in WAR and only finishing second in MVP voting because Miguel Cabrera completed a hitting triple crown. Undeterred, Trout followed that up by remaining the WAR king during the next four seasons and in offensive WAR in six of the next seven, winning three MVP awards and finishing second on the other three occasions. His only “down” season in that stretch came in 2017 when a torn thumb ligament limited Trout to 114 games, but even then he ended the season with 33 homers and a fourth-place finish in MVP voting.

While that meteoric rise was not complemented by playoff success, that was explained mostly by how the Angels handled the rest of their roster, as the legend of Mike Trout appeared to be on pace to become one of the best players, if not the best, of all time.

He was a five-tool player in every sense of the concept, constantly able to make adjustments and up his game when needed the most, with a sweet swing, above-average speed, and the occasionally spectacular defense. In 2019, he signed a contract extension that essentially linked him to the Angels for life, and despite making him the highest-paid player in MLB, he still seemed underpaid.

The shortened 2020 season was the first obstacle in allowing Trout to accrue even more historic totals, but even that historical anomaly was not able to slow him down, with a .993 OPS and 17 homers in 53 games. With ten seasons in MLB, Trout could have retired after 2020 and still be considered a first-ballot Hall of Famer, as his 2011-2020 totals are simply ridiculous when placed on a plaque:

1,252 games, 944 runs, 1,380 hits, 302 homers, 798 RBI, 201 stolen bases, 1.000 OPS, 8-time All-Star, 3-time AL MVP, 8 Silver Sluggers, 74.3 bWAR

Entering his age-29 season and paired with another supreme talent in Shohei Ohtani, it all appeared set for Mike Trout and the Angels to begin the second half of his career and start climbing the all-time leaderboards and probably getting to that elusive playoff presence. Instead, what has happened since has been a baseball tragedy, with a timeline of mishaps and start-and-stops that have placed a real dent in Trout’s all-time standing in baseball lore.

2021 – calf strain – 36 games, .333/.466/.624, 8 homers, 1.8 WAR
2022 – back inflammation – 119 games, .283/.369/.630, 40 homers, 6.2 WAR
2023 – broken hamate – 82 games, .263/.367/.490, 18 homers, 2.9 WAR

The start of 2024, now without Ohtani on the roster, saw Trout squash any talk of possible trades and recommit himself to the Angels, hoping to squash the recent seasons full of missed games. It all started promisingly, at least on an individual level, with Trout leading the AL in homers and stealing six bases. Even as the Angels were not winning much, the hope of a rejuvenated Trout appeared enough to breathe life into the franchise and baseball fans in general.

Alas, a new ailment stopped this development in frustrating fashion, as a torn meniscus that required surgery is expected to keep Trout out of the lineup for at least three months. Facing a fourth straight season with limited at-bats and plenty of uncertainty around his future, it has become fair to question his place in baseball history. As the old adage holds, sometimes the best ability is availability, and the reality of four straight seasons without a franchise player at full power starts creating questions about his legacy, not to mention the competitive standing of the team itself.

The glass-hall-full approach to this stretch of Trout’s constant absences says that he is still an elite player, able to produce at the highest level when he is on the field. Counting this season’s numbers, he has amassed a .951 OPS since 2021, with 76 homers in 266 games. His WAR per 650 plate appearances over that span stands at a lofty 6.9, which is a step below his prime, but still would place him among the game’s best.

Also, all of the major injuries that have sapped Trout’s playing time have been unrelated and almost unlucky in how they have happened, suggesting that with better conditioning and better fortune, there should be no lingering effects when he manages to come back yet again. He will also turn 33 later in the season, which is not all that old in baseball standards, especially for such a generational player.

On the other hand, when a player’s body starts breaking down constantly, it is fair to question the future in many ways. In the case of Trout, there is no denying his accomplishments, but his place among baseball’s upper echelon has taken a massive hit. Entering 2021, it seemed all but inevitable that the decade would see Mike Trout reaching some of the sport’s hallowed milestones, from 3,000 hits to 600 homers, while also challenging some of the modern evaluation holy grails, including the 150-WAR mark. There are still scenarios where all that happens and Trout’s induction in Cooperstown becomes a historic event, but it’s becoming harder and harder to believe that.

When you add the factor of the Angels and their continued lack of success, it also becomes easy to minimize some of Trout’s legacy, even if it is unfair to him. Unless he suddenly changes course and demands a trade, it looks unlikely that Trout can win anything of significance from a team standpoint, as the Angels continue to live without a plan in a division where most teams appear to know what they are doing.

Baseball purists will certainly laud a one-team player, but even someone as great as Trout would become a perennial “what if” should he close his career without any signature playoff moment, let alone a pennant or championship.

You could argue that players like Ted Williams, Tony Gwynn, Ichiro, and Barry Bonds finished their careers without playoff glory, but in an age of expanded playoffs and player empowerment, it will become easy to label Trout’s arc as incomplete unless he leads his team to the promised land or has a career renaissance and reaches some of the aforementioned milestones and accomplishments.

With six more seasons after 2024, for which he will earn well over $200 million in salary, there is still plenty of time for Mike Trout to rediscover his form and rewrite his story. Just as there are few historical comps for a player who misses almost half the potential games in his early thirties, there are even fewer historical precedents for a player like Trout, and that should be enough source of optimism during the back-end of his career.

Baseball Reference’s similarity scores are always a fun way to compare players among eras, and Trout’s age-31 top 10 most similar players include six Hall of Famers and Barry Bonds, which truly speaks of the elite company that he will keep regardless of how the next chapter plays out. Some early chatter after the latest injury revolves around the parallels between Trout and Ken Griffey Jr., who similarly was on a historic pace in his twenties only to be slowed down by injuries and ultimately became an all-timer instead of a Mount Rushmore kind of player.

If such a fate ends up being what befalls Mike Trout, it would be a letdown for sure, but just as with Griffey, it would never diminish our memories of his early years and his exploits on the diamond. The book is still open for the next decade, hoping for Trout to leave his injury woes behind, even if he has to DH more constantly and focus on his endurance. There is enough evidence that his hitting approach and talent remain elite, and therein lies the hope of us seeing the best player of his generation as he approaches legendary status.

If the Angels chip in with a decent supporting cast and at least one memorable October run, that would be swell, too.

Pablo Figueroa

Pablo Figueroa is a Baseball Writer here at Pitcher List, with experience as a writer since 2013. He lives in Aguascalientes, Mexico - proud home of Los Rieleros. When he´s not thinking about baseball , he's a husband, owns two dogs, watches random episodes of The Sopranos , plays padel, and works on his day job to pay the bills.

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