Friday, May 20, 2011

A Historical Perspective on Mike Trout

By Jonathan Northrop - Columnist

The Phenom
If you don’t know the name “Mike Trout” then you very soon will. He was the 25th pick in the 2009 Amateur Draft, a compensation pick for the loss of Mark Teixeira. He quickly impressed in 44 minor league games at age 17, hitting .352/.419/.486, mainly in Rookie ball. But it wasn’t until the following year that he began to turn heads. In 81 games in low-A Cedar Rapids, he hit .362/.454/.526 and was promoted to A+ Rancho Cucamonga where, in 50 games, he hit .306/.388/.434, finishing the year with an impressive .341/.428/.490 line, plus 56 stolen bases and 73 walks – superb numbers for any player at any level, but moreso for an 18-year old against pitchers usually 3-4 years older.

By the end of 2010, Trout was considered one of the very best prospects in baseball, the best by some (including Keith Law), and compared to players such as Grady Sizemore by Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein and, by one anonymous scout, Mickey Mantle (!). Expectations were somewhat tempered when the Angels decided to start him in AA, a lonely 19-year old in the high minors. The general view was that he would start slow, struggle, and then do well and maybe earn a late season promotion to AAA. I for one would have been happy to see him produce similar numbers to his performance in Rancho Cucamonga – certainly impressive for a player of his age in AA.

Mike Trout has, once again, exceeded expectations. Through 35 games played he is hitting .313/.409/.565 with 18 extra base hits (including 6 HR, more than half his 2010 total), 9 stolen bases, and 19 walks.

I knew this kid was special but what I wanted to know was how special, so I posed the question: How many 19-year olds put up a .900+ OPS in the high minors (AA and AAA)? And of those that do, how many go on to be stars, quality regulars, or end up flaming out? Not knowing where to turn, I eventually stumbled upon’s Minor League Batting Leaders and quickly realized that I was going to have to do some leg work. So I sorted each year by OPS, then by age, and looked for any teenager who had a .900+ OPS in AA or AAA, going back 25 years. Why 25 years? I wanted to make sure that I included any players that might be playing in the major leagues now or in recent memory – so I went back to the early minor league careers of Ken Griffey Jr and Gary Sheffield, but not much further.

The Findings
First of all, there are 60 AA or AAA teams with approximately 15 position players per team each year (this is conservative in that players get called up and move through, but some of those players play in both AA and AAA; the exact number is not important – an approximation will do). That means that about 900 position players play in AA or AAA in any given year. It also means that over a 25-year period, about 22,500 position player seasons occur in AA or AAA (a “player season” means that a single player could have multiple seasons within those 25 years, thus there would theoretically be somewhat less than 22,500 actual players). Let’s reduce the number somewhat for expansion teams and say that there have been approximately 20,000 player seasons in AA or AAA in the last 25 years.

So the question is, how many of those 20,000 player seasons were by a teenager with a .900+ OPS in at least 100 PA? The answer I found was shocking: only eleven seasons by ten players. In other words, only 11 times out of 20,000 in the last 25 years has a teenager hit for a .900+ OPS in AA or AAA in at least 100 PA – that’s one in 1,818, or 0.55% of all AA and AAA position players!

Ten Tremendous Teenagers
So who are these players? Without further ado:

Mike Trout: .974 in 35 AA games (through May 18)

Jason Heyward: 1.057 in 47 AA games (.963 overall in 99 games in A+/AA/AAA)
Jesus Montero: .909 in 44 AA games (.951 overall in 92 A+/AA games)

Justin Upton: .955 in 71 AA games (.961 overall in 103 A+/AA games, played 43 games in the majors, with a .647 OPS)

Adrian Beltre: .992 in 64 AA games (played 77 games in the majors, with a .648 OPS)

Andruw Jones: 1.107 in 38 AA games (1.072 overall in 116 A+/AA/AAA games, played 31 games in the majors with a .709 OPS)

Karim Garcia: .912 in 124 AAA games (played 13 games in the majors, with a .400 OPS)
Alex Rodriguez: 1.065 in 54 AAA games (playe 48 games in the majors, with a .672 OPS)

Alex Rodriguez: .948 in 32 AAA games (.953 overall in 114 A/AA/AAA games; also played 17 games in the majors, hitting .445 OPS)

Gary Sheffield: .974 overall in 134 AA/AAA games (played 24 major league games with a .695 OPS)

Gregg Jeffries: 1.021 in 134 AA games (played 6 major league games)

A remarkable list, to say the least. First of all, Jesus Montero is still in the minor leagues, waiting for his chance with the New York Yankees, so it is too soon to comment on him. Jason Heyward had an excellent first year in 2010 at age 20, hitting .277/.393/.456 in 142 games for the Atlanta Braves, an All-Star and finishing 2nd in the NL Rookie of the Year voting behind Buster Posey. Justin Upton is the only other player from the last decade and he, despite an off year in 2010, is establishing himself as one of the better young outfielders in the game.

Going back a generation, you have Adrian Beltre, Andruw Jones, Karim Garcia, and Alex Rodriguez. Beltre and Jones have both had long careers, mainly as star-caliber, occasional All-Stars. Both will probably be borderline Hall of Famers once their careers are finished. Alex Rodriguez, of course, is one of the greatest players in the history of the game and has the honor of being responsible for two of the eleven seasons, and the only one in the last 25 years at age 18. Going back a bit further and you have Gary Sheffield and Gregg Jeffries. Sheffield will be a Hall of Famer; Jeffries, while somewhat of a disappointment considering his minor league record and hype (he was more highly regarded than Sheffield, if I remember correctly), still had a very good career, hitting .289/.344/.421 in 1465 games.

The real outlier of the group is Karim Garcia, who was a remarkable young player in the Dodgers organization that, despite destroying minor league pitching, was stuck behind Todd Hollandsworth and Raul Mondesi at the corner positions. When he got his first real chance at age 22 he didn’t make much of it and was a journeyman platoon player for about ten years, out of major league baseball at age 28 (he is now 35, playing in the Mexican League).

It is hard to make definitive statements about a group of ten players. We can say that all have or had world-class talent. All had major league careers of one kind or another, and all except Garcia had or are likely to have very good careers. While it is too soon to say what kind of careers the youngest four will have, of the older six you have two sure-fire Hall of Famers (Rodriguez and Sheffield), two multi-year All-Stars and possible borderline Hall of Famers (Beltre and Jones), one quality regular (Jeffries), and one disappointing flame-out (Garcia).

How Good Will Trout Be?
So just looking at those six players, one could say that Trout has a 1-in-3 chance of being a disappointment, either a flame-out or quality regular, a 1-in-3 chance of being a borderline Hall of Famer, and a 1-in-3 chance of being a truly great, Hall of Fame player (the same, of course, goes for Montero, Heyward, and Upton, and one would guess, Bryce Harper). But again, the numbers are just too small to make that kind of prediction. That said, given his overall skill package—a player who projects to be very good in just about every aspect of the game, except perhaps his throwing arm—I have a hard time seeing less than a star caliber player. He may not be a superstar, but he will certainly be a good player, and probably a star.

What can we say about Trout with some degree of certainty? First of all, that he’s in elite company. There are many teenagers who have had .900+ OPS seasons in the minors, but the vast majority of them were in the low minors – Rookie, low-A or Advanced A. We can also say that, given the track record of the other nine players, there is a good chance that Trout—if he continues at a .900 OPS pace—will be promoted to the majors later this year. Of the other nine players, only Montero and Heyward did not play a major league game in their age 19 season.

It is also worth noting that none of them were particularly successful in the majors at age 19. The seven that played in the majors played between 6 and 77 games in their age 19 season, and none—at least none of those with more than a few at-bats; Jeffries had 6 in his 6 games—produced more than a .709 OPS. The point being, while Trout will probably be called up for a cup o’ coffee, there is little chance that he will do anything more than hold his own.

What about 2012, his age 20 season? Well, some of the other nine took a few years to catch on (Jeffries, Garcia), some did fairly well (Upton, Sheffield, Beltre, Jones), one very well (Heyward), and then there was Alex Rodriguez’s ridiculous .363/.414/.631 line, one of the best age 20 seasons in major league history. Given Trout’s performance so far in AA, it is very likely that next year will be his true rookie year and that he will play the majority of the season, if not all of it, in Anaheim. But we shouldn’t expect star caliber performance…yet.

So as excited as I am, as we are, for Mike Trout, we should be patient. We will see him soon but we won’t really see his star shine for another couple years. And will it shine bright? The real question is how bright will he shine. And the answering of that question is what we, as Angels fans, can look forward to in the years to come. Let the Trout Era commence!
Love to hear what you think!

Listen to "A Fish Like This" Tribute song to Mike Trout's Greatness

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