Mike Trout's First Rival

May 9, 2018
We have all forced the comparison.
Having witnessed the precedent-defying start to Mike Trout’s major league career, all of us who write about baseball have tried to find a suitable rival for the game’s best player. For seasons one and two of Trout’s career, Miguel Cabrera served as his foil, winning consecutive MVP awards and a Triple Crown even as we rallied for Trout. In 2015 Bryce Harper made his challenge, winning an MVP and surviving a mid-season throttling by Jonathan Papelbon to claim the NL MVP. A lot of us assumed that this was Harper’s ascendency, but the Nationals outfielder followed up that breakout performance with a .243 batting average in 2016, and an injury-plagued 2017. Jose Altuve and Josh Donaldson have snuck MVP trophies under Trout’s watch, while Giancarlo Stanton and Kris Bryant both had years where they were the best players in the NL. But none of those players, great as they are, have quite drawn parallel to Mike Trout’s greatness. None of them have been adequate barroom challenges to Trout’s stake as the best player in baseball.
But we have - finally - a legitimate rival. Mookie Betts has distanced himself from the rest of the pack, and now stands as the one legitimate counter to Trout’s dominance. Mookie Betts is, just maybe,the best player in baseball.
*             *             *
Let’s start with the bowling.
I have written about bowling a fair bit about bowling on this site, and I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking I have any particular skill at the game. I’ve bowled a fair bit, and I’ve watched a few good bowlers bowl, but my own abilities are very limited.
But I know enough about the game to know that to be really good at bowling demands a combination of divergent skills, the least important being strength. You do not have to be ‘strong’ to be a decent bowler, and very few bowlers look classically strong. Go turn on the television at 7:00 am on a Sunday and check out the bowlers: you’ll see big guys and you will see rail-thin guys, but you won’t see jacked up, muscled men, because strength isn’t a central component to the sport.
What is important is a capacity to repeat a motion, over and over again. What’s important is the ability to repeat a motion and adjust that motion, ever so slightly. That’s the part where I failed as a bowler: I am inclined towards repetition, but I have little patience for ever-so-slight adjustments. I am not good at the finer details: I like to throw the damned ball and watch the pins pop.
And what is most important is having a mind that can deal with the tedium of repetition, and the capacity to shut out all external distraction and focus on process.
Mookie Betts has bowled ten 300 games. Approximately ten…he can’t remember the exact number. The most recent one occurred this offseason, during the World Series of bowling.
I’m sure I’ve made this point before, but I think that Betts’ ability to be an elite enough bowler to throw a perfect game in between baseball seasons speaks volumes about why he is such a magnificent player.
A baseball season is a grind. That is the most clichéd way to talk about the season, but it’s also the most accurate. A single game has about eight minutes of action, spread out over four hours. A major league player will endure 162 of those games, plus twenty pre-season games, and however many postseason games their team is lucky enough to play in. For those eight minutes of action, they will endure endless hours of practice, and hours of watching video, and hours of sitting in the clubhouse doing absolutely nothing. They will do this daily for seven or eight months, with very few breaks.
A football season, in contrast, has a natural sequence of ebbs and flows: a player’s focus will rise as the game approaches, and then ebb at it’s end. A baseball player gets no rise or ebb in the tides of their lives: they exist on a maddeningly calm sea.
There is a mental challenge that is unique to baseball, one that I haven’t adequately conveyed, and different players cope with it differently. Some players launch themselves full-force into those eight minutes of action: Yasiel Puig comes to mind in this regard. Some players clown around and have fun. David Ortiz had fun in the dugout. Hanley Ramirez does this: he jokes with everyone who reaches first base. Mike Trout is like this.
Some players try to cope with the tedium by adopting an uprightness of character, by being ‘professional.’ These are the guys who fixate on the unwritten ‘rules.’ Some guys get into patterns: they embrace the consistency of ritual. Think Wade Boggs eating chicken every day.
Mookie doesn’t do any of that. Or, he seems to do all of that…he will laugh in the dugout or celebrate a homer or get frustrated…but none of that seems to be his default temperament on the field. His default mode seems quiet, and internal: he plays as within himself as any player I’ve ever watched for a long period of time.
Betts has, I think, a bowler’s mind. Bowling is not a team sport: no one can raise or lower your score except yourself. It is a game that is entirely your own: there is no use knowing what the guy next to you is doing, because their strategy and execution is exclusively they’re own. All you have is yourself. All you can improve is yourself.
He is closer in kin to players like Williams and Hornsby. He plays with a focus that is inward, but he isn’t monomaniacal about it. Hornsby and Williams were indifferent to everything about baseball except hitting; Mookie Betts is a superb defensive outfielder and a gifted baserunner. Williams and Hornsby were jerks; Mookie has trouble getting booed in the Bronx.
When Betts came up, I remember reading an article that mentioned his bowling ability. The detail was used as color; as a little factoid to flush out the story of a decent prospect. What does bowling matter, after all? It’s the default sport of middle-aged men. It’s not anything to take seriously.
Well, I did take it seriously. When I read that Betts was a good bowler, I thought: this one’s going to turn out to be a good player. I thought that some part would transfer, that some part would show, and I’ve followed Betts’ career trying to see that part. I think I have seen it, and this is my attempt to explain it to you all.
I appreciate your tolerance.
*             *             *
Getting back to our main thesis.
Mike Trout’s greatness has always felt impenetrable because he was so young when he staked his claim as the game’s best player, and because he was so good at everything you could do on a baseball diamond. That first year of Trout’s was a fever dream: here’s a twenty-year old kid who can hit .320 with power, who’s fast enough to paces the league in stolen bases, and who makes a habit of robbing opponent of home runs by crashing the centerfield wall. Where are you going to better this guy? By what dimension of skill can you gain any kind of traction?
This is the reason that our expectations of Bryce Harper were so flawed: he is a year younger than Trout, and he might one day have stretches where he is a better hitter than Trout. But as a defensive player and a baserunner, he will always lag behind the Angels centerfielder. And this gets us off the hook with the magnificent Jose Altuve. The Houston second baseman won his MVP award in his Age-27 season last year…we won’t see Trout’s Age-27 season until 2019. Altuve’s career is out ahead of Trout: we are seeing his likely peak against Trout’s pre-peak seasons.  
Age is the first area where Mookie presents a real challenge to Trout. Betts is a year younger than Trout (and a week older than Bryce Harper), which means that he is, at least theoretically, a year further from the peak of his abilities. Trout has room to grow as a player (and he has shown a particularly Darwinian inclination towards adaption throughout the early stages of his career), but Mookie’s extra year gives him a little more room for growth.
And Mookie’s skills are more diverse than Trout’s. Mike Trout is a good defensive player, but aside from his spectacular rookie season, he’s never performed like an absolutely elite defender. That’s an exceptionally high bar to hold anyone to, of course, but Mookie Betts happens to be anexceptional defensive player: he has won consecutive Gold Gloves covering one of the toughest right fields in the game, and every metric we have at our disposal suggests that he is saving the Red Sox a lot of runs on defense.
And while Mike Trout is a brilliant baserunner, Mookie Betts has been a little more brilliant over the last couple seasons: Betts finished fourth in FanGraphs’ Baserunning Runs last year (behind Buxton, Hamilton, and Gordon). He finished first in 2016, ahead of…who else? Mike Trout.
The other gap in their respective performance…the gap that interests me the most…is their gap in walk and strikeout rates.  
Bill once wrote that George Sisler was the most compelling challenger to Lou Gehrig’s status as the greatest peak first baseman of all-time, because Sisler was the one first basemen whose game was different than Gehrig’s. Jimmie Foxx and Willie McCovey and Johnny Mize all had tremendous peak seasons, but they were all great in the same ways that Gehrig was great: they were trying to surpass Gehrig playing Gehrig’s game. Sisler was a compelling challenge to Gehrig because he was different: he didn’t mash homers, but he hit for much better averages, was a good defensive player, and ran the bases well. He wasn’t better than Gehrig, but the comparison was tougher because the skills weren’t directly comparable.
The same can be said about Trout and Betts. Trout is a better player than anyone else trying to play his game, but Mookie Betts doesn’t really play Trout’s game. Betts has good power, but it is unlikely that he will develop as a power hitter in the same way that Trout has. His ceiling as a power hitter isn’t the same ceiling that Trout has.
Mike Trout’s walk and strikeout percentages look like mostly sluggardly sluggers in our era:
Trout walks a little under 20% of the time, and he strikes out a little under 20% of the time. He is a Three-True-Outcomes slugger, living in a Three-True-Outcomes era.
Betts isn’t the same kind of hitter. Betts doesn’t walk as much as Trout does, but he also doesn’t strike out as frequently:
Betts is about half-a-Trout in both categories…he draws half the walks and gets half the punchouts. Incidentally, Trout is my new favorite unit of measure.
It will be interesting to how this difference plays out going forward. Who has more room to grow as a hitter, the hitter who matches the trends of his era or the hitter who bucks those trends? Who ages better? Where do their skills develop, and where do they deteriorate? And who will look like the better player when we’ve finally sorted through the reams of data about hit trajectories and win probabilities and adjustments for every context imaginable? If Trout is the best by WAR, which one will be the best by whatever comes after WAR?
I don’t know the answer. All I know is that Mike Trout, the absolute best player in baseball, finally has a compelling rival to his historic career.
Don’t look back, Mike. Mookie might be gaining on you.
Dave Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.  



COMMENTS (18 Comments, most recent shown first)

.....gotta say, Betts has just been doing even better since then.

(just came over from the other article where I said the same about Markakis)
10:06 PM May 18th
Dave: I doubt I was alone in seeing what you were saying very differently than that. If we want to talk about who at some moment is seeming to challenge Trout to be the best player in the game at this moment, there's a bunch of players we could have been talking about in these last few years, equally to what you're saying at this moment about Betts, and no less meaningfully. I think if you look with a very open mind through the article, you'll see that I was being far from overly literal in taking it more like how I took it.

This thing here reminds me pretty exactly of what we went through on your article 3 years ago about Michael Pineda being the best pitcher in baseball. You pointed out that you didn't mean what I and a fair number of others thought you seemed clearly to mean. In this case as in that one, frankly it simply does not look like it means what you're saying it means; I think you failed to put it in a way that means what you intended. I said under the other article that I could only surmise that you put it in a dramatic and exaggerated way in order to help capture interest, and I can only guess the same here - and that perhaps unbeknownst to you, it so dominated your content that your message came out differently than you intended.

It never occurred to me that what you might have meant was how you are now clarifying it, even after I started wondering hard, when you complained about the take that some of us had. At least to the extent I'm capable of seeing it, it seems to be at least somewhat more of a future-oriented thing than that, like, that maybe you meant that Betts has now made himself, rather than Harper, the most likely player to be the next-greatest star of the game behind Trout, without any implication of his being really close to Trout. If that was what you meant, fine also -- but I thought it was a stretch to see it that way either.

I appreciate the friendly tone you're taking, and I'm trying to do it too. I hope you won't feel that my asserting what I'm asserting is unfriendly, and that it may even be helpful to you to realize how you may sometimes strongly give the appearance of putting forth a far more extreme theme than you intended.
12:15 PM May 11th
Well...first, I like you just fine, Maris. If I had to get stuck talking baseball on a desert island, I could imagine a worse person to be stuck with. I don't think we see baseball in different ways.

But it sure seems like you have a tendency to read very literally sentences that aren't meant to be read literally. And it chafes at me, because instead of talking about something interest, I have to explain that of course it'd be dumb to directly compare Mookie Betts' career accomplishments to someone like Willie Mays.

The gist of the article is that Mookie Betts, at this specific moment in space and time, might be a better player than Mike Trout, and that his challenge to Trout's status as the best in the game might be the most compelling challenge Trout has faced, because Mookie is younger and better at so many dimensions of the game.

That's not to say Mookie Betts will have a CAREER better than Trout: no one would seriously suggest that Betts can close the sizable gap in terms of career value. It's just about right now...this moment, and the moments to follow. Of course Trout has been better than Betts....but is Mookie starting to pass him now?

10:21 AM May 11th
.....Actually, softening what I just said....

I guess it depends how you mean what you're saying about Betts and Trout. It looks (to me) like you're saying there's some fair chance of Betts having a comparable career to Trout, or at least being a comparable-level player over some significant period of time.

If you didn't mean that -- if all you meant was that there are some indications of it being possible -- fine.
But even in that case, I still don't see why you would have seen my initial replies as you did. They're about how Betts' career to date doesn't much suggest it.
5:30 PM May 10th
Dave: Sure, I read the whole thing, and in turn, I have to wonder if you read my whole comments. :-)
Or at least whether you 'got' them.

As I think is pretty clear right down there, my main point was to show how it seems a stretch to be viewing Betts as you're saying.
The Mays and Mantle stuff was included as a way of showing how it's a stretch to view Betts as you are.

Look: You're saying it's looking like Betts, in relation to Trout, is the closest thing right now to Mantle's Mays (or Mays's Mantle; either one).

What I talked about is how Betts's career trajectory is not comparable to any of those guys.

If you'd like, maybe you can explain how you think that is mistaken.
Maybe also why you're so hair-trigger sensitive, often without real basis, to such commentary on your articles.
5:10 PM May 10th

Anyway....ermm.....just babbling through the awkward silence....ho, humm.....

I went to high school with a kid who was average to small sized, a little muscular but not enough to get your attention, didn't play for high school teams.....but the kid was the star whatever he did. Bowled 300 games regularly. Scratch golfer. Whatever sport you were playing, basketball, pool, baseball, ping-pong he would do something amazing.

He could have probably been a pro at anything he set his mind to.....I'll wager Mookie was like that.
3:15 PM May 10th

Anyway....ermm.....just babbling through the awkward silence....ho, humm.....

I went to high school with a kid who was average to small sized, a little muscular but not enough to get your attention, didn't play for high school teams.....but the kid was the star whatever he did. Bowled 300 games regularly. Scratch golfer. Whatever sport you were playing, basketball, pool, baseball, ping-pong he would do something amazing.

He could have probably been a pro at anything he set his mind to.....I'll wager Mookie was like that.
3:15 PM May 10th
Hey Dave! (which would be a great feature name)

I think the bowling analogy for spotting a player works if the pins are being fired at you at 98 mph, or you have to sprint 30 feet to throw the spare.

Hitting and fielding are what I call reactionful (TM: OBS, 2017) skills. Bowling is highly unreactionful (TM: OBS, 2018.)

However, it fits brilliantly with a pitcher....a repetitive arm/body motion with slight tactical hand adjustments. Pretty much the best analogy ever.
2:22 PM May 10th
I just want to point out to the two readers posting stuff about Mays and Mantle: you are arguing about the lede, not about anything in the article itself.

I suppose it's everyone's prerogative to spin out their reactions in whatever direction seems relevant to them, but I'm concerned about the staggering rigidity of your minds. Did you read the whole article assuming I was going to seriously compare Betts with Willie Mays? Did you, after reading an entire article that made no mention of either player, just assume that I just forgot all about that point, in the swirl of bowling talk? Did it ever cross your minds that maybe I wasn't making a direct comparison in that lede, that maybe I was using Mantle/Mays as a frame for a different conversation, or did you just skip the article entirely, and jump right to the comments section so you could bravely counter a claim I never made?

I am not asking out of ire, but genuine concern. I wonder: is this how you conduct yourself in public? Do you, in conversations with loved one or strangers, ever actually listen to other people, or do you just listen to fixate on misspoken words or trivial error, so you can be the corrective force that everyone so loves at a cocktail party?

Thanks for all the bowling responses. Metsfan17 is right that 300 games are more commonplace. When Betts said that he had tossed about 10 perfect games, he qualified it by starting that his total wasn't very impressive.

And Bob/Fireball is right: I should have clarified that I was speaking about the lesser version of bowling, practiced by people outside of New England. Candlepin is the truest version of the game, and the only one worth discussing at length.
12:11 PM May 10th
I was exploring players' doppelgängers a while back, and with Trout my first thought was Mantle, of course -- not only is their game quite similar, but they even look alike. However, when I looked closely, I realized that the young Trout has been substantially better than the young Mantle was (before 1956 of course) -- as amazing as that is. The best comp I could find for Trout's impact at a young age was Ty Cobb, even though he was a different kind of player in a very different era.

Betts looks great, and he's playing terrifically this season, but he'll need to keep it up consistently before he can really be considered at Trout's level.
11:42 AM May 10th
Fireball Wenz
I thought this article was going to be about regular bowling, not that kind with the three holes in the ball where they clear the wood out between balls.

Bob from Boston
11:28 AM May 10th
Seconding MarisFan's motion.

Career paths measured in WAA (using DRA fielding) from my new book, [i] Baseball Greatness[i]:

Mantle (beginning 1951) -0.4 6.1 3.2 3.3 7 8.8 9.4 5.7 (at age 26)

Mays (beginning 1951, skipping 1952-3): 2.9 9.2 (1954) 7.1 5.8 6.6 (age 26)

Aaron (beginning 1954) -0.3 4.1 5.4 6.1 6.2 6.2 (at age 26)

Trout (beginning 2012): 7.5 6.6 6.5 6 6.6 5 (at age 25)

All of these guys broke in when they were 20, except Mantle, who was only 19.

Mookie Betts (beginning 2015, age 22): 1.7 6 3.9

Betts is on the pace to have a season comparable to Mays or Mantle's best, but the season is less than 1/4 over.

Although Trout's best is not the equal of either Mantle's or Mays's, overall I would say that he is better, through age 25, than either one of them. (Although in Mays's case that's only because of the two years Willie missed.) He looks most similar to me to Aaron but he got started a year earlier and at a higher level than Aaron did. (Physically, by the way, Betts really reminds me of Aaron, although he's a little smaller.)

The only player in the history of baseball who began his career with four seasons better than Trout's was Ted Williams, who also broke in at 20:

6.1 6.1 8.8 10.6 (in 1942)

Ted missed his next three years, of course, and then came back with four even better ones after the war: 10.3, 9.5, 7.9, 7.9. Then he hurt himself in 1950.

Mays, Aaron, and to a lesser extent Mantle managed to sustain superstar performance (4 WAA or more) over 30, and in Mays's case, even when he was 40, thanks largely to two rounds of expansion, which improved them relative to the league. (The same effect would show up with win shares.) Trout isn't going to get that break. He also won't have the same economic incentive to keep himself in top shape, once he signs his next contract. But he definitely looks like one of the greatest of all time at this point. He's already overqualified for the Hall of Fame. Betts appears to be in his second HOF caliber season now. I don't think he's going to be in the same class as the others.
10:08 AM May 10th
Marc Schneider
I agree with all the comments about bowling. It's a great sport although I don't bowl much anymore. I find something primal about watching all those pins go down. Plus, bowling is one of the few sports in which there is the possibility of perfection,ie, the 300 game. I guess baseball is the only other one with that, maybe a hole-in-one in golf but that's one hole.

My other comment is about Harper. I'm a Nats fan and really enjoy watching Harper player. I've seen him hit true bombs. When he is on, he is a joy to watch on the bases and at bat. But, having said that, I'm increasingly coming to believe he is one of the most overrated players in baseball. His ups and downs are almost mind-boggling. He goes through periods, as he is now, where he seemingly has no idea how to hit the ball. Every player does that but Harper has so many of them. In my view, while he may be as talented as Trout, he is not in the same area code as far as his performance and his mechanics seem to constantly fall out of whack. Now, maybe he is like Mickey Mantle, who, until his breakout 1956, was considered something of a disappointment. Maybe Harper will one day-possibly with another team-break through into true superstardom. But I don't think he is there yet and, frankly, I wouldn't give him the mega-contract that everyone assumes he is going to get. I don't know about Mookie Betts and whether he can be the Mays to Trout's Mantle, but I do know it isn't Harper. People pretent that Harper is a truly great player and he is not. Anthony Rendon is a far more consistent player for the Nats.
8:34 AM May 10th
Thank you for writing about bowling. I've been bowling in leagues for 46 years now and I still love to bowl. It just doesn't get any respect. You were right around the reasons why 300s are much more common than when I or you started bowling. Lane conditions have definitely gotten much better. But it is the bowing balls themselves that have completely changed the game. The balls today are so much stronger than they were in the past that it allows even people who don't really have tremendous physical games to hook the ball and carry strikes they wouldn't have in the past. And of course, the equipment has enabled great bowlers to strike even more than they would have with the old equipment. Still bowling 300 is a great thing.
7:56 PM May 9th
It takes a lot to compensate for the difference at the plate. 173-125 OPS is huge. Yes, Betts is a better fielder, better baserunner, but, I'll take the 48 points of OPS and let you try to catch me. It's not like Trout is Dave Kingman out there..
7:12 PM May 9th
As usual, a thought provoking, well written article. I see you are now living in Western Virginia; I hope that means you got a great gig teaching at one of the colleges out there.

I love the parallels drawn between baseball and bowling. I have thought about parallels between bowling and golf (turkey = birdie, spare = bogey, open frame = double bogey). Your observations about repetition and adjustment are spot on.
6:58 PM May 9th
....Let's look at some career trajectories by Win Shares, age 21-24
(Mantle and Mays data from thebaseballgauge)

Mantle: 26, 36, 41, 49
Mays: (age 21 just partial and age 22 blank b/c army, then:) 39, 38
Trout: 40, 40, 42, 35
Betts: 8 (for 1/3 of a yr), 23, 29, 26

In guessing that Betts joins this group, you're saying that his 1/5 of a season this year is more indicative than his total career path to date.

Harper: 9 (for 2/3 of a yr), 38, 20, 22 (for 2/3 of a yr)

Actually, re what I said about "dips and holes," Harper's are pretty significant, maybe especially about being able to stay in the lineup.
Compared to that, Betts doesn't have dips and holes; it's just that while his first couple of years suggested that superstar-type years were on the way, they didn't happen (till maybe this year) he didn't have any superstar-type years, while Harper has had one, plus another one that was at that level as long as he was on the field.
5:43 PM May 9th
Golly, you've written about BOWLING before?
Can't believe I didn't notice (or don't remember). I love reading about bowling. I spent some years structuring day of my life around (1) bowling league, and then (2) TV telecasts with Chris Schenkel and Nelson Burton Jr.
Keep 'em coming. :-)

To the subject: I'd say Betts has a significantly weaker claim to 'main contender' than Harper does.
Of course all that you say about Betts is true in theory, and in practice so far this year. But, looking at his overall career trajectory -- looking at him year-by-year -- he has the same kinds of dips and holes in his path as Harper, only more so. I'd say it's more likely that this-year-so-far is a bump in the curve than that it foretells how he'll be.

BTW, about his ten 300 games (or however many it is): For the benefit of whoever else on here was raised on bowling in yesteryear, which I think includes a few people :-) ....it's much easier and more common nowadays to bowl perfect games than it used to be. I don't mean it's chopped liver to have 10 of them, just that it doesn't mean anything like what it used to. I'm not sure what all the reasons are. I know that one of them is that balls have more pizzazz; there also might be stuff about how lanes are maintained, including that it's possible at least at some venues that they're oiled or even maybe somewhat 'grooved' in a way that there's an increased chance to keep getting the ball nicely in the pocket; maybe also something about composition of pins. I'm guessing on all those latter things, but not on the ball, and not on what "300" means comparatively for the different times in history. I'm not sure this applies to pro bowling situations -- I'd guess it doesn't!! -- but for everyday amateur bowling, that's how it is.
5:04 PM May 9th
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