I had one of those interesting debates that always seems to happen on Twitter. Someone asked a question about who was the greatest hitter of our generation and the answers tended towards the usual suspects. The name left out was the one the shocked me the most. No one mentioned the name Albert Pujols. It seemed shocking considering he just surpassed 2000 RBI this season and has over 600 home runs.
If we adjust that for our purposes, we know that he is currently the second most valuable first baseman in history according to the Hall of Fame Index. Normally, we would say he has time to get to the top spot, but the last several seasons have shown that he is spinning his wheels in terms of value.
This brings us to the topic of the conversation. Why do we wait ten seasons to include players in the index? The player most mentioned in that poll was Mike Trout of the Angels. Yes, he is currently the best player in the game. At least he is when we consider multiple seasons. I didn’t mention him because he just hasn’t been doing it long enough. I remember watching him come up in 2011.
Is he a Hall of Famer? I would say the Vegas odds are pretty good at this point considering his index score would already put him there. However, making such a prognostication ignores all of the possibilities that could occur from this point forward. Let’s compare Trout through season eight to other prominent players in history through season eight and tell me what you notice. I’ll ignore the index and simply go with OPS+.
Player A: 171
Player B: 175
Player C: 164
Who are these three? Well, we know Pujols and Trout (A and B), but what about Dick Allen? Allen wasn’t quite as good as those two, but he was pretty darn close through year nine of his career. Add in another season and he was pretty darn good through year ten. What happened to him after that? Well, it was a variety of things. We could blame it on injuries, but there was also a portion that could be attributed to the fact that teams got tired of dealing with him.
Every position has guys like Allen. I could make a veritable all-star team of players that could be Hall of Famers that fell off the table for one reason or another. We can start from one of the players currently active. Has anyone been tracking what has happened to Buster Posey lately? Two years ago he looked like one of the greatest catchers in the history of the game. It’s been a disaster since then. So, let’s take a look at the greats through their first eight full seasons and what happened to them after that. We will look merely at bWAR just for fun.
Catcher: Buster Posey (38.3 vs 3.1)
First Base: Don Mattingly (34.4 vs 8.0)
Second Base: Carlos Baerga (20.6 vs -1.0)
Third Base: David Wright (39.1 vs. 11.3)
Shortstop: Nomar Garciaparra (42.3 vs 1.9)
Left Field: Albert Belle (36.2 vs. 3.9)
Center Field: Cesar Cedeno (39.8 vs. 13.0)
Right Field: Tony Oliva (42.2 vs. 0.9)
What does all of this have to do with Trout? Well, these were all players that most of us would have sworn would be Hall of Famers after their first eight full seasons. Well, Baerga may be an exception there, but you get the idea. Anything can happen at any time. Trout may turn into one of these guys. He could turn into another Pujols and that wouldn’t be all that bad either.
A large part of the calculus of determining who is the best at anything depends greatly on how that player ages. We don’t know that in Trout’s case. He is at the heighth of his powers and that is a horrible time to judge anything. We can apply complex mathematical models to guess how he might age, but there is really no telling what might happen. He might age like Willie Mays or Ted Williams and he might age like one of the guys above. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but that guesswork short changes not only everyone else, but Trout himself.
He deserves the opportunity to continue his career. When he gets to the ten year mark we will start profiling him in earnest, but even then he deserves the benefit of enjoying a full career arc before we make any lasting declarations. That’s all part of the process and all eight guys above serve as cautionary tales.