Mike Trout's season began with a 6-4-3 double play in Oakland. He didn't, to his credit, ground into a triple play, which was technically possible in that situation. He didn't injure a teammate or accidentally reveal his club's signs. Otherwise, though, it was the most damaging thing he could have done. He hadn't yet played any defense in 2017, he hadn't yet run the bases, and if you looked briefly at him walking back to the Angels' dugout, you'd have seen a near-optical illusion: Mike Trout was the least valuable player in baseball.
Of course, Trout is pretty much always the most valuable player in baseball. Since his first full season, in 2012, this has been close to inevitable. He has led the majors in WAR, as computed by Baseball-Reference, in all five of his full seasons; as computed by FanGraphs, four times; as computed by Baseball Prospectus, twice. He has never finished lower than second on any of the three sites' leaderboards, he has never failed to lead the American League, and he has never failed to lead at least one site's leaderboard.
So we knew Trout would quickly climb out of this optical illusion. We knew he'd most likely climb past every major league player and regain his spot at the top. We didn't know how long it would take, or what it would look like, or what specifically valuable things Trout would do along the way. So we decided to see if we could watch it happen. This is the day-by-day accounting of Mike Trout's inevitability.
Day 1 to Day 14: The inevitability of Mike Trout being good
Day 1: .16 WAR
It took Trout only one more at-bat, in fact, to get back above replacement level; he hit a pretty good pitch 113 mph for a third-inning home run. He'd go on to ground out and double, ending Opening Day with, according to Baseball Prospectus, .16 WAR. If he did that every day, he'd end up with 26 WAR on the season, which would be about double the greatest season ever.
That he's not first in baseball after one day has nothing to do with him and everything to do with the challenge of beating a huge field in small sample size competition. He trails 20 other players after Day 1. Among them is his former teammate Jeff Mathis, the game's worst hitter over the past decade, who knocks three hits on Opening Day. (Mathis will collect four hits in the month-plus that follows.)
But of the 20 players ahead of Trout after Opening Day, only two, Freddie Freeman and Chase Headley, will still be ahead of him three weeks later, and only Freeman will be ahead of him the week after that.
When you see Headley at the top of a WAR leaderboard -- as he was on April 6, April 11 and April 15 -- you know he's just playing out of his mind. Headley was hitting .410 through a dozen games, then began the inevitable regression to his normal talent level. By the end of April he was hitting .301, still good enough for Headley to produce his best OPS in a month (.896) since September 2013. That's out-of-his-mind Headley hanging out near the top of the leaderboard. But Trout was just playing. He wasn't streaking, he wasn't getting lucky, he wasn't seeing the ball well. He accumulates by simply being, because Trout doesn't slump.
This is what counts as a Mike Trout slump:
Day 2: .05 WAR
Day 3: .05
Day 4: -.06 (0-for-3 with a walk and an error)
He hits .250/.308/.500 in those three games. He makes a silly error in the outfield, letting a simple single roll to the wall. He adds only .04 WAR in three games, which is a two-win pace over a full season. That's an average major leaguer. That's his slump. He's out of it the next day:
Day 5: .05 WAR
Day 6: .07
Since his first full season, Trout has had one month, August 2015, in which he hit worse than the league-average hitter. He has had only two in which he had an OPS below .800. The best metaphor for Trout is probably the late Bob Ross when he hosted "The Joy Of Painting" on PBS: It's calm, it's controlled, a friendly stroke here, a happy dab there, and the end result is quietly fantastic.
There are things that even WAR, an all-in-one framework that aspires to include everything that can be observed and measured, doesn't yet capture. On Day 3, Trout's the trailing runner in a first-and-third situation. Albert Pujols bats. Trout takes off on the first pitch, and Pujols hits a soft line drive that glances off the pitcher's glove and into shallow center field. The second baseman was covering for Trout's stolen base attempt, or he might well have fielded the ball.
Trout's WAR gets no credit for that (Pujols' WAR does). Because he wasn't the lead runner on the play, he doesn't even get extra credit for going first to third on the hit. But it's worth noting that Trout might be having the best baserunning season of his career. He has taken the extra base (going first to third on a single, for example) 71 percent of the time, a career best. He's 5-for-5 on stolen bases. And even when he doesn't get credit for a stolen base, he has been valuable: Pujols, batting behind him, has hit into only two double plays, less than half as many per plate appearance as he had previously hit while an Angel. Happy little clouds. Every day's a good day when you're Trout.
Day 6 begins with an on-field ceremony for the presentation of Trout's AL MVP award. In his first at-bat, he strikes out looking after a 14-pitch at-bat against Felix Hernandez. Six innings later, Trout bats again, but Hernandez has been pulled from the game after throwing 100 pitches -- 14 of them, remember, in one epic matchup against Trout. Evan Scribner, a homer-prone reliever, has relieved him. With one on and one out, Trout homers, breaking a 3-3 tie. The crowd chants "MVP!" Thirty-one batters remain ahead of him on the WAR leaderboard.
Day 7: .00 WAR
Day 8: .21
On Day 8, the Angels go into the ninth inning trailing the Rangers by three. With two outs and a runner on first, Trout represents the tying run. He doubles to right field, driving in one run; then, when Pujols singles to left, Trout races home safely for the tying run, despite being two long strides from third base when left fielder Ryan Rua fields the ball on a charge. The game goes to extra innings, and in the 10th inning, Trout robs Mike Napoli of a potential game-winning home run. (This catch was worth about 1.6 runs, according to Baseball-Reference's model for WAR, which Trout will lead the majors in by Day 10. BP's defensive metrics work differently, so this is just a regular catch.) The Angels will win in a walk-off.
The Angels will lose the next six games. Trout will be the club's entire offense. He'll hit .368/.478/.526 while his team scores a total of nine runs in six games. Tucked in there will be the one genuinely bad game he has all month: an 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in a shutout against the Royals.
Day 9: .10 WAR
Day 10: .12
Day 11: -.02 (1-for-4)
Day 12: .08
Day 13: -.08 (0-for-4, two strikeouts)
Day 14: .14
This is the Angels' six-game losing streak. Trout hits .368/.478/.526 and plays at a 9-WAR pace.
By this point, baseball's early-season leaderboards have begun to settle down. Trout ranks 11th in the majors in WAR, with about two-thirds the total of MLB leader Eric Thames. Trout hasn't done anything but play like himself. He gave the league its chance: Eighty-six players were ahead of him on the WAR leaderboard at some point, from superstars such as Corey Seager and Nolan Arenado to one-week wonders such as Tyler Saladino, Dustin Garneau and Manny Pina. He gave all 86 of them a head start. Then he chased nearly all of them down, one by one, without even getting hot.
Day 15 to Day 26: The inevitability of Mike Trout being great
Day 15: .05 WAR
Day 16: .01
Day 17: .18
Day 18: .09
Day 19: .21
Day 20: .00
Day 21: .04
Day 22: .13
Day 23: -.03 (1-for-5 with a stolen base)
Day 24: .04
Day 25: .20
Day 26: .21
Here's my favorite plate appearance of Trout's season so far, more fun (to me) than even the 14-pitch at-bat against King Felix. It was against Yu Darvish, in the third inning on April 29.
Trout falls behind 0-2. There's probably no starter in baseball tougher to hit after falling behind than Darvish, who has eight strikeout pitches. Since Darvish made his debut in 2012, batters have hit .111/.137/.160 after falling behind 0-2 against him, worse even than pitchers have hit against the Rangers ace. The .297 OPS allowed is lower than any starter's in that time, except for the late Jose Fernandez's. Nearly 60 percent of batters have struck out after falling behind 0-2 to Darvish.
Trout starts working at him, though. He fouls off a fastball, takes a slider just low and away, fouls off a sinker on the lower inside edge of the zone, then takes a curveball inches outside. On 2-2, he gets a fastball low, and the umpire flinches; Trout, anticipating the call, is already turned and almost arguing before the umpire can raise his arm -- and the umpire folds, calling it a ball. Darvish and the Rangers can't believe it. (ESPN Stats & Info estimates the pitch is a strike 20 percent of the time; Baseball Prospectus says it's a strike 80 percent of the time. It was so close even the algorithms can't agree.) Given one more pitch, Trout rips a 96 mph fastball on the inner edge into the left-field corner, breaking a scoreless tie. When the throw home gets past the catcher, Trout moves to third, beating a tag by inches; four pitches later, he'll score on a sacrifice fly. It was speed, power, plate discipline and situational awareness, all in one at-bat, all against one of the least hittable pitchers baseball has ever produced.
The double extended his hitting streak to 13 games. In those 13 games, he hit .420/.482/.800. He had 10 "high-leverage" plate appearances in that time, including that plate appearance against Darvish. In those 10, he doubled three times, homered twice, walked and got hit by a pitch. On the season, he's now hitting .500/.679/1.222 in 28 high-leverage situations. His Win Probability Added -- a stat that measures the change in a team's likelihood of winning before and after each plate appearance, and credits the difference to the hitter -- is, at 2.7, the best in baseball by a mile. Only five hitters in all of baseball have a WPA even half of Mike Trout's.
When Trout was 50th in WAR, back on Day 4, it was hard for him to make up ground on the leader, because the leader was constantly churning with each new early-season hot streak. But by now, there are only five, then four, then one guy ahead of him. He's closing fast, and when Day 26 ends he's about one single behind the leader, Bryce Harper:
Day 27 to Day 37 (and counting): Nothing is inevitable once it ceases to be inevitable
Among other "nevers" in Trout's superlative career is this: Trout has never really been hurt -- at least not seriously enough to hit the disabled list. Heading into this week, according to Baseball Injury Consultants' database, Trout had missed a total of 16 games in his major league career, for a variety of small ailments: a viral infection, a bruised knee, back inflammation.
Trout's march to the top of the WAR leaderboard, though, takes a stumble. He sits out Day 30 with a strained hamstring. It isn't serious, Angels manager Mike Scioscia reassures us. "If this was a playoff game, he'd be playing," he tells reporters. But then after one game in the lineup -- Day 31, -.08 WAR, hitting streak extended to a career-best 17 games -- Trout is scratched again Saturday. And then in each of the next four games, before returning to action Thursday, going 0-for-4 as the DH to snap his hit streak.
"Hamstring's a different animal," Scioscia says before the third missed game. "If your shoulder is a little sore you can DH. When your hamstring is a little tight, you need to make sure you get it addressed. Right now, to go out and play center field would be putting him at risk."
Aside from parochial interests, I think there are two reasons that baseball stays entertaining to most of us even after thousands of games. The first is that we love to see the completely unexpected, and baseball provides a lot of it: the ridiculous triple plays and the extraordinary comebacks and Eric Thames. The second is that we love to see the completely predictable. We love the logic and steady reliability of large samples. We love to watch Mike Trout knowing that he's going to be great, that we can invest our attention in him and trust the inevitability of his greatness. It is reassuring.
Trout is -- still and undeniably -- the best player in baseball. He is better than Kris Bryant, who passes him again in WAR during these missed games. He's better than Ryan Zimmerman, Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna, who repass him during these missed games, and who broaden the gap between Trout and the top of the leaderboard.
He is as close to inevitable as there is, and, his manager claims, he is still getting better.
"It's not like there's one play you look at and say, 'My gosh, he's getting it,'" Scioscia said Sunday. "But experience is the best teacher there is. As you play and read those adjustments, reading the pitchers, getting jumps, understanding the speed of the game, understanding outfielders; arms -- you see his decision-making process becoming a lot cleaner."
Even with the missed games, Trout, at 25, remains on pace to match or top his best seasons ever, regardless of which site's WAR you're using.
He is, it is also helpful to remember, built out of hamstrings and rotator cuffs and fingers and a neck. Appreciate every second, because there's really only one inevitability in this sport.