A hitter goes 0-for-4, and it's a bummer. A hitter with a 50-game hitting streak goes 0-for-4, and it's a true loss, something to stop and be miserable about.
That's how it feels to see Mike Trout go on the disabled list for the first time: A perfect career is now, in a small and stupid way, blemished. Trout's assault on history is for the first time standing still, while time marches on. Will these six to eight weeks be the ones we look back on if Trout comes up 10 homers short of 700, or 50 hits shy of 4,000, or some other small margin shy of some even more hyperbolic career achievement? There's no way of knowing yet, but for the first time the limitlessness of Trout's perfect career is limited.
Yet here's one piece of perfection I am prepared to boldly predict will remain perfect: After five years of leading his league in wins above replacement, Trout will do it again. The inevitability of Mike Trout will be stronger even than six weeks on the DL. If my prediction comes true, it might end up being more illustrative of his greatness than anything he has done yet.
Here's why it'll happen.
What it'll take to lead the American League in WAR
Over the past five years, Trout has averaged 9.6 WAR per year (by Baseball-Reference's WAR model). The second-place finisher, what we might consider the bar he has to clear, has been, on average, slightly higher than 8.0:
2016: 9.5 (Mookie Betts)
2015: 8.8 (Josh Donaldson)
2014: 7.3 (Donaldson)
2013: 7.8 (Robinson Cano)
2012: 8.4 (Cano)
When Trout injured his thumb diving into second base Sunday, he was leading the AL in the three most prominent WAR models. At Baseball Prospectus, his 3.3 WAR is a half-win better than second-place Corey Dickerson and more than a full win over third-place Aaron Judge. At FanGraphs, his 3.5 WAR is nearly a win better than second-place Judge (2.6) and third-place Miguel Sano (2.5).
At Baseball-Reference, his competition was much closer to him, so we'll focus on that one. Here's how close the league is to Trout in bWAR:
Brett Gardner: 2.6
The bad news is that his lead through Tuesday's games is minuscule; he might lose it overnight, by the time you read this. The moderately good news is that the names closest to him are not the names you'd expect to lead the league in WAR, not the sort of players who could plausibly end up with eight or nine wins in a season. If Josh Donaldson had 3.2 WAR, or Robinson Cano or Francisco Lindor did, Trout would be in real danger of falling behind somebody good enough to be almost uncatchable. But those elite American Leaguers are more than six weeks' WAR behind Trout:
Cano: 1.5 WAR
Manny Machado: 1.0
Judge, Dickerson and Gardner, meanwhile, are much more likely to fall off their torrid paces. If they were the only three people Trout had to worry about, he probably wouldn't have much to worry about: The ZiPS projection system sees each finishing shy of 6 WAR for the full season:
(That figure represents the sum of each player's actual WAR to date and ZiPS' rest-of-season projections.)
Judge is, admittedly, far more terrifying in this game than ZiPS gives him credit for, because his error bars are so big. The league might find a hole in his swing and shut him down entirely from here on out, but he might also be a future Hall of Famer, 21 home runs into an 800-homer career. At his age, with his limited track record, with his tools and with his performances last year and this year, there's just no way of knowing. That makes him way more dangerous than somebody like Gardner.
The bigger threat, perhaps the biggest, is probably Mookie Betts, who currently ranks fifth with 2.3 WAR. Here's what ZiPS projects for Betts, for the 15 players after him on the WAR leaderboard and for a few select superstars:
Avisail Garcia: 2.8
Jose Altuve: 5.7
Carlos Correa: 5.9
Aaron Hicks: 2.9
Guillermo Heredia: 2.4
Kevin Kiermaier: 4.2
Joey Gallo: 3.3
Kevin Pillar: 3.8
Max Kepler: 3.2
Mitch Haniger: 2.8
Evan Longoria: 4.0
Whit Merrifield: 2.6
Starlin Castro: 3.0
Unfortunately for Trout, this doesn't mean 6.2 WAR will lead the league. With the exception of Trout, the league leader in any category is almost always somebody who outperformed his projections, somebody who had an above-average (or even career) year. At least one of these players will put together four of the best months of his career and topple his projections this summer. But we can see that there is currently no elite player having an exceptional-for-him season. It's a good year for 7 or 8 WAR to lead the American League, in other words. We'll call it 7.5. That's the bar for Trout: 7.5 WAR.
What we expect from Trout
We're going to make two assumptions here, both of which might end up being optimistic but both of which are crucial to the exercise. (And being optimistic on Trout has never failed us before.) The first is that Trout will miss six weeks, not eight or more. In fact, the end of six weeks would be exactly the last day of the first half, so he could miss six weeks and get four extra days off for free. The second is that when he comes back, his thumb will be fully healed and the injury won't affect his play at all.
That would put him back on the field for the final 70 days, or 43.2 percent, of the season. ZiPS projects Trout for 3.8 WAR per 70 games, which would only get him to 7.1 WAR for the season. On the other hand, if the past five years are exactly the Mike Trout we can expect -- 9.56 WAR per season -- then he would be good for 4.1 WAR after the injury, and 7.4 WAR for the season. Better still, he averaged those 9.56 WAR while missing some games, either because the Angels left him in Triple-A to start the 2012 season or for assorted minor aches. On a per-game basis, he's good for 4.3 WAR per 70 games played. If he plays all 70 games in the second half, that would get him to 7.6 WAR. More than 7.5.
But I'm not comfortable with that margin, and I don't think I need to be, for a couple of reasons. The first is this: Remember when I said there were no elite players having exceptional-for-him seasons? The exception is Trout, who was having the best season of his career before the thumb injury. His OPS was more than 200 points higher than any season he'd had before; his OPS+ is the fourth-highest by any hitter since World War II, trailing only three peak Barry Bonds seasons. He was hitting so well, and the guys behind him hitting so poorly, that he was starting to get The Bonds Treatment, which would have boosted his offensive value further. (It's hard to make an out on an intentional walk.)
If Trout played the final 70 games at that level, he'd produce 4.9 second-half wins, and 8.2 for the season. That's unlikely; it's more likely that Trout was hot than that he'd turned into a whole new superstar. But if the truth is even somewhere in between, it would get him close to 8 WAR.
More significant, perhaps, is that Trout will now play those final 70 games without being as affected by The Grind. At Baseball Prospectus, Russell Carleton has found that the long season really does produce fatigue that hurts players' statistics. The math is gory, but, Carleton concludes,
The results showed that over time, the same hitters and pitchers would produce slightly (but statistically significantly) different results as the year wore on. In general, a hitter was more likely to swing, more like to miss when he does swing, but more likely to end up with a ball if he takes. ... The calendar really does subtly and slowly bleed value out of hitters.
It might not be obvious while we're watching it, because everybody is dealing with the same grind, but it could give the player who isn't as wilted a real advantage. Imagine, for instance, if every NBA player slowly but steadily shrunk an inch over the course of a season. We'd barely notice, but the player who managed to avoid this depletion would be better, relative to his peers, at the end of the season than the start.
Furthermore, Trout might be more prone to the grind than other players. He plays a very rough and physical style, and he does it with a relatively heavy body. As a center fielder, he is involved in far more plays than the typical outfielder of his build. As a very fast runner, he must go full speed in pursuit of infield hits, triples and stolen bases more often than the typical power hitter. And he has played almost every day in his career, despite dealing with a variety of reported and unreported aches. The wear of his role has arguably been visible in his second-half performances since 2012, when he became a major league regular:
First half: .322/.411/.598
Second half: .296/.416/.540
Even more intriguing are his stolen-base rates. In the first half, he has stolen 91 bases and been caught only 13 times -- a stolen base every five games and an 88 percent success rate. In the second half, he has stolen only 58 bases and been caught 16 times. That's one every six games, and a 78 percent success rate.
This might be the first time Trout gets to play the second half fresh. Obviously, it's better for everybody if Mike Trout plays more games, all the games. But we just saw Mike Trout putting up the best first half of his career. If he's fresher than he has ever been, we might soon see him put up the best second half, too. Eight wins is well within reach.
Nobody has ever led the league in WAR in fewer than 117 games, the number George Brett played in 1980. If Trout finishes the first half on the disabled list but plays every game of the second half, he'd have 117, too. It'd be a weird record, but a record it'd be.
We'll never know what less-weird history Trout might have made this year. He's only one home run, six RBIs and nine points of batting average behind the AL leaders, so had he stayed healthy we might have been only a month or so away from a legitimate Triple Crown watch. He might well have topped 11 WAR for the first time, something only 11 players in history have done. He might have hit 50 homers for the first time in his career; he might have been baseball's first ever 50-homer/30-steal player. He was just about on pace to do it.
If he leads the league in WAR while missing a quarter of the season, it won't replace any of those accomplishments, but in its own way it might be the most impressive -- and the most illustrative -- superlative of his career to date. We know Trout is the best player in his league, but this would put a scale to that statement. It would tell us that he's an entire quarter of a baseball season better than anybody else. And it'll be the most incredible thing Trout does until the next thing.