And Now, the End is Near For Mike Trout?

Time was when thinking of the Angels without thinking of Mike Trout was the proverbial non-starter. You knew you were seeing a Hall of Famer in the making the further his career progressed. You also knew concurrently that the Angels' administrative inability to build a team their and the game's best all-around player could be proud of made them Hall of Shamers.

Now the shame may be multiplied exponentially. Bedeviled by injuries as it was the last three years, Trout may have been hit at last by the one that puts paid to his career. May.

The official diagnosis has been "a costovertebral dysfunction" in his number five vertebra. He'll have to alter his entire preparation and perhaps even the way he plays to continue. It's not unrealistic to picture him becoming a full-time designated hitter soon enough. It's also not unrealistic to wonder whether he's been playing through any kind of back issue for long enough, and whether his team knew or dismissed it.

But a potential actual diagnosis may yet prove to be spinal stenosis. The very condition that knocked former Mets third base star David Wright and former Yankees first base bellwether Don Mattingly out of their careers and their Hall of Fame cases. Either way, Trout's back may yet put paid to his career before its time — and his Hall of Fame case is overwhelming as it is right now.

His optimism is laudable. "I appreciate all the prayer requests," he cracked when the official diagnosis became public, "but my career isn't over." But how soon will he have to walk that back? (Note: Trout saw a Los Angeles back specialist over the weekend and is scheduled to begin rotational exercise Wednesday. How soon he can pick up a bat and swing again is unknown at this writing.)

The Angels already incurred the indignity of coming out of spring training determined to make real American League West noise, then opening their season 27-17, then collapsing into a fourteen-game losing streak and going 14-27 since they ended that streak. They've executed a manager and gone from postseason hopes to the dogs as the proverbial dog days of August knock on the door.

The issue that's bedeviled them for the whole of Trout's career to date continues bedeviling them, their inability to develop or build a serviceable pitching staff and their administration's inability to stop just retooling under the Mud Plan: throw a few tons of it at the wall and hope some of it sticks.

Optimists such as Deadspin's Sam Fels would say that just shows at least the Angels, as opposed to the notorious tankers, really were trying. Pessimists would say that just shows there isn't a truly verifiable brain among the Angels' administrative brain trust.

But now the fallen Angels, 23.5 games out of first in the AL West and unlikely to make a 2019 Nationals-like turnaround to the postseason at all, never mind the Promised Land, are even willing to listen to August 2 trade-deadline queries involving Shohei Ohtani, their two-way pitching/hitting star. Angel fans cry "Help!" uncertain what the word even means for their team now.

Ohtani isn't exactly unprepared for life beyond Anaheim, not just because he's eligible for free agency after the 2023 season. Theoretically, life beyond Anaheim may happen within the next few days. It might even be only slightly beyond Orange County, if the prospects-rich Dodgers as rumored are "engaging" the Angels in trade talk.

"Regardless of where I'm playing," he said after yet another Angels loss last Thursday, I'm going to give it my all and try to win that ballgame in front of me. I'm with the Angels right now, and I'm very thankful for what they've done. I love my team and my teammates. Right now I'm an Angel, and that's all I can focus on."

The Angels themselves aren't yet talking about shutting Trout down for the rest of the season, reportedly. But that may not hold very long. Especially if it's shown plausibly that he's been playing with a bothersome back all season long, which may explain a lot about his periodic slumps that lasted a little longer, it seemed, than a typical Trout slump (yes, even Hall of Famers have them) ever did before.

The possibility also exists that Trout may never again be the player he's been through this season, even if he knows he's going to have to perform additional self-maintenance for the rest of what career he does have left. That's just about the last thing long-enough-suffering Angel fans need to know.

They've had to grin and bear it while such a larger-than-life baseball talent with the results to back it up was never really supported with a team that could compete at all, never mind at his level. They're not always comforted by having had the pleasure of seeing a once-in-a-billion player play above and beyond anyone else who ever wore the Angels uniform and treat them like friends at the ballpark while he was at it.

They swallowed hard when no less than commissioner Rob Manfred accused Trout himself of being the reason he didn't quite become The Face of the game, saying the Show couldn't "market&" him because he wouldn't market himself. Trout isn't big on self-promotion and, when he isn't at the ballpark, prefers to let what he's done at the park speak for itself. The very idea. Being a man over a brand.

Not to mention being a Hall of Famer in waiting. Trout could retire this minute and he'd go into the Hall of Fame in a walk in a few years. (The Hall's minimum career longevity requirement is ten seasons; Trout has twelve including this year. And the Hall of Fame is supposed to be about greatness, not mere longevity. It's not supposed to be a platinum watch.)

Baseball-Reference, using The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe's JAWS calculators for Hall worthiness, ranks Trout the number five center fielder in baseball history. He has 8.3 more career wins above replacement-level (WAR) than the average Hall of Fame center fielder already. His seven-year-peak 65.1 WAR is 20.4 above the seven-year peak of the average Hall center fielder.

And, according to my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric — total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances — Mike Trout is the number one rank among those Hall of Fame center fielders who played in the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era by far and 92 points ahead of the average for those center fielders:

Mike Trout — .680
Mickey Mantle — .651
Willie Mays — 631
Ken Griffey, Jr. — .620
Duke Snider — .615
Larry Doby — .576
Andre Dawson — .534
Kirby Puckett —.524
Richie Ashburn — .463
Average — .588

About the most forward Trout has ever let himself become was that fine afternoon six years ago when he hired a skywriting team to propose to the woman who became his wife. Unless it was the days when he put the entire Angel organization on his back, after pitcher Tyler Skaggs's tragic death in Texas, including the team's first home game after, when he launched a 13-0, combined-no-hitter blowout with a 2-run homer in the bottom of the first and-as the Angels batted around and then some — finished that 7-run frame's scoring with a still-one-out, 2-run double.

You'd love to think Trout is right when he says his career isn't over yet. You'd also love to think he didn't waste and won't continue wasting such a glittering career on behalf of an organization that couldn't build a top-to-bottom competitive team around and alongside him.

But if his career does end too soon, he won't lack for a certain breed of distinguished company. Luke (Ol' Aches and Pains) Appling, Ernie Banks, Jim Bunning, Rick Ferrell, Harry Heilmann, Ferguson Jenkins, George Kell, Ralph Kiner, Ted Lyons, Minnie Miñoso, Ron Santo, and George Sisler are those who can tell you how it feels to reach Cooperstown without reaching the postseason. Dick Allen may join their ranks if the newly-configured Classic Baseball Era Committee (covering pre-1980 players) finally elects him, albeit posthumously a la Miñoso.

It wasn't their fault that their teams couldn't and didn't build competitive groups they could be proud of, either. Mike Trout's issue has never been his ability or the performance papers to back it. His issue has been that his Angels teams couldn't put eight more Trouts into the lineup and didn't find even the minimally competitive ways to augment him while he stood baseball on its head.

* * *

* From writing more extensively about Real Batting Average (RBA) last year: The sacrifice fly wasn't made an official statistic until the 1954 season. Several post-World War II/post-integration/night ball-era Hall of Famers played a third or more of their seasons prior to the rule coming on line. How could I overcome that hole?

I tinkered with a few ideas until I tripped over a best-case scenario. I took those players' numbers of recorded sacrifice flies and divided them by the number of seasons they played under the rule. Then, I took that result and multiplied it by the number of Show seasons they actually played. The formula is sacrifice flies (SF) divided by sacrifice fly-rule seasons (SRS), multiplied by MLB seasons. Or, if you insist on seeing it in mathematese:

SF / SRS x YRS

Thus I had as best as I could get to the total number of sacrifice flies you could have expected those players to hit all career long and calculated that into their RBAs. In case you're curious, Mike Trout is close to the middle of that pack of Hall center fielders with 58 at this writing; Andre Dawson leads the group with 118; and, Richie Ashburn trails the group with 30.

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