With Mike Trout Injured, Who’s The Best Player In Baseball?
On Sunday, Mike Trout injured his hand sliding into second base, and on Memorial Day, our worst fears were realized: the reigning AL MVP would miss significant time due to surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left hand. That big league baseball could simply continue to run its course without Trout is, at this point, near-unthinkable. Trout has been the model of consistency to this point of his career, almost never missing a game, and never wavering as the best player on the planet.
Now, for the first time since Trout was called up for good at the end of April 2012, MLB is without the player that is feasibly on track to become the GOAT. In his place will be a vacuum, a pair of shoes far too big to be filled by any mere mortal.
Yet if Trout is gone for awhile, someone else will, by definition, have to be the best player in the game. The question is: who? Rarely is a thought spared for who the second-best player in the league is, simply because the identity of the top-guy has been so certain for so long.
Possibly the only way to dethrone Trout as the best player in the game is for Trout to just not be an active player. Once he does return, he will probably fit right back into his spot at the top of the mountain. But until then, let’s go over the challengers to his crown.
The Main Contenders
It’s only natural that perhaps the best challenger to Trout is the best pitcher in the world.
Kershaw has actually not yet hit his stride this season. His slider, his best pitch (and possibly the league’s best pitch), hasn’t quite looked like itself. His K-to-BB ratio, still the best in the league, is about half of what it was last season. His ERA (2.37) is merely enough to match his career mark, rather than continue his remarkable streak of lowering his career ERA.
With all that, Kershaw is still the greatest, with another gear likely to come before the season is out. A light-hearted (but fail-safe) way to measure who is Bob Ryan’s Martian Premise: if aliens came to Earth and challenged us to a game of baseball for the rights to the planet (as hostile aliens certainly would want to do should they invade), who would we want on the mound? My money, and certainly the money of countless around the league, would be on Kershaw. That’s the simplest reason why Kershaw might be the best challenger to Trout while he’s away.
Next up is the player who just might be the face of baseball, despite the fact his track record pales in comparison to Trout’s. Harper has always garnered more attention than Trout, due in part to his team’s consistent participation in meaningful baseball games late in the year, the tremendous hype he’s generated since he was a teenager, but also due to his distinct personality, his brashness, and his incredible talent.
His brashness was on full display during the Giants-Nationals brawl on Monday, but his talent has been on display all season. Harper has run a sensational .331/.443/.663 line this year, good for a 181 wRC+. If he can maintain that through the season, he’ll become the only hitter this decade to twice post a wRC+ greater than 180 over a full year.
The only other players to break that barrier over a full season since 2010 are Miguel Cabrera and Jose Bautista. If Harper follows up his legendary 2015 campaign (197 wRC+) with something close, it will demonstrate clearly that he has the greatest upside of any hitter in the game (other than maybe Trout).
If the best hitter in the game is on the sideline, the best bet to take his place might just be the second-best hitter. Right now, based on current performance, track record, and overall ability, that title probably belongs to Harper. If he can get hot before Trout comes back, he can at least put himself in a position where Trout vs. Harper debates have something resembling merit.
The Dark Horses
More interesting might be the long-shot candidates to someday rise up as the best player in the game. Lindor certainly isn’t there yet, but with a surprise power surge this year, the framework is there.
There are countless reasons that Trout is indisputably the best. His tremendous strength, his amazing ability to make adjustments, his elite plate discipline, his top-end speed, the list goes on. But if I was to distill all those reasons into something quick and dirty, it would be this: Trout is the best because he is a fantastic hitter who plays good defense at a premium position.
There just aren’t many people that can run elite batting lines while also playing superb defense up the middle. Players like Miguel Cabrera and Bryce Harper have hit as well or better as Trout before. No player has done so while playing shortstop, like Lindor.
Lindor is probably the best defensive shortstop in the game this side of Andrelton Simmons, and is on the shortlist, with the likes of Kevin Kiermaier, of most valuable defenders in the game. Lindor probably has a leg-up overall on Trout in terms of defense. So, to challenge Trout, all we need is for Lindor to get in the same ball-park at the plate.
Obviously, that’s where things get tricky, but the potential is there. Lindor, who came up as a bit of a slap-hitter, has grown into real power at age-23. His hard contact rate is up, his fly ball rate has skyrocketed to over 43%, and his ISO is at .257, nearly twice the figure he ran last year. His BABIP, however, has fallen from .348 as a rookie to .284 currently.
If Lindor managed to combine his rookie season BABIP skills with his newfound ability to walk and hit for power, suddenly we’re looking at a .310/.390/.570 hitter who plays gold-glove defense at short. That’s a legitimate 9 or 10 WAR player over a full season. It’s unlikely that will ever happen, but the fact that it’s plausible means Lindor could ascend to Trout-like heights.
The last name on our list is the only player currently threatening Kershaw for his respective title as best hurler on the planet. Sale, after an offseason trade to the Red Sox, has abandoned the pitch to contact strategy that he practiced last season, and, in turn, has reached newfound heights as a player.
Sale leads baseball in pitching fWAR and rWAR entering Tuesday’s games. He has the fourth-best adjusted ERA, and the best adjusted FIP. His 36.7 K% is unfathomable, and better than the next best by over three points. Turns out, when you have Sale’s stuff, simply trying to strike out everyone is a very productive strategy.
Sale doesn’t have Kershaw’s history, so two superlative months aren’t enough to dislodge Kershaw from his perch. But what Sale is doing is worth noting. The questions about Sale’s ability to remain healthy as a starter with a funky delivery have faded with time. His attempt to be more efficient last year is history. All that’s been left this season is the most dominant pitcher in the league.
Sale would have to keep this up all year to really have a chance to dislodge Kershaw as the best pitcher, and only then could he really think about threatening Trout. It’s a long-shot. But Sale’s been so dominant this year that he has to warrant mention. Just because he’s been the best so far doesn’t mean he’ll be the best going forward, but it does mean that there is chance.