Mike Trout is 25 years old and with his latest barrage — homering in four straight games — he just went over 50 wins above replacement for his career. You might not be a fan of WAR, but it’s still a meaningful moment because 50 WAR is just about where the Hall of Fame conversation begins.
By Fangraphs numbers, there have been 187 players in baseball history who finished their careers with 50-plus WAR. Most of them are in the Hall of Fame. Nine are on active rosters. They are:
- Albert Pujols, 91 WAR
- Miguel Cabrera, 68 WAR
- Carlos Beltrán, 68 WAR
- Chase Utley, 63 WAR
- Ichiro, 58 WAR
- David Wright, 53 WAR
- Matt Holliday, 51 WAR
- Mike Trout, 50 WAR
- Robinson Cano, 50 WAR
Now, obviously, all nine of them will not go to the Hall of Fame. Pujols, Cabrera and Ichiro have their tickets stamped, Beltrán I think will make it after some squabbling. Utley will be a divisive Hall of Fame candidate. Cano, I think, will go.
Wright and Holliday are both terrific players who are probably not quite Hall of Famers, though Wright could get back in the picture if he could get healthy and have just a handful of good years.
But the point is not to prematurely talk Hall of Fame but instead to point out that 50 WAR is sort of a watershed moment, that invisible line where people begin thinking about legacy. Fifty WAR is a fantastic career. Hall of Famers Tony Lazzeri and Orlando Cepeda had 50 WAR. Hall of Famer Jim Rice had 51. Larry Doby, Enos Slaughter, George Sisler, these are all Hall of Famers in the range of 50 WAR.
And there are other superb players — Will Clark, Minnie Minoso, Jack Clark, Jimmy Wynn — who also compiled around 50 WAR but fell short of the Hall of Fame. I would say 50 WAR is just about where the discussion begins.
And Mike Trout is there at age 25.
By season’s end, he will probably have the highest WAR ever for a 25-year-old — only Mickey Mantle and Ty Cobb are ahead of him now. This is the craziest part about Trout; he has already had a Hall of Fame career and, if we are lucky, it has only just begun. We have never seen anything quite like him in the long history of baseball. He’s like Willie Mays but he walks more. He’s like Mickey Mantle but he steals bases. He’s like Ken Griffey Jr. but he hits for a higher average. He’s like Albert Pujols but fast enough to play centerfield.
There’s that expression you hear sometimes — a baseball player is so good that someday you will tell your grandchildren about him. Well, Trout is so good and so young that there’s no reason to wait. If you have grandchildren, go ahead, tell them about Mike Trout right now. Or find someone else’s grandchildren.
Over at Sports On Earth there is an interesting story where pitchers talk about what they think about the pitcher win. Some, like Kyle Hendrick, think it might go away. Others, like Clayton Kershaw, echo the thinking I’ve had about it lately which is that it’s not the most telling stat in the world but it has too much history and psychological power to disappear.
But the most fascinating comments came from Cubs manager Joe Maddon.
“I would say getting the win is always the end-all for a pitcher,” he said. “I would say 17 [wins] with a 4.00 [ERA] over 12 with a 2.00, they’ll take the 17 with a 4.00.”
Now, Joe Maddon is a interesting guy, a funny guy, a thoughtful guy. He’s also a bit of a jokester, which could play into the quote too. But, when all is said and done, he can’t possibly mean that a pitcher, even in theory, would take a 17-win season with a 4.00 ERA over a 12-win season with a 2.00 ERA. He can’t possibly believe that the 17-win pitcher helped his team win more even by allowing two runs more per nine innings. Something has to be lost in translation.
The thing the pitcher win has always had going for it, the thing that I believe gives the win so much power, is the name: “Win.” The idea of Major League Baseball, of course, is to win. The singular goal when starting the game is, of course, winning that game. And so somehow the pitcher win has become muddled up with an actual win even though the two are not at all the same thing.
A pitcher cannot “win” a game. A pitcher can use his talents and the defense behind him to prevent runs from being scored. That’s it. If a pitcher ever strikes out 27 batters and hits a home run for the only run of the game, yes, that pitcher actually “won” the game. Hasn’t happened yet. Never will happen. So the pitcher win is a very different thing from actually winning.
Here’s the easiest way to look at it:
In 1990, Bob Welch won 27 games with a 2.95 ERA.
That same year, Roger Clemens won only 21 games despite a 1.93 ERA.
Welch won the Cy Young Award. He finished ninth in the MVP voting. Welch won the oohs and ahhs of baseball fans across American — I mean, seriously, 27 wins!
Clemens was so much better than Welch that season, it’s hard to know where to even begin. By WAR he was between three and four times as good, depending on which version you prefer. He had 80 more strikeouts, 23 fewer walks, allowed 20 fewer hits, threw twice as many shutouts, and gave up 19 fewer home runs. He did this even though he pitched half his games at Fenway Park, which was a crazy hitting park that season, while Welch pitched his home games at Oakland Coliseum which was then, and remains today, a hitter’s tomb.
Welch got the credit because his team averaged 5.21 runs per game for him in a generally low-scoring year — he won five games where he allowed four runs in seven innings or less, and he won another and another four games where he gave up three runs and did not pitch a complete game.
Clemens won one game where he allowed four runs and two more where he allowed three runs. So there’s your win difference. But in addition, Clemens had two no decisions where he did not allow any earned runs, and he lost a game when he pitched seven innings and allowed one run.
I don’t mean to relitigate the 1990 Cy Young voting but to just make the Maddon counterpoint. Pitchers unquestionably want the TEAM to win. In theory, a pitcher might say that for any single game they would rather give up four runs and win than two runs and lose, that makes sense. But the pitcher will win many, many, many fewer games giving up four runs than giving up two.
See, the win stat doesn’t work that way. ERA isn’t the perfect stat either but it’s WAY more important and telling than the pitcher win.
Time for our regular check on the Panic Condition or PANCON of some teams around baseball. We base PANCON on DEFCON, and here are the conditions:
PANCON 5: All is normal, the team is playing as expected.
PANCON 4: There is a little edginess, a few players talk about how everybody needs to “pick it up,” trade rumors float around, etc.
PANCON 3: There is palpable concern. Players-only meetings are called. The manager starts shifting lineups. Bullpens are shuffled around.
PANCON 2: Trouble — manager is on the hot seat, fans start a FireTheGM.com website, players start anonymously talking about how teammates must play harder, the clubhouse becomes an unhappy place.
PANCON 1: Full-scale panic. Manager gets fired. Players get traded. Fans give up hope.
And our update:
PANCON 1: Nobody.
PANCON 2: Nobody quite yet.
PANCON 3: Pittsburgh, Miami, San Diego.
The Pirates are the team to watch here. They are playing pretty terrible baseball — they’re last in the National League in runs scored, and that’s a pretty old lineup out there. Of course, everyone is watching Andrew McCutchen, who is hitting an atrocious .212/.288/.401.
Now, if you want a reason to hope with McCutchen — he has been a notoriously bad starter his whole career. He is a .252 lifetime hitter in April, some 50 points worse than he hits the other five months of the season. Even in his MVP season, he hit just .247/308/.423 in April. So there’s hope that he will warm up.
But coming off a tough 2016 season, it’s kind of scary with Cutch at the moment.
DEFCON 4: Kansas City, Toronto, Oakland, Mets, Philadelphia, Seattle, Atlanta, San Francisco and Washington.
The Royals and Blue Jays have played a bit better lately, moving them out of PANCON 3. But we’d like to welcome … the Washington Nationals! They have the best record in the National League and they’re STILL at PANCON 4 because of that staggeringly bad bullpen and because, well, these are bad times in Washington.
The Washington Wizards just lost Game 7 to Boston on Monday, the Capitals lost a Game 7 to Pittsburgh (again), and the Nationals have never won a single postseason playoff series. This Tweet from Dan Steinberg kind of saying it all:
That makes 15 straight times a D.C. big-four team has lost with a chance to advance to its league semifinals.— Dan Steinberg (@dcsportsbog) May 16, 2017
So, yes, you kind of getting the feeling that the Nationals will be in PANCON 4 for the rest of the season. And that’s if things go well.