Mike Trout tracker, Derek Jeter edition: He's now better than The Captain

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Mike Trout is squarely in the passing-Hall-of-Famers-in-career-WAR-every-few-days period of his career. He just turned 28.

If I tell you that 28-year-old Mike Trout has more career WAR than, say, Derek Jeter, you could hear it as an incredible tribute to Trout, but you could also hear it as a diminishment of Jeter -- and if we diminish Jeter, we diminish the power of the tribute. To really appreciate Trout, it helps to appreciate just how incredible were the Hall of Famers he is passing and to understand how it is plausible that Trout is already actually more valuable than they were.

Since we last performed this exercise, Trout has raised his career WAR to 72.6 and passed one more Hall of Famer and also Jeter. Jeter isn't yet a Hall of Famer, but he will be the second he's eligible. We will consider each of the all-time greats Trout surpassed since the end of July, but mostly we will consider Jeter, and whether the logic of this exercise holds up.

Derek Jeter, 72.4 WAR (58th all time among position players)

How good Jeter was:

1. When ESPN asked this year's Little League World Series players who their favorite baseball players were, Trout was second, behind Javier Baez. Immediately behind Trout was Jeter, who retired when these kids were 6 or 7, and who did The Flip a half-decade before they were born. There are reasons for this that go beyond his play, and Jeter's fame is partly a story of media management and the power of a personal narrative, but there probably isn't any player born after Ken Griffey Jr. who is as many people's favorite as Jeter -- and, perhaps, there might never be again. He was Mike Trout's favorite player. Also Cody Bellinger's, Corey Seager's, Christian Yelich's, Carlos Correa's, Xander Bogaerts', Mookie Betts', Anthony Rizzo's, Jason Heyward's, Trevor Story's, Alex Bregman's, Elvis Andrus', Troy Tulowitzki's, Hanley Ramirez's andDellin Betances'. And quarterback Russell Wilson's. The football broadcaster John Madden calls Jeter his favorite athlete in any sport. Nolan Arenado and Baez list him among their favorites. The Marlins' first-round pick in 2018 noted that Jeter, one of the team's owners, had been his favorite player. Scores of others -- regulars and role players, prospects and indy leaguers -- would surely say the same. "Derek Jeter, I'm not going to lie to you, was one of my favorites," Pete Alonso said. "Everyone loved Derek Jeter. That's like saying 'Michael Jordan sucks.' Everyone loves Jordan."

That's "Jordan" and "Jeter" in the same breath, folks.

2. Jeter wasn't everybody's favorite because he was the best player in the world, of course. He never won an MVP award, and his career overlapped with players who were undeniably better, including his teammate 40 feet to his right, Alex Rodriguez. Rather, he inspired a sort of confidence in people who rooted for him, a feeling he was ultimately in control of it all. He wasn't invincible, but he somehow felt certain. This story was aided by admiring baseball writers, but the truth is Jeter inspired this sort of devotion long before he was famous. The best Derek Jeter story comes from before he'd been drafted, and it was told by Buster Olney way back in 1999.

It concerns Hal Newhouser, who had been a scout for the Houston Astros. The Astros had the first pick in the 1992 draft, the year Jeter became eligible; he scouted the heck out of Jeter and came away convinced Jeter was "a special player and a special kid... The anchor and the foundation of a winning club."

He was so certain that, when his supervisor called him before the draft with news that the Astros had decided on Phil Nevin instead of Jeter, Newhouser was disappointed. So disappointed he resigned from his job. Over a high school shortstop! "He liked Derek Jeter, everything about him," Olney wrote. He "quit baseball in disgust."

I was probably a little bit of a Jeter skeptic during his career, but that story almost makes me gasp for breath.

3. Jeter was a great ballplayer, and the debate over his image -- about words like "class" and "leader" that would become loaded over the years -- was always secondary to his actual play. His place in the Hall of Fame is obvious:

He had 3,400 hits and scored almost 2,000 runs. He's 23rd all-time in total bases, 11th in times reaching base, and he did it all while playing a premium position. He started more games at shortstop than any player in history; he has the second-highest win probability added as a shortstop (behind only A-Rod), along with the most total bases and most times on base. I don't know how many World Series titles the Yankees would have won between 1996 and 2009 if the Astros had picked Jeter in the 1992 draft -- probably a few -- but there is no doubt Jeter was "the anchor and the foundation of a winning club," to understate it.

How Trout is plausibly better, already: To believe Mike Trout has been as valuable in nine years as Jeter was in 20 means believing Trout is slightly more than twice as valuable, per game, as Jeter was. It means one Trout and one Triple-A shortstop would help a team, over the course of a season, more than two Derek Jeters. This isn't just something WAR can answer for us. It is, in many ways, the fundamental promise of WAR. So, can we believe it?

Let's say a player has 100 hits in 600 at-bats, and another has 200 hits in those same 600 at-bats. How much better is the 200-hits hitter? Is he twice as good?

Not really, practically speaking. Of the few hundred baseball players who are actually candidates to play full-time in the majors in a given year, the very worst might have 100 hits. The very best might have 200. The chasm between these two is big enough to span the whole sport, as we typically consume it.

And while only one or two humans alive can get 200 hits, there are scores of minor leaguers who can approximate the floor -- maybe 90, maybe 110, depending how things break, but around there. They're not scarce, and so having 100 hits adds virtually no value to a club. If a 100-hit hitter retired to open a bakery, his team would just claim or call up the next 100-hit hitter.

So defining the floor -- the worst you're likely to get if you lose a player -- is crucial. That's what the R in WAR does: It defines a floor of player performance that can be reasonably attained at nearly no cost and with little planning or notice.

In 1996, the year Jeter won the Rookie of the Year award, the worst team in baseball at the shortstop position was the Cubs. Everything went terribly for them: The starter, Rey Sanchez, had by far his worst offensive season, and when the Cubs tried to fix things by sliding part-time second baseman Jose Hernandez over, Hernandez was nearly as bad. They collectively hit .219/.274/.309. Every other team in baseball found a way to do better than that: Prospects flopped, veterans declined, players had season-ending injuries, and yet every team found, among the available players, fill-in shortstops who could hit better than the Cubs did.

If we look at the worst team at shortstop in every year since 1996, and combine them, we find that the very worst shortstops collectively hit .225/.272/.305. This is the floor, more or less. (Actual replacement level is much more nuanced than this, and isn't calculated this way; we're just trying to keep this exercise as non-abstract as possible.) If a year of Trout is twice as valuable as a year of Jeter, then Trout's stats + League-Worst Shortstop's stats should be about as good as two Jeters' stats.

And it's pretty close. Trout and League-Worst Shortstop combine for a .347 on-base percentage and a .446 slugging percentage, assuming they get the same number of plate appearances. (Which they wouldn't; the League-Worst Shortstop would hit eighth or ninth and bat less frequently than Trout, but no matter.) Jeter, meanwhile, had a .377 on-base percentage and a .440 slugging percentage.

Jeter wins, but it's fairly close, especially considering Jeter played in hitter-friendlier environments. The American League scored about 0.3 more runs per game more during Jeter's career than during Trout's. Further, both Yankee Stadiums allowed considerably more scoring than Angel Stadium.

Of course, WAR has already told us this. We're just testing it to see if it makes sense that Trout and a league-worst shortstop could be about as good as two Derek Jeters. Offensively, where the largest portion of WAR comes from, it makes sense. You can see it.

The rest of WAR comes from defense, baserunning and ever-so-slightly the ability to avoid double plays.

Mike Trout has added slightly more value in the double-plays category: 8 runs to 7, as Jeter gave a few runs back later in his career. Jeter played a little more than twice as long as Trout has, but hit into about five times as many double plays. A tiny thing.

Jeter was a fantastic baserunner, as Trout is. Through Jeter's first eight seasons he was about as valuable on the bases as Trout has been, but then he kept adding, and ended up with 56 baserunning runs added, to Trout's 34 and counting. (Did you know Trout ranks fourth all-time in stolen base success rate among players with at least 200 attempts? He does! Jeter's a quite-good 46th.)

And then there's defense. The endlessly litigated defense. Jeter won five Gold Gloves, made some iconic plays and managed to stay at the toughest position in the infield until he was older than almost any shortstop in history -- while advanced metrics routinely reported he was the worst defensive shortstop in the game. Trout, meanwhile, is about average, maybe a tick better, at the toughest position in the outfield.

That position favors Jeter, but the performance favors Trout. In all, his defense is credited at about 100 runs more valuable than Jeter's. In this case, Jeter's longevity hurts him in a comparison. Trout doesn't have to be twice as good as Jeter on defense, since the longer Jeter played, the greater the gap between them grew.

Maybe you don't buy this assessment of Jeter's defense. That's fine, though I do have some reading material for you. In that case, no, Trout hasn't yet been as valuable (in just nine years) as Jeter was in his 20. But that's a distinction that isn't all that important: so it'll take him 10 years to pass him? OK. It's undeniable Mike Trout is sprinting past the career standards of all-time greats, like Jeter, his childhood favorite.

That's not to say he's had a better career than Jeter, whose longevity is its own historical accomplishment and whose celebrity and team success puts him in the pantheon of baseball greats. Jeter did things Trout would certainly envy, and might well value above some of his own personal accomplishments. You might take Trout's career over Jeter's at this point, you might not.

At the same time, though, Trout is doing things Jeter never approached. He's already collected about twice as many MVP votes as Jeter did in his entire career -- and that's before his almost certain MVP victory this year, which will push him into the top five MVP vote-getters ever. He already has a higher Win Probability Added for his career -- that's a counting stat, incidentally. His WAR this year is already higher than Jeter's career high, with a month to go. Jeter's best season would be Trout's seventh best.

Harry Heilmann, 72.2 WAR (59th)

How good Heilmann was:

1. There has been a number of players in this series who played in the 1920s and early '30s, when offense was bananas and the massive celebrity of a few ballplayers (Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby) seems to overshadow these guys. We're talking Al Simmons, Joe Cronin, Frankie Frisch -- and Heilmann, who batted over .390 four times and is the fourth-most-recent human being to hit .400 in the majors. Put it this way: If Heilmann's career were transported exactly 50 years forward, his WAR in the 1970s would have been the third-best in baseball -- barely behind Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench, ahead of Reggie Jackson, Pete Rose and Mike Schmidt. Those are all legends; he'd be a legend, right?

In the 1920s, Harry Heilmann was third in WAR, with 56.8. But he was almost 50 WAR behind Ruth and almost 40 WAR behind Hornsby. Who canonizes somebody who was 50 wins worse than the best player in the game? (This question, actually, might be relevant to any number of Mike Trout's contemporaries.) In a sense, the best way for the superstars in Ruth's shadow to get attention was to appear in Babe Ruth stories, the way Simmons and Cronin were part of the "five straight strikeouts in the All-Star Game" lineup. Or the way Frisch was traded for the much-more-famous Hornsby (and then outperformed him). So here's one for Heilmann: In the offseason, he sold life insurance policies. He sold one to Ruth, and because everything Ruth did was a big story, it made the news. There are some later accounts that suggest this helped make life insurance policies common in the United States. Also, he hit over .390 four times.

2. Here's another "tangential to greatness" story, as told in Heilmann's SABR bio. It was 1921 and Heilmann was a Tiger. His teammate was Cobb, insufferable cuss. Heilmann had been in the majors four full seasons already, but this was his breakout season. OK, so:

He battled Cobb, who was now also Detroit's manager, in a neck-and-neck race for the American League batting title, eventually outlasting his tutor with a .394 average. Cobb finished at .389. "When he beat Ty Cobb out for the batting championship Ty didn't really talk with him again," daughter-in-law Marguerite Heilmann said. "He was kind of irrational about it and wasn't really dad's cup of tea."

There are more explosive, more disturbing Cobb-as-sociopath stories, but there probably isn't one as mundane and convincing than that one. Heilmann hit .394!

3. Finally, one last one, also from the SABR bio:

His most famous act during that time, however, was on July 25, 1916, when he dove into the Detroit River to save a woman from drowning. He received a thunderous ovation at the ballpark the following day.

The woman that he saved? Eleanor Roosevelt! OK, not really, but did you know that Heilmann really did hit over .390 four times? He was incredible.

How Trout is plausibly better, already: Heilmann was a pretty one-dimensional, batting-average superstar. That was valued highly back then, so you can't blame him, but in the original "launch angle" era of the 1920s, he hit 20 home runs only once. He also didn't run very well, and he played right field poorly. Trout already has more career homers, will pass him in walks early next season, and has even passed him in career postseason hits, with one. (Either Heilmann or Luke Appling is probably the best player never to appear in a postseason game.) His best season, by WAR, would have been Trout's fifth best.

Up next: Trout will likely pass three next week, starting with Paul Waner.

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