March 14, 2016
Should Have Taken Trout
"We're going to take this kid with our first pick," Bane reportedly told his staff. "The problem is that he's not going to be there. He's too good." –San Francisco Chronicle
So, what if that other team had drafted Mike Trout?
A few things up front: I’m not getting into the nitty-gritty here. No “well, they won 81 games but they outperformed their run differential and with Trout maybe they wouldn’t have,” or “they wouldn’t have signed this player if they had Trout,” or “they would have made a deal at the trade deadline,” or “if they would have won eight more games, then other teams would have won fewer,” or “flap flap flap flap flap flap flap flap flap flap flap.” We’re also not going to assume Trout’s development hinged on him being in the Angels’ organization; Trout was pretty much immediately infallible once he made his pro debut, and as Mike Scioscia says, “God is going to take credit for Mike Trout, not anything we've done.” So we’re ignoring all that. This is simple as can be: How many wins did the team have? How many WARP was Trout worth? How many WARP was the player drafted instead of Trout worth (or, the player acquired in trade for the player drafted instead of Trout)? What’s the sum of A and (B minus C), and is it enough to get the team to the playoffs?
Secondly, this isn’t aimed at shaming GMs. As Billy Beane once told Ben Reiter, “The smarter guy is the guy who does this interview before the draft and says, 'Why aren't you guys going to take Mike Trout with the first pick?'” They all got it wrong. It happens. I’m not the smarter guy. The point of this question is actually something else entirely, or will be, once I figure out the point of this question near the end.
Finally, the premise: Every team drafting ahead of the Angels could have picked Mike Trout, not just in the literal sense but because Trout was a plausible pick everywhere except first overall. The Angels say they had Trout no. 2 on their board. The Yankees reportedly did, too. That’s all after the fact, and isn’t unanimous: “While we and I’m sure many other clubs saw him as a viable first-rounder, no one was considering stepping up to take him in the top five overall picks,” Tony Blengino has written. But it’s enough that we can say that every team after the Nationals at 1:1 could have picked Trout without looking too suspicious—without looking, in other words, like the pick was ordained by some future baseball writer’s deus ex machina.
Bold means an additional postseason appearance; italics means a division title instead of the actual wild card spot. The test begins… now:
Relevant: “Jeff Trout, based on his conversations with different clubs, thought the Mariners might grab Mike at No. 2 — Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik says Trout was in the mix.”
Relevant: “‘Trout was someone we really liked,’ said Giants scouting director John Barr. ‘I'd seen him personally.’”
Relevant: “Late word is that Detroit won't have a blank check to sign its favorite player who falls because of signability, which would have been Matzek, Turner or Purke. Candidates for a slot deal include Lipscomb lefthander Rex Brothers, Trout and James.”
Relevant: Washington … will pay heavily for Strasburg, so they're looking to cut a below-slot deal with this choice. Kennesaw State righthander Chad Jenkins, New Jersey high school center fielder Mike Trout and North Carolina prep catcher Wil Myers are three candidates.” Also, “They've also looked hard at … Mike Trout.”
Relevant: “A's general manager Billy Beane was sufficiently intrigued to make the cross-country trip and watch Trout in a game for his Millville (N.J.) High team. ‘It wasn't a great day,’ said Beane. ‘I think he went 0-for-5, and we didn't even get a chance to see him run down the line. But you could see his makeup, as a teammate. Our guys loved him. Mark Sauer, our area scout, was on him strong.’” Also, “He was one of our guys, actually. He was one of the three guys we were talking about drafting—Trout, Green and Mike Leake.”
Relevant: “Jeff (Trout) also thought the Diamondbacks might take Mike — they had scouted him heavily, and had the Nos. 16 and 17 picks.”
Arizona Diamondbacks, 17th overall pick
Relevant: “The Marlins love youth and upside, so this pick could be made based solely on ceiling. They could go with a high school power arm like Chad James, but will likely focus on one of the many toolsy-but-raw prep outfielders who profile as late first-round talents. Of that group, Mike Trout has more current baseball skills than any of them.”
Relevant: “We were excited about Shelby Miller. The backup plan was Mike Trout.”
Toronto Blue Jays, 20th overall pick
Here’s what jumps out: 23 teams, four seasons apiece, 92 total seasons. In 19 of them—that’s nineteen, with an n!—a team that missed the playoffs would have made the playoffs. In 12 more, a team that won a spot in the wild card play-in game would have won the division, instead. So, in a full third of seasons, a team’s playoff status would have changed by adding one player—indeed, adding one while simultaneously losing a different first-rounder. A third. Insane. (Further, 53 of the 92 seasons produce a postseason appearance. Simply putting Mike Trout on any random team appears to give that team close to 60 percent playoff odds.)
That’s primarily a Mike Trout Fun Fact—it’s only true because it’s Mike Trout, and because Mike Trout is good to a degree I’m still not sure I appreciate. (Here’s another Mike Trout Fun Fact: After Strasburg, the 22* players chosen instead of him have produced a total of 67 bWAR. Trout has produced 37, or 55 percent as much.) Pretty much every single season for every single team gets a huge Trout adjustment, except the 2013 Tigers (because Turner was traded for Infante+Sanchez, who produced 8 WARP that year) and the 2015 Cardinals (Heyward via Miller) and Diamondbacks (Pollock)—because it’s Trout.
But it’s also proof of something that is going to sound incredibly obvious, but that I think I’ve slowly lost sight of: Decisions matter. Yes, I know: Incredibly obvious. But because baseball is so unpredictable, and because we out here don’t always have access to the information that clubs do, and because even that information excludes the many mysteries of the human psyche, it’s easy to shrug and say “I guess we’ll just see what happens.” That’s not the same as saying that the decisions don’t matter, but it absolves us as analysts of having to assess them—before or, even, after the fact. But of course decisions matter, and this exercise more than anything highlights that.
If the Pirates had just drafted Trout instead of a future backup catcher, they’d arguably have won three divisions and a wild card spot, rather than three lousy wild cards.
If the Orioles had just drafted Trout instead of a prep right-hander, they’d arguably be the dominant team of this era: Four consecutive postseason appearances, an average of 97 wins per season.
If the Braves had just drafted Trout instead of an injury-prone lefty, Frank Wren is still the GM in Atlanta, and the Braves still have Andrelton Simmons and Craig Kimbrel, and for that matter maybe Dansby Swanson is still a Diamondback and Manuel Margot is still with the Red Sox. If the Nationals had drafted him instead of a college closer, Matt Williams still has a job, and we get to watch Bryce Harper and Mike Trout playing in the same outfield.
So, yeah, decisions matter. Maybe it’s fairer to say that we just don’t know which decisions matter. Not only do many similar decisions not matter—taking Chad Jenkins instead of Chad James, for instance, didn't matter—but even this decision didn't matter to all teams. The Padres had probably the biggest bust in the draft, but had they picked perhaps the greatest player in the history of the draft they would have made zero extra playoff appearances, by this simple math. Heck, for that matter, check this out:
Los Angeles Angels, 25th overall pick
It’s probably fair to say that the Angels have wasted Mike Trout to a degree that has almost no precedent in any major sport. Plenty of great players have played for lousy teams, but there are very few who are this great, and the Angels have sat out three of his four Octobers anyway. But what’s amazing is that they haven’t just figuratively wasted Mike Trout; his existence on their team has literally been a total waste, at least by the standards of postseason success. The Angels missed three postseasons with him, and the one that they went to was (by our overly simplistic math) not dependent on him at all. And once there, they got swept in the first round, so they certainly could have matched that without Trout. It’s one of the great ironies discovered by this exercise: Nearly every franchise in baseball’s trajectory over the past four years would have been radically different if they’d just drafted Mike Trout, and yet the one team that got him hasn’t reaped a damned thing. (Except for the insurmountable joy of getting to watch him play every day, of course!)
One last observation: 19 of these “simulated” seasons produced a 100-win team. In fact, only one team has won 100 games in any of the past four seasons—or even 99. It’s hard to win 100, of course, but if it’s really so simple that 21 percent of teams (19 of 92) are within one extra superstar then you’d think we’d see it a lot more than once in four years. This leads me to wonder if there’s some invisible force of parity that keeps teams in a fairly narrow band of outcomes—that if you take 10 teams with a true talent level of 80 wins and 10 other teams with a true talent level of 95 wins, and you put an 8-WARP upgrade onto each rosters, if the 80-winners would average 88 wins but the 95-winners would, somehow, average less than 95+8. I’m not sure what that force would be—the simplest explanation might be that teams don’t really try for those “unnecessary” wins at the upper scale, either at the roster-construction level or at the player-playing-actual-games level. I dunno. This isn’t well thought out. But Mike Trout, a 9-WARP player at either a corner or in center, ought to be able to improve just about every team by nine wins, and yet I’m suspicious that last year’s Pirates would have won 108 games with him last year.
Now, go off somewhere and fantasize about all the places this exercise might take you: Would the Nationals have won the World Series in 2012 if their 1:1 pick had been an MVP center fielder instead of an ace on an innings limit? Would the Astros have kept doing The Process once they saw Trout playing at MVP levels in 2012?
Would the Marlins be the World Series favorites this year with Trout, Stanton and Fernandez—and would they immediately firesell them all eight months from now? Would he really have a .339/.436/.624 slash if he’d spent his first four years in Coors Field, as B-Ref's stat-translator toy says? You could go down this road for days, though you probably shouldn't. Nobody wins the Should Of Took Trout game.
*Because Grichuk wasn't chosen instead of him.