Three Quick Hits on Baseball
Trout being Trout
Here’s the thing that blows my mind about Mike Trout: He’s ALWAYS Mike Trout. That is to say that he gets hurt a lot, he’s got some sort of congenital back problem going, his teams are always terrible, but when he gets on the field he’s always this absurdity, this larger-than-life superstar who is simply better at baseball than anyone else in the entire world.
You see what Trout is doing now. He came back from injury on Aug. 19. In the weeks leading up to his return, there were rumors — triggered by some perhaps imprecise wording from Angels trainer Mike Frostad — that his career was substantially over, that the back thing was going to haunt him for the rest of his career. Those rumors were so forceful and convincing that Trout had to do what he thoroughly loathes doing: Talk about himself.
“I think [Frostad] meant I’ve got to stay on top of the routine I do on a daily basis to prevent it from coming back,” Trout said. “I feel good where it’s at right now.”
“You think you’re going to play again this season?” he was asked.
“Of course,” he said. “Of course.”
“You don’t have any long-term concerns?”
“No,” he said. “No. No. No.”
OK, so Trout returned on Aug. 19. Twenty-one games ago. In those 21 games*, he’s hitting .313/.367/.747 with 11 home runs, 17 runs scored and 18 RBIs. You probably don’t want to do the 162-game projection on that, that’s not especially realistic, but quick math will tell you that’s even bigger than what Aaron Judge is doing. Trout has now hit home runs in seven straight games.
*It goes without saying that the Angels are 10-11 in those 21 games, by the way.
Trout has played only 100 games — and many of those were pain-filled games (in the three or so weeks leading up to the injury, he hit just .197). Even so, he is now second in the American League in home runs behind Judge. He’s second in the American League in OPS.
Every so often when talking with ballplayers like Joey Votto, I’ll bring up Trout along with other great hitters in baseball like Judge and Yordan Alvarez and Paul Goldschmidt and Mookie Betts, and they will almost always stop me to say that as great as those other players are, they’re not Trout. He’s his own category.
For a while baseball fans called Albert Pujols “Ese Hombre” or “The Man.” He asked them to stop doing that. “There is only one ‘Man,’” he said. “And that’s Stan Musial.”
After that, “The Machine” (or “La Maquina”) became Pujols’ main nickname (along with Prince Albert, among others). It was a great nickname for Pujols for the first 11 seasons of his career, because the guy put up the same incredible season year after year after year, like a machine. I’ve done this before — but look at this season:
.328/.421/.617 with 41 doubles, 41 homers, 120 RBIs, 117 runs, 89 walks, 64 strikeouts, 170 OPS+.
That’s a pretty good season, no?
Except — that isn’t a season. That’s the AVERAGE season for Albert Pujols between 2001 and 2011. As good as you might remember Pujols being, he was probably better than that. He won three MVP awards. He probably should have won five or six. He led position players in WAR every year from 2005 through 2010.
Anyway, the Machine broke down for almost a decade in Anaheim. Some of it was predictable — Anaheim is a tough hitters’ park, he was 32 when he got to town, etc. Some of it was unforeseen. Pujols could still hit mistakes out of the park, and he did hit 222 home runs for the Angels, which is as many as Brian Downing and more than Troy Glaus. But the rest of his game suffered. And it was hard to watch. The Angels flat-out released him last year.
He went to the Dodgers and discovered something about himself: If given the chance, he could still punish left-handed pitching. Throughout his career, Pujols had a pretty normal-looking split — he might have hit lefties a touch better than righties, but only a touch. The Machine punished all.
But as he saw his career come to a close, he found that with his experience and know-how, he could really exploit that platoon advantage. He hit 17 home runs in 2021. Thirteen of them were off lefties. His slugging percentage against righties was an astonishing .266. His slugging percentage against lefties was an equally astonishing .603.
Then, as we all know, he returned to St. Louis, and the Cardinals tried hard to match him up against left-handed pitching — and the results are mind-boggling.
Against righties, Pujols is hitting .200/.292/.360, which is poor, sure, but better than last year.
But against lefties? He’s Babe Ruth. He’s Josh Gibson. He’s hitting .363/.405/.775 against lefties. He has hit 12 home runs in 116 plate appearances. That’s one homer per every 9.3 plate appearances. How good is that? When Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs, he hit one homer every 9.1 plate appearances.
And here’s the thing — if you watch Pujols hit against lefties, it’s like watching the years melt away. He’s attacking the ball. He’s swinging like he’s 25 years old. He’s hitting absolute rockets.
Pujols seems determined to retire at the end of the year, though I cannot imagine he will if he falls short of 700 homers. Then again, I don’t think he’s going to fall short of 700 home runs. He’s at 697. There have to be three lefties he can face over the next two-plus weeks.
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The Playoff MVP
Tom Tango brings up an interesting topic — what if we really did limit MVP candidates just to teams that make the playoffs? That wouldn’t affect this year’s vote, probably, as Aaron Judge and Paul Goldschmidt are heavy favorites to win the awards and both of their teams are going to make the playoffs.
But Tango asks this: What if Judge had been traded to Anaheim at the beginning of the season? I think we can all agree that even with Judge, the Angels would not make the playoffs — not only because they are 19 games under .500 but because they’re the Angels, and if they had the Big Red Machine lineup, the 1971 Orioles rotation and Mariano Rivera closing, they would probably still go 77-85.
Point is, in Tango’s scenario, Judge is not on a playoff team.
So, who would be the league MVP?
Well, it wouldn’t be Shohei, obviously; he’s not making the playoffs. Xander Bogaerts is having one heck of a year — and for my friend Gabrielle, SIGN XANDER — but the Red Sox are not making the playoffs.
There are a couple of Cleveland guys having MVP-type seasons and might be tough to pick between. Jose Ramirez is the more conventional candidate — he leads the league with 40 doubles, he’s got 26 homers and 109 RBIs, etc. Andres Gimenez’s offensive numbers are not in that sphere (though he does have a 141 OPS+) but he’s been playing great defense and actually has a higher bWAR than Ramirez.
As of right now, Cleveland has a three-game lead in the AL Central. But, sure, the Guardians could end up missing the playoffs too. And then what?
I guess then you could drop down to Seattle rookie Julio Rodriguez; he’s next in bWAR and he’s having a wonderful rookie season (.277/.340/.494, 25 homers, good centerfield defense). But is he the league MVP? Uh, no.
In Houston, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman are having nice years, though neither strikes me as a particularly compelling MVP candidate. Yordan Alvarez is an electrifying hitter, but a DH who isn’t leading the league in any offensive category just doesn’t feel quite like the MVP, either.
And none of the pitchers feel like MVP candidates. Dylan Cease? The White Sox still have an uphill climb to make the playoffs. Kevin Gausman? FanGraphs WAR loves him, Baseball-Reference WAR not so much. Justin Verlander? He’s still out, plus he might not even win the Cy Young Award.
You can see the problem, perhaps, with limiting your MVP choices to good teams. It’s a simple baseball story: The best player cannot make his team win, no matter how good he is.