As we conclude another season in which Mike Trout will get a bunch of MVP votes and won’t play in the postseason, here’s a question for you: Whose career would you rather have, Mike Trout’s or Reggie Jackson’s?
Trout is one of the 10 greatest players in history, clearly the best of his generation, and because he never has a down year — never really even slumps — he gets constant validation. This is his ninth season, and in a few weeks he’ll finish in the top five of MVP voting for the ninth time. For that, he has the largest contract in baseball history and he will retire with the reasonable conviction that he did everything that was possible with his talent. He hasn’t experienced everything the sport can provide, but he has done everything that an athlete can do.
Jackson wasn’t quite a Trout-level superstar. He won an MVP award, finished second once, was consistently one of the best players of his era but — as with most non-Trout stars — wasn’t consistently one of the best, if you follow the distinction. Some of his years were just pretty good. Once, the A’s tried to send him to the minors. He finished among the all-time leaders in homers, RBIs and runs scored, but Trout will eventually pass him in all those, and everything else. This month, Trout passed him in career WAR.
But Jackson has what Trout most lacks: Not just a World Series ring but five of them, and not just postseason experience but a postseason legend. Imagine what it takes to be the only person in the entire sport who gets to have the nickname Mr. October.
Ballplayers would say they just want to win, to help the team win, and that winning a World Series trumps any individual achievement. But is that true? Would Trout trade his career for, say, Sal Bando’s — no MVP award, no Hall of Fame, but 16 seasons in the majors and three World Series rings? Would he trade it for Frank Thomas’ — two MVP awards, the Hall of Fame and one World Series ring, which he collected while he was injured and unable to play? How about Kurt Suzuki‘s career — 14 seasons (and counting), never an MVP vote, probably nothing that’ll be remembered by anybody in 50 years, but one World Series ring? I don’t think he would.
But to me, Jackson — and Derek Jeter — are the tougher cases, combining Hall of Fame careers with legendary postseasons and not one but five World Series rings. Trout might trade his career for one of those two. In fact, if it turns out his 1-for-12 in the 2014 ALDS is his entire postseason resume, I think he would.
But anything less than Jackson and Jeter, he’s not trading, and if he ends up having a nice run of postseason appearances in his early 30s, he’s not trading. It’s true ballplayers will say they value winning the World Series more than the individual achievements. But ballplayers also value a particular ethic that says you control what you can control and just worry about doing your own job. What has happened around Trout has been unpleasant, and now that this season is over — and his Angels are yet again not in the playoffs — we can call the season another disappointment. But all Trout can do is be (arguably) the best baseball player who ever lived, or at least get in that conversation. He continues to do that.
Trout, who is only 29, is squarely in the passing-Hall-of-Famers-in-career-WAR-every-few-days period of his career. If I tell you that 29-year-old Mike Trout has more career WAR than Reggie Jackson, you could hear it as an incredible tribute to Trout, but you could also hear it as a diminishment of Jackson — and if we diminish Jackson, 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.
Since we last performed this exercise, Trout has raised his career WAR to 74.3 and passed three more Hall of Famers. We will consider each of the all-time greats Trout surpassed since the end of August.
Frank Thomas, 73.8 career WAR (55th all-time among position players)
How good Thomas was:
1. “Thirty years from now, if you take a poll, they’ll say, ‘Frank Thomas is the best hitter who ever lived,'” White Sox broadcaster Ken Harrelson said, back in February 1995, 25 years ago. Those 30 years have five more to go, but, uh, that probably won’t turn out to be true. But two years earlier, Harrelson had given another, slightly tamer version of that quote:
“In my 30 years in this game I have never seen anyone like him. In another 30 years we may be talking about Frank Thomas in the same way we talk about Ted Williams.”
It’s fair to talk about Frank Thomas the way we talk about Ted Williams; we probably don’t talk about him the way we talk about Ted Williams enough. Here are the greatest retired hitters of the past 100 years, by OPS+:
1. Babe Ruth
2. Ted Williams
3. Barry Bonds
4. Rogers Hornsby
5. Lou Gehrig
6. Mickey Mantle
7. Mark McGwire
8. Jimmie Foxx
9. Stan Musial
10. Johnny Mize
11. Hank Greenberg
12. Frank Thomas
Thomas is clearly well behind Ted Williams — he’s ahead of almost everybody who ever played, an eyelash ahead of both Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, but he’s clearly behind Ted Williams:
That’s 63 points of on-base percentage and 79 points of slugging, not all that close. But baseball gave Ted Williams a big advantage and Frank Thomas a big disadvantage. Wouldn’t a fair assessment of each player’s hitting genius consider that fact?
Here’s how each batter did with and without the platoon advantage:
Hitter had platoon advantage:
Pitcher had platoon advantage:
But Williams, as a left-hander, had the platoon advantage 78% of the time. Thomas, as a right-hander, had the platoon advantage only 24% of the time. If baseball were actually fair, and right-handed hitters weren’t at such a disadvantage, and if Frank Thomas and Ted Williams had each faced lefties and righties equally, the gap between them would shrink dramatically: Ted would have about 30 points of on-base percentage on Frank, but Frank would have the slightly higher slugging percentage.
That’s not how the rules of the game work, of course, and Ted Williams — as a left-hander — did have the advantage, did produce more, and was a more valuable hitter because of it. But was he that much better as a hitter? This might be one for the philosophers.
Instead, we can just say this: Frank Thomas is somewhere between the second- and fifth-best right-handed hitter who ever lived.
2. Frank Thomas was the largest man who ever played baseball. He is listed at 6-foot-5 and between 255 and 270 pounds. Nobody who ever played baseball was larger than that. The second-tallest baseball player in history was Randy Johnson, who was 6-4. Everybody else was 6-3 or shorter. Some would argue that I have some facts wrong. But Thomas was definitely the largest person to ever play, and the rest must all follow.
Here’s Thomas, fielding a pick-off throw at Auburn, where he’d gone to play tight end on a football scholarship but quickly become primarily a baseball player:
Look at him! He looks like a dad kneeling down to give his 5-year-old son a nighty-night hug. And look at his thigh! Really, go back in a time machine to 1990, when you were a skinny 10-year-old yourself, with twiggy legs that always got made fun of when you wore shorts, and look at his thigh. Look at it dozens of times, for hours cumulatively, and imagine hopefully that someday you’ll grow into your body, too.
In his final year at Auburn, Thomas walked 73 times and struck out 25. His on-base percentage was .568. Even when he was 10, “Kids would throw the ball behind him, over the backstop, all over the place,” says his father, Frank Sr. “They’d do anything to avoid pitching to him.”
3. Being large has its downsides, one of which is that long arms can make hitters vulnerable to inside pitches. Thomas had a trick for this: When a pitch was on the inside corner, he would make a show of jumping out of the way, suggesting a pitch further inside. His batting eye was legendary, anyway, and so he got the call. “They wouldn’t call the strike,” Chuck Finley once said. “You wouldn’t even bother trying to throw there.“
In 1998, Thomas got on the wrong side of the American League’s umpires. From Sports Illustrated:
Early in the ’98 season, still suffering the dislocation of a broken marriage, he seemed to lose his unspoken privileges at the plate all at once, in one game in April. “There were some very questionable pitches on the inside that could have been called either way,” recalls [White Sox GM Ron] Schueler of that day. “Frank, naturally, jumped back and took them in his own style. The umpire called strikes on two consecutive pitches. Frank didn’t handle it right.”
Thomas protested the calls publicly. Word of his reaction swept through the league, and the other umpires circled wagons. They began to call the inside-corner pitch a strike on Thomas, however far he jumped back. White Sox lefthander Mike Sirotka noticed a change in opposing pitchers. “They lost the fear of facing Frank,” Sirotka says. “From 1995 to ’97 you could see the fear in their eyes. When they started establishing the inside strike on him, you could see their confidence.”
Thomas had a new zone to adjust to. “I faced him in ’97, and I remember throwing him good pitches inside, right on the corner, and [the umpires] never called a strike,” says the Toronto Blue Jays‘ Kelvim Escobar. “Good pitches! Then they started calling it, and he was in trouble. You threw a fastball in the 90s on the inside corner, and he couldn’t hit it.” Thomas still stroked 29 home runs, with 109 RBIs, but his batting average plunged to .265. It was the first time in his career he had finished a season below .300.
That explanation is probably a bit too tidy, and a simpler story is that Thomas turned 30 and he did what great hitters in their 30s have done forever: He declined. But it’s true that all eight of Thomas’ best eight seasons, as a hitter, came through 1997, his age-29 season. After 30, he never led the league in any statistical category, though he did manage two more top-five MVP finishes. Up through 29, there was almost nothing like Frank Thomas. Through age 29, he’s fourth all-time in OPS+, just behind Ted Williams at No. 3. His 1994 season is the 21st-best ever, by OPS+, fourth-best ever by a right-handed hitter. I think this is the first time we can say this about any player in this series:
At his peak, Frank Thomas was a better hitter than Mike Trout.
How it’s plausible Trout is, indeed, already better: Thomas famously feuded with his manager Jerry Manuel because Manuel wanted Thomas to play first, and Thomas wanted to DH. “I’m a good fielder,” he said, “but I’m a great hitter. I like to concentrate on hitting.” Thomas was not, in fact, a very good fielder, and concentrating on hitting actually gave a slight bump to his defensive WAR. Trout, a strong defensive center fielder with positive baserunner value, racks up huge bonus WARs on him for that reason.
That might not be persuasive on its own, considering how glossy Thomas’ offensive numbers were, but Trout was more or less Thomas’ equal as a hitter. When we listed the best retired hitters up there, we purposefully omitted the still-active Trout, who would have ranked sixth, between Gehrig and Mantle. And while Thomas outhit him during their 20s, it was not by very much. Thomas’ offense in his 20s was fourth all-time, while Trout is sixth.
Thomas’ best offensive season was shortened by the 1994 strike. His career-high WAR would be Trout’s eighth-best.
Paul Waner, 73.9 career WAR (54th)
How good Waner was:
Three stories about Waner, all kind of about the same thing. The first one:
1. Waner was originally a pitcher. He starred as a pitcher in college, and when college ended he didn’t want to get a real job, so he went into professional baseball. In 1923, as a 20-year-old, he ended up in the Pacific Coast League pitching for the San Francisco Seals. Here’s how he tells it, in Lawrence Ritter’s oral history book, “The Glory Of Their Times”:
The first or second day of spring training we had a little game, the Regulars against the Yannigans — that’s what they called the rookies — and I was pitching for the Yannigans. The umpire was a coach by the name of Spider Baum. Along about the sixth inning my arm started to tighten up, so I shouted in, “Spider, my arm is tying up and getting sore on me.” “Make it or break it,” he says. They don’t say those things to youngsters nowadays. No, sir! And maybe it’s just as well they don’t, because what happened was that, sure enough, I broke it. And the next day, gee, I could hardly lift it. I figured that was the end of my career, and in a few weeks I’d be back in Ada.
Since he couldn’t throw, he spent the next week hanging around shagging batting practice in the outfield, trying to stay useful and hoping not to get sent back to Oklahoma. As he tells it, somebody finally asked if he wanted to take some cuts, figuring that otherwise he might get bored and quit shagging (and then the hitters would have to chase their own batting practice balls). So he went in and hit rope after rope. Waner: “When we were finished, we went into the clubhouse and nobody said a word to me. Not a word. And there was only dead silence.” The next day, the Seals turned him into an outfielder (though he could still barely throw). He hit .369 that year, in the best minor league in the country. Two years later he hit over .400 in the PCL, then two years after that he was the NL batting champ and MVP.
The point of that story being: He was a natural. He could hit anything, anytime.
2. In 1926, as a rookie Pirate, Waner was having a cigarette in the corner of the dugout when his manager told him he was supposed to be up. So Waner quickly grabbed a bat, any bat, didn’t even look at it. He got a hit. “So I thought, well, maybe that’s not such a bad way to do. The next time up I did the same thing, just grabbed a bat blind, no looking, and off came another hit. So I did that all day. Six bats and six hits.”
The point of that story being: He was a natural. His feel for hitting was supernatural. He could hit .380 with a tiny bat, a giant bat, a croquet mallet, a lug wrench. He could probably have hit .260 blindfolded.
3. Waner is most famous for being constantly drunk. He claimed to have a shot (or two!) of whiskey before each at-bat, to keep a flask in the outfield, etc. The most-told story of his inebriation involved a season when his manager suggested he lay off the hard stuff and stick to beer. In this story, Waner struggled the first time through the league, and his manager finally conceded — and ordered him to get back on the whiskey. Waner also claimed to have bad vision, and speculated that the booze helped him see the ball better.
There are a lot of versions of that story, none of them add up quite right, and in his Big Book of Baseball Legends, Rob Neyer comes away skeptical of them. “It seems more apocryphal than not, don’t you think?” I do think. Bill James, too, didn’t quite believe the tales: “I’ve always doubted, somehow, that Waner drank as much as people say he did. It doesn’t seem to fit; he was too much a durable, consistent type of player, never had an off year until he was past 35,” James wrote in the first edition of his Historical Abstract.
I wish that the six hits with six bats legend had been the legend that had most attached itself to Waner, not the alcohol abuse. Or the legend of PCL batting practice. Or just his actual career, because he truly was one of the greatest hitters of all time. He was the seventh and the eighth hitter in major league history to record his 3,000th hit. He was a small man playing in a huge ballpark, and Bill James writes that he found a brilliant way of slugging .500 anyway: “He became the all-time master at shooting for the foul lines, thereby spreading the outfield and making maximum use of the big green pastures. Besides, as he explained, if you hit a line drive to straightaway left field, it either lands for a single or you’re out; if you hit the same ball down the line, it’s either a double or a foul ball, and you’re still hitting. It was an ingenious and effective adaptation to a difficult situation.”
How it’s plausible Trout is, indeed, already better: You know when they retired Waner’s number in Pittsburgh? In 2007, 60 years after he retired, and after eight other Pirates’ numbers had already been retired. Waner was put in the Hall of Fame in 1952, and spent 15 seasons — and had almost 2,900 hits — with the Pirates. He’s third in franchise history in WAR. And yet! Sixty years they waited! I’m very confident that if Trout never has another hit, his number will be retired by the Angels in fewer than six decades. (Also, if Trout never has another hit, it would take more than 1,000 hitless at-bats before his career slugging percentage drops below Waner’s.) Waner’s best season, by WAR, would be Trout’s eighth-best.
Reggie Jackson: 74.0 WAR (53rd)
How good Jackson was:
1. In 1970, the petulant A’s owner Charlie Finley got it in his head to try to embarrass Jackson, first by threatening to demote him to the minors and then by ordering his manager to bench Jackson against lefties. “Ever since Finley decreed that Jackson be sat down against left-handed pitchers,” Sports Illustrated wrote at the time, “opposing managers have juggled rotations so that the A’s see nothing but lefthanders. Finley may not want Jackson in the lineup, but managers whose teams have to face him want him in it even less.”
If true, it might be one of the finest tributes to a player’s abilities I’ve ever heard — an entire rotation jumbled just to get one hitter out of the lineup? Even though he was slumping at the time? That’s a feared hitter. Is it true?
Finley’s decree came around May 19. That Sports Illustrated article had a publish date of June 8, so it was presumably written a few days earlier. The period in between lines up with a five-day stretch in which the A’s faced five left-handed starting pitchers: The Angels’ Clyde Wright and Rudy May, and Cleveland’s Sam McDowell, Barry Moore and Mike Paul. Of the five, there’s a good case that two of them were shuffled around to keep Jackson on the bench: Rudy May, who skipped a superior pitcher and pitched on short rest to start the final game of a series against Oakland; and Mike Paul, a reliever who was inserted into the rotation to face the A’s, pushing Dean Chance (a right-handed rotation stalwart) back a day.
Starting Rudy May worked pretty well. Jackson stayed on the bench until the bottom of the eighth inning, didn’t end up batting in the game, and the Angels held the A’s to two runs (but still lost). Starting Mike Paul didn’t, because Oakland’s manager, John McNamara, gave in that day and started Jackson anyway. In the sixth inning, Jackson hit a game-tying home run and knocked Paul out of the game. For the most part, Finley’s decree was revoked after that.
2. Jackson had 16 seasons with an OPS+ over 120, which is to say, 20% better than the league average (after adjusting for ballpark). That’s the 10th-most such seasons ever. When he retired, he had the sixth-most homers ever.
3. By the time my life caught up to Reggie Jackson’s, he was gray-haired and designated hitting. I never knew that he was once one of the fastest humans alive. He played defensive back for the Arizona State football team and reportedly ran a 6.3-second 60-yard dash. (Billy Hamilton, who might be the fastest major leaguer in history, ran a 6.2-second 60 before he was drafted.) He played some center field in the majors, and for the first half of his career he was, according to advanced metrics, a well above-average defender. He stole 28 bases as a 30-year-old.
You can really see what age does when you look at his baserunning. In the first five years of his career, Jackson took the extra base on hits — going first to third on singles, scoring from second on singles, or scoring from first on doubles — 54% of the time. (Trout, who is undeniably fast, takes the extra base 56% of the time.) In the next five years, it was 44%. Then the next five years, 37%. In his final five, 34%. For those first five years, though, Jackson could do anything.
How it’s plausible Trout is, indeed, already better: In Jackson’s own words:
“First of all, I don’t think the Hall of Fame is what it used to be,” Jackson said evenly, “or what it should be. When I think of the Hall of Fame I think of somebody like Joe DiMaggio — an impeccable player, a winner, a class act. Or Willie Mays or Hank Aaron or Roberto Clemente, players who could dominate a league or an era. Those are Hall of Fame players. Now, they’re letting in guys who have been good players, sure, but who have just been around for 20 years amassing a lot of stats. Some of them haven’t even been on winning teams, and they’ve just been good, never dominant, never that much above the others. To me, they aren’t Hall of Fame players.
“I don’t want to knock myself, but if the Hall of Fame is what I think it should be, I’m a borderline case. I’m a guy who should maybe get elected the second time around. The strikeouts hurt me. The batting average hurts me. Then again, I’ve played on some winners, I’ve put up some numbers and I’ve performed in championship games. That won’t hurt me. But I’m shy of the Mayses and the DiMaggios, that caliber of player. And I know it.”
He undersells himself. Jackson was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, with a lot of votes to spare. But he’s right that he’s just shy of the Mayses and the DiMaggios, that caliber of player. Trout isn’t. Jackson’s best season, by WAR, would be Trout’s fifth-best.
Up next: Johnny Bench.
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