Mike Trout: The Next Mickey Mantle…Or Vada Pinson?

Sep 22, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout (27) looks on from the dugout before the game against the Oakland Athletics at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Trout is the best player in the game right now, correct? Or that’s the general consensus anyway. I enjoy watching him play, and on a side note, really enjoyed him looking pedestrian against my Kansas City Royals in the ALDS (shameless Royals plug). That said, I was at game three and witnessed one of those Mike Trout moments, the first inning homer he launched into the fountain at Kauffman Stadium. While it was fun watching the Royals fans heckle Trout, the thought that this guy could easily be a three time MVP (assuming he finally wins this year) was the only thing keeping me from joining the crowd.

All that got me thinking…who else has played like Trout at such a young age? I know there are guys out there – Mickey Mantle, for example, is a guy I hear Trout compared to quite a bit, but who are some other players we can compare with Trout?

I decided to head over to Trout’s Baseball Reference player page and check out the similarity scores. Most of you have seen these I’m sure…either on that site or in Bill James’ book, The Politics of Glory. If you want to know how these scores are figured, you can check it out right HERE.

This system allows us to look at age based scores, looking at how similar certain players were to each other at or through a particular age. If nothing else, this little exercise might also give us an idea of how valid (or invalid) these scores might be…

Looking at most similar players by age, his most comparable player at age 20 (Trout’s official rookie year) was Vada Pinson, while Frank Robinson was his top comp at age 21, and Mantle at age 22 (Trout’s current season).

Looking first at Pinson , we see that he and Trout started off similarly in their careers. Both got a cup of coffee at age 19, followed up with full seasons at age 20. Both were All-Star players and both received MVP consideration – Trout finished second in the vote while Pinson came in a distant 15th. Pretty similar so far, but let’s take a look at the numbers:

[table id=8 /]

Both players led their league in runs scored (129 for Trout, 131 for Pinson) and were only 10 points different in batting average (.326 for Trout, .316 for Pinson). Pinson had more XBH, 76 to Trout’s 65, but Pinson had more plate appearances, so shifting to ISO, we see Trout had better power with a .238 ISO to .193 for Pinson. Trout also had the better OBP by 28 points and had a big advantage in stolen bases. Where you really see the difference is at OPS+, where Trout wins hands down by a score of 168-129. Not even close. Jumping over to Fangraphs…we see Trout had an OFF of 62.1, DEF of 13, and fWAR of 10.1, while Pinson put up a 28.6, -1.9, and 5.3, respectively.

While they are somewhat similar on some of the counting stats…it seems clear that Trout was far and away the better all-around player at age 20.

So how does he compare to Frank Robinson (age 21 comp) and Mickey Mantle (age 22 comp)? With Robinson…both players match up interestingly again…both in their second full season at this age, both (again) All-Stars and in the MVP race. The numbers stack up like this:

[table id=9 /]

Again…these two match up favorably in counting stats, with Trout this time having more PA than Robinson, and having 9 more XBH than Robinson. Going back to ISO, we see Trout winning this battle again .234 to. 206. Of course Trout wins the speed game again by 23 steals. Going back to OPS+, Trout wins big again here 179 to 135 (an even wider margin than versus Pinson). Going back to Fangraphs again – Robinson has a 31.9 OFF, 11.7 DEF, 6.6 fWAR compared to Trout’s 70.3 (wow), 3.3 and 10.5 (and wow), once again blowing away the competition.

Lastly…we have Mickey Mantle. Not only is he the #1 comp for Trout at age 22, but also the #1 comp through age 22. In Mick’s age 22 season (1954), he was an All-Star and finished 15th in the MVP vote…Trout was also an All-Star and, by all accounts, will be the MVP. You know the drill by now…the numbers:

[table id=10 /]

Pretty good match-up here. Mantle scored more runs and had a higher AVG and OBP. They were close in OPS+, with Trout winning that battle 167-158. Again, Trout out-slugs his opponent, winning the ISO comparison .274 to .225. And looking at the Fangraphs numbers…Mantle posted a 46.4 OFF, -1.6 DEF, 6.7 fWAR to Trout’s 56.9, -8.4, 7.8, which is by far the closest comparison.

Now…how does Trout stack up to Mantle through age 22?

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As you can see…it’s a pretty even comparison with Mantle having just six more plate appearances than Trout through their age 22 seasons. Mantle scored 16 more runs, had one more triple, 39 more RBI, 30 more BB, and 107 less K. Trout, however, had more hits, doubles, homers, 77 more steals, and a higher slash line across the board, resulting in an OPS 49 points higher than Mantle’s. Trout also has the better OPS+ with a 166 versus 148 for Mantle.

In the Mantle scenario, the similarity score works. He was fairly close to Trout in their age 22 seasons and the two are in a dead heat, really, as far as total production through age 22.

Sep 9, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA; Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout (27) hits an rbi triple during the eighth inning against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The similarity score, in Trout’s case, doesn’t seem to hold up in two out of the three comps (when you dig into WAR, OPS+, and so on), but then again…Trout is a freak and maybe those guys (Pinson and Robinson) really were the best comps at those ages. It would be hard to touch what Trout has done at such an early age, even for a HOF player like Frank Robinson.

What does this mean going forward? Who might Trout compare to when trying to predict the future? Well…even though Trout took a step back this year (hard to believe, I know), he should, if history is any indication, actually keep getting better. In Mantle’s age 23 season, he posted an OPS+ of 180, a 14% increase from his age 22 year.

If Trout can do something similar…that would mean an OPS+ of 190 in 2015. Mantle, in his age 23 through 34 seasons posted an OPS+ of 184, a 24% increase over his OPS+ through age 22. If Trout can improve (and sustain) at a rate similar to Mantle…his OPS+ for the next several years would be more than 200.

Frank Robinson, for what it’s worth, posted a 163 OPS+ from his age 23 through 34 seasons, while Pinson posted a 110 in the same stretch of his career (an 11% decrease from his OPS+ through age 22). Robinson, by the way, is Trout’s second most similar batter through age 22 after Mantle.

It’s impossible to say what might happen from Trout’s age 23 season and beyond. It’s hard to fathom him hitting some of Mantle’s high points (.486 OBP in 1962, .705 SLG in 1956), and I’d be shocked if he wound up posting something like Pinson’s OPS+ of 110. That being said…Trout’s career has started off like few others in the history of the game. Is he bound to drop off at this point? If he did see a regression similar to Pinson’s (-11%), he’d still be really good, posting an OPS+ of 148 through that age 34 season.

For what it’s worth…Trout’s other most similar batters through their age 22 seasons, after Mantle and Robinson, are: Hank Aaron, Ken Griffey (Junior), Miguel Cabrera, Al Kaline, Pinson, Cesar Cedeno, Tony Conigliaro, and Orlando Cepeda.

Interestingly enough…while Trout’s best comp at age 22 is Mantle, Griffey is Mantle’s best at that age. Griffey, by the way (and you thought I was done, didn’t you?), put up a 146 OPS+ from age 23 through 34, although his career was somewhat derailed by injury along the way. Even so, Griffey’s OPS+ during that span was slightly better than his age 19 through 22 seasons (OPS+ of 138). Meaning Griffey increased his OPS+ at about a 5.7% rate.

Where will Trout’s future take him? His speed game dropped off this year (as far as steals…the guy can still run, of course) and his strikeouts spiked big time in 2014. His power should only get better, and I don’t see him ever having a huge dip in production at the plate, really. I don’t know that he is going to see a 24% increase like Mantle (I mean good lord…that’s just ridiculous), but I don’t see him having Pinson’s 11% drop either. Could he put up a 5.7% Griffey type of increase? Probably. And if he does that, he’ll have somewhere around a 175 OPS+ from age 23 through 34…which isn’t quite Mickey Mantle, but it ain’t Vada Pinson, either.

One other guy to keep an eye on who is not on the similarity list (yet)…Willie Mays. Mays debuted at 20, went into the military and missed time, and finally hit the ground running at 23. So his lack of playing time precludes him from making the list at this point. That said…his blend of power and speed, and an OPS+ of 167 from those age 23 to 34 years, is something within the realm of possibility for Trout.

Looking back at the top 10 similar players…one thing is certain, Trout is in some pretty great company. Which guy will he be most comparable to 10 or 15 years from now? Mantle? Griffey? Pinson? None of the above? Only time will tell, but the sky is the limit.