Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Draft Kit [Print without images]

Friday, March 8, 2013
Making the case for Trout at No. 1

By AJ Mass
ESPN.com

Mike Trout's stats in his 2012 rookie season were, in a word, phenomenal. With a .326 batting average, 30 home runs and 49 stolen bases, he was a slam-dunk choice for American League Rookie of the Year, and he finished second in the AL MVP voting behind Miguel Cabrera. And in my opinion, there's nobody else who deserves to be selected with the No. 1 overall pick in 2013 fantasy drafts.

Spring Fever

It's difficult to express just how amazing Trout's 2012 season actually was on a historical level. To begin to put it into perspective, you first have to understand that there have been only 26 seasons in the history of baseball in which a hitter posted a .300 average, 30 homers and 30 steals. That's including players with all levels of experience, not just rookies. For Trout to have achieved the task as a rookie is an even rarer feat. There have been 25 players who have hit 30 or more home runs in their rookie season. The list of players with 49 or more stolen bases expands to 44 names. And when it comes to a batting average of .326 or higher (with at least 400 plate appearances), we end up one name shy of 50. However, Trout is the only one to be on all three of those lists.

From now on, people will wonder who is going to be the "next Mike Trout." But there's not going to be one. Trout's 2012 was so over-the-top good that the chances of anybody duplicating the feat are nearly nonexistent. If you were to lower the bar of expectations for rookies to the level of a player like Ben Zobrist, who was No. 68 on the ESPN Player Rater last year, one stolen base shy of hitting .270 with 20 home runs and 15 steals, you'd still be looking at only 14 names on that list.

In other words, in the history of baseball, only 14 rookies have ever managed to produce at that level in those three offensive categories. That's 14 in 142 seasons covering 16,219 hitters who managed at least one plate appearance in their careers. Here's the complete list:

*Pinson was not considered to be a rookie in 1959 by the standards of the time, but would have been under current rules.

Trout didn't just narrowly make his way onto this list the way Bryce Harper did. He absolutely blew these milestones out of the water. Trout was so good as a rookie from a historical perspective that he's almost a better bet to post a .300 average, 30 homers and 30 steals again in 2013 than 98 percent of the league is to hit .270-20-15. The safety of that probability for success makes him as close to a lock for the No. 1 overall pick as perhaps we've ever seen or ever will see in fantasy baseball.

Don't believe me? Well, let's break down each of these three categories:

Speed

Mike Trout
Mike Trout stole 49 bases in just 139 games.

Last season, Trout stole 49 bases in 54 attempts, a success rate of 90.7 percent. Certainly players don't take off for second each and every time they reach first base. The score of the game sometimes dictates that you get a red light, or there could be a runner already standing on second when they reach first base safely. However, Trout did attempt to steal on 28 percent of all "opportunities," which I'm defining as his total singles, walks and hit by pitches. That ranked eighth among all players with at least 100 hits and 10 stolen bases.

If we take his 2013 ESPN projections to determine his stolen base opportunities, even if we were to lower his steal attempt rate to 25 percent and his success rate to a mere 70 percent, he'd still reach 32 steals for the year. In short, anything shy of 30 steals would be an absolute shock.

Average

Trout's detractors will point to his .269 batting average from Aug. 24 to the end of the season as a warning sign that the wheels are due to come off, and that it's best to jump off the bandwagon before they do. That's nonsense. A body of work is full of statistical cherry-picking like this. In fact, during that same stretch of games, we can pull out a subset from Sept. 3-15 in which Trout hit .319, and he hit .361 from Sept. 25 through Oct. 3.

You could also grab a chunk of games from earlier in the season, when Trout could presumably do no wrong, and find a "lowly" .268 batting average from June 12-23. That's the problem with thin-slicing statistics. You can usually find a small enough sample size to prove the glass is half-empty if you want. But let's look at the season as a whole. Trout hit .346 against right-handed pitching and just .267 against lefties. The room for growth against southpaws is what makes me believe that any regression in his overall batting average will be minimal.

Power

Here's the one category in which one might legitimately expect Trout to fall short of the mark. After all, he hit exactly 30 home runs last season, and he needed an incredibly high HR/FB rate (21.6 percent) to reach that milestone. But here's the thing about that number: It was the ninth-highest HR/FB rate in baseball, but if you look at his nearest neighbors on that list, you'll see some familiar names:

The HR/FB rate was a career high for both Cabrera and Braun, so I would argue that perhaps Trout's 30 home runs are actually more repeatable -- especially if he hits a few more fly balls in 2013 -- than are the career-high home run totals for either of the other two potential No. 1 picks. Certainly, you can't make the argument against Trout without using the same one against Cabrera and Braun.

Putting it all together

I'm expecting Trout to have a season no worse than .300-25-40, which is a stat line that only 15 players in the history of the game have ever reached. Even if you lowered the batting average to .280, you're still looking at something only 19 players have managed to pull off. That's likely to be no worse than top-five on the Player Rater if you throw in some combination of 180 runs and RBIs, something he easily accomplished last season for the Angels in a lineup that did not contain Josh Hamilton.

A legitimate argument certainly could be made for any of the trio of Trout, Braun or Cabrera at No. 1 overall. But for me, it's Trout. Braun has the specter of the Biogenesis reports hovering over him, which offers at least a little risk. And yes, Cabrera might well post better numbers than Trout in four of the five offensive categories. But given that you'll be able to count on one hand the number of players who might have more steals than Trout in 2013, while you can use the other hand to count the number of total steals Cabrera will have (and still have a few fingers left over), that tips the scales wildly in Trout's favor for me.