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A highly abridged history of “The Great Debate”

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Never before has baseball so adamantly sought to dethrone their best player. And never before has it been so pointless.

Detroit Tigers v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Baseball writers, fans, and front offices are always looking for that next big thing. Even The Immortals in Cooperstown were once superseded as they aged. There always comes a day when a Cy Young dims as a Walter Johnson shines, when a Babe Ruth steps down as a Joe DiMaggio steps up.

The greatest battles for the spotlight will be remembered forever. They weren’t the simultaneous ascensions and denouements of careers, but rather the coinciding peaks. Mantle and Mays is a war that the old guard will recall fondly, while those under the age of 45 will tell you about how the later-disgraced Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire saved baseball. And now, in the twenty-teens, a new surge of fantastic players have begun an era that would be a prime candidate for Mantle-Mays or Sosa-McGwire-type “Best Player In Baseball” debate.

At least, it would be one if there wasn’t a player who was a cut above all the rest. There is no player in baseball who can lay claim to being the best player in baseball outside of Mike Trout. That much is obvious to us homers and also mostly obvious to those outside of the Angels’ sphere of influence. We all know that Trout has no mortal, living comparison. He does, however, have an enemy in baseball itself.

Very few people have a desire to see a player so completely dominate a sport. They want to see that rivalry that just doesn’t exist. They especially want to see that rivalry if their favorite team has the prospective rival on it. The media has thrown player after player after player at him in the fruitless hopes that one of them will give us a race for the ages.

Trout is coming up on 7 years at the highest level thus far, and it has been fraught with The Great Debate at every turn: “Trout or X?”

Trout or Brett Lawrie?

Yes, I’m serious.

It all started in late 2011 after Brett Lawrie had a debut to remember. Lawrie had 171 plate appearances with a hopeful Blue Jays team and accrued an outstanding 2.6 fWAR with a 157 wRC+ and a .293/.373/.580 slash line. Naturally, the air was abuzz with the word “phenom.”

Meanwhile, Mike Trout had a less than impressive performance in his cup of coffee. His defense kept him above water, but otherwise, he was pretty mediocre. He was still considered a top prospect by any respectable source. But there was a new top post-prospect in town, ready to duke it out for years to come with Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and Matt Moore(?).

John Sickels of Minor League Ball then invented The Great Debate when he titled this September 13th article later that year, “Can God Create A Prospect He Can’t Get Out? Brett Lawrie vs. Mike Trout.” He posed the great question, asking which player people would rather have for the remainder of his career. Of course, the poll was slightly in Lawrie’s favor, but let’s review a few of the most interesting comments.

Ah, yes. A Phillies fanatic breaks out the good old third base is a more valuable position than center field argument that you hear literally nobody say. Very good point.

Losing speed as he fills out? A marvelous observation. Mike Trout has slowed quite a bit as he has aged. It’s really too bad that he became so fat that he wasn’t anywhere near as valuable as Lawrie.

Commenter 2’s usage of statistics to show that Mike Trout probably has a higher floor than Lawrie is admirable, but he was severely underselling the incredible third baseman here.

Of course, Brett Lawrie then became what was basically a league average hitter with a pretty good glove at third before being traded to the A’s for Josh Donaldson. Very few Athletics fans were fond of this as Beane was trading their star (soon-to-be superstar) for what was at that point a reclamation project. He was cut by the White Sox the year after.

Trout or Bryce Harper?

This has been hashed and rehashed over and over and over and over and over and over. So this is where we do that abridging.

The short version is this. They both came up on the same day (so the rivalry seemed obvious), and Harper decided to be pretty good for a 19-year old while Trout decided to be pretty historic for a 20-year old. Then every year after, arguably except for 2015, Trout proceeded to be better. And by that, I mean, “he proceeded to wipe the floor with him, in the way that you use a Swiffer on a particularly grimy spot on the vinyl.”

There has been article, after article, after article, after article, after article, after article, after article, after article, after article written about the two. From 2017 alone. This is a history of comparisons, but the Trout-Harper comparison is a long-form article on baseball’s addiction for rivalries in and of itself.

Of course, the media is elated when things like the two hitting solo shots to almost the same spot in the first inning of the same game happen which can add more to their narrative of “competitive” non-Trout players.

Regardless, he was baseball’s best chance at a rivalry. He blew it because he’s only elite while Trout is otherworldly.

Trout or Miguel Cabrera?

The first award-driven debate was a timeless one. Michael Nelson Trout was the man who became the posterchild of sabermetrics and analytics that wondrous 2012 while Miguel Cabrera was a champion of the old writers and baseball minds of that time. For those who weren’t around at that time, it was quite the bitter fight.

This was the fight that made me love baseball again. This was the one thing that made me fall for the statistical side of the game. Watching every game of 2012, reading every sabermetric article I could, devouring every venomous article directed toward the two players, pleading with the TV for Trout to steal his 50th base, pleading even more for Miggy to not get the Triple Crown (because I wanted Trout to win the batting title), waiting on the edge of my seat for the end of the postseason so I could find out if Trout won the MVP, debating with my dad about who was more valuable, arguing about RBIs, defense, baserunning, and whether the playoffs mattered.

Mike Trout’s rookie year was the reason I became a baseball fan again. If you weren’t highly invested into 2012 baseball, you won’t understand what it was like. Reading this might give you a bit of insight, but no one can truly experience the Sabermetric-Traditional debate of 2012 without having lived it.

And when he was even better in 2013 and the debate happened again and Miguel Cabrera still somehow won, it was clear to everyone that this would be a rivalry that would stand the test of time.

It wasn’t.

Miguel Cabrera regressed the next season and then became injury prone with age. Once again, Mike Trout needed not slay another contender, but let him fall out of contention of his own accord.

Trout or Troy Tulowitzki?

In honor of the upcoming series against the Rockies, I give to you my favorite debate: Mike Trout vs. Troy Tulowitzki. This one was almost entirely fabricated by Purple Row, the Rockies SBNation blog. Let’s delve right into this masterpiece, shall we?

“Troy Tulowitzki is the best player in baseball, including Mike Trout”

We’re off to a great start here. I don’t see how this could possibly go wrong.

Perfect! A month-long sample size after a super hot start by Troy during Trout’s WORST FULL YEAR. We’re off to a swimming start.

Once again, I’ll take a few quotes that just make me cringe.

Ultimately I tend to judge these kinds of questions on a simple “Who would you take?” If every player in baseball was a free-agent and I had the first pick in the draft, I would take Troy Tulowitzki in a heart-beat, an eye-blink, a one-note-song...whatever. He is the rarest commodity in baseball and I would feel no hesitation or regret in taking him first overall.

I ran this test in MLB 14 The Show.

Andrelton Simmons? He has a home OBP of .333 and a road OBP of .267. I’ll have a follow up piece on defensive comparisons, but Tulo has been better in that regard as well, especially (according to Fangraphs) in terms of making more difficult plays.

The speed thing definitely has its advantages, though many of the same stat people who sing Trout’s praises are the ones who tell you that stealing bases is an unworthy risk. A stolen base attempt is worth negative WPA. The speed still plays well in general on the base paths and obviously in center field.

The whole article reaches constantly, but the sheer hilarity of it just had to be included. Half of the membership of Purple Row was like, “Yeah, no, but it’d be nice.”

Troy Tulowitzki would —and always did— suffer from injuries and was traded the very next season to the Toronto Blue Jays. He still suffers from injuries and can no longer hit in the friendly bandboxes of the AL East.

So much for all that “It’s not the Coors effect” talk.

Trout or Josh Donaldson or Andrew McCutchen?

Many will tell you that 2015 was the first truly fair and close race for MVP. Nobody questioned at this point that Trout was superior to Josh Donaldson, but Donaldson had a truly MVP-worthy year. Hats off to him for being close enough for long enough and for being on a team that made the playoffs. One of the two players had to win the close race.

Meanwhile, in the other league, Andrew McCutchen had been consistently tearing up the NL Central as a Pirate Elite since Trout took the AL by storm in 2012.

It still came as quite a shock then when MLB’s The Shredder gave its preseason predictions and said that Andrew McCutchen was a superior CF to Mike Trout. Andrew McCutchen was showing no signs of slowing, but he hadn’t had even one season superior to Trout.

Brian Kenny (who picked Trout as his number 1) defended The Shredder projections, saying that McCutchen did have an OBP edge on Trout with comparable tools.

After 2015, McCutchen dropped off a cliff. He did bounce back a bit in 2017, but he hardly looks like the best player in baseball anymore. At this point, Mike Trout had such a track record of consistency that despite losing the MVP, he was widely acknowledged as the best player in baseball.

Trout or Mookie Betts?

Everyone has already scoffed at Nick Cafardo’s article for the Boston Globe that relied on blatant misinformation, unnamed “scouts,” and cherry-picked statistics to make the argument that Mookie Betts is the best player in baseball over a certain man with a piscine surname. The roots of this piece of garbage go back a couple seasons.

This blatant disrespect from AL East punditry began when Mookie Betts gave Trout a decent run for his money in the 2016 MVP debate. It was hotly debated whether the defense and baserunning efficiency that Betts brought to the table was enough to unseat Trout in a weird and twisted reversal of the Miggy-Trout debate.

Outside of Boston, virtually everyone agreed that Trout was the winner. But as is reiterated in that abominable article above, Mookie Betts “should have one” MVP in many Massachusettsesians’ eyes.

Mookie has been sensational to start the season, but we are just one month in and Trout is already ahead of the pack in both fWAR and bWAR and on pace for what may be the greatest season in almost century. Furthermore, last season was hardly what you’d call an elite season from Betts. Even with Trout out for an extended period of time, he ended a full win and a half above a Mookie swinging a league average bat.

A lot of people have jumped on the Bettswagon this season, but don’t be surprised when they realize that Betts will regress to the mean. It’s going to take a substantial amount of time at this level he’s currently peaking at before we can truly consider Betts up there with the legend of Trout.

Trout or Jose Altuve?

Jose Altuve has been the one player who has consistently been elite for the past few years. He deserved the MVP in 2017 when Trout went down with injury. He plays in the same division as Mike Trout on the other super-competitive team. This means that this is it, right? We’ve found that rivalry?

Baseball would certainly like you to think that there is a conversation, and he certainly has the best argument, but it took a Trout injury to give Altuve and Judge a chance to win it. Before Trout’s injury, he was on pace for a 13 win season!

It definitely does not help Altuve’s case that his power has been sapped almost completely so far this season. His .101 ISO so far this season is the lowest he’s posted in a season since 2013, the last year that he was a crappy role player at best. His slash is currently a .322/.378/.423 with a 125 wRC+. That may not look so awful until you see that he has 2 home runs all season. It looks like he might have absorbed the entirety of the World Series hangover.

Trout or Assorted Others?

Dan Szymborski
Paul Sullivan
Maggie Ford
Chipper Jones

There is a common theme that has run throughout that is fairly obvious. Trout is a paragon of consistency. In his worst qualified season, he was injured and still managed an MVP-worthy fWAR due to an insane pace that would have given us a trademark season. In his worst full season, he still managed over 8 fWAR despite an inflated strikeout rate due to a flaw in his swing that he quickly fixed the next season. He has never had a qualified season in which he was anything less than MVP-caliber. His wRC+ has always been above 167. He steals. He smashes extra base hits. He cannot be stopped.

No player has shown what he has shown. Despite the media trying so hard to force a narrative about “races” and “rivalries,” there will never be a player who can so frequently push the boundaries like the Millville Meteor.

There are youngsters popping up daily who aspire to reach the level that Trout is at just once in their lives, and baseball will continue trying to find someone to compare him to. He will continue to shut down the Eloy Jimenezes and the Ronald Acunas because he’s larger than life. You’re watching the Baseball Overlord at work, and there is no hope for a coup.