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Mike Trout is the closest thing we have to Willie Mays

Willie Mays is the greatest center fielder who ever played. Mike Trout may wind up being better.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Mike Trout turned 28 today, and—stop me if you’ve heard this before—he’s off to the best start in baseball history. He entered last night’s game with 71.6 bWAR, the most by a player before their 28th birthday. With a 1-for-3 performance with a walk and a home run, he knocked that up to 71.7.

Over at ESPN, Sam Miller is running a monthly series detailing all the Hall of Famers Mike Trout is passing in career WAR. Just in July, Trout passed eight players enshrined in Cooperstown including Gary Carter, Bobby Wallace, and Alan Trammell. Among center fielders, Trout’s 71.7 WAR ranks seventh, and no one that’s ahead of him isn’t in the Hall. Trout is on pace for 10.5 WAR this season, and if hits that and has a typical Mike Trout season next year, Trout will pass Joe DiMaggio and Ken Griffey Jr. to move into fifth all-time.

Center Fielders Ahead of Mike Trout

Willie Mays 156.4 73.7 115.0
Ty Cobb 151.0 69.2 110.1
Tris Speaker 134.1 62.3 98.2
Mickey Mantle 110.3 64.8 87.6
Ken Griffey Jr. 83.8 54.0 68.9
Joe DiMaggio 78.1 51.0 64.5
Mike Trout 71.7 63.8 67.1

From there, it will take a little more time to overtake the legends ahead of him. If he keeps going at his present pace, around 9 wins per season, he should pass Mickey Mantle sometime around 2023 to 2024 and Tris Speaker somewhere between 2026 and 2027. By that time, he’ll be in his mid-30s, well beyond the age where players start to slow down. Assuming Trout only plays to the end of his contract which expires in 2030, he would have to average 7.2 wins over the next 11 years to barely edge out Willie Mays and become the new greatest center fielder to ever play.

Expecting a player to keep a 7-win pace through his mid-30s is unreasonable, but again, that’s assuming Trout only plays to the end of his contract. Trout turns 39 in the final year of his deal. If Trout plays until he’s 42 like Mays did, he’d only have to average 5.3 wins over the next 15. In other words, Trout would have to be half as good as he’s been until this point. Trout has never finished a full season with less than 6.6 WAR. and Trout has a knack for improving himself and adapting his game.

Trout is three homers away from matching a career high and there are two months of the season to go. If this pace holds, he would lead the American League in homers for the first time in his career. At the Ringer, Ben Lindbergh wrote about the various categories in which Trout has led the league. Trout always finds new areas of the game to conquer.

Prior to 2011, when Baseball America dubbed Trout the second-best prospect in baseball, the publication pronounced that he had “the potential to hit 20 or more homers annually.” Now he’s leading the league. His arm was once a weakness, and now it launches lasers. Trout walks way more than he used to, whiffs way less than he used to, and doesn’t steal as often. It may be mind-blowing that he’s averaged more than 9.0 WAR per season since his first full year, but the beauty is in the variable building blocks underneath that number.

It’s easier to imagine Trout picking up a new skill than it is to see him breaking down. As Lindbergh said, he hasn’t won a batting title because he walks too much, but with his contact and power, he could if he wanted to. He still has 95th percentile sprint speed, so he could go back to stealing bases, but why bother when the juiced ball means he’s in scoring position on first base.

Willie Mays was a perfect player, but Trout has been just as good. In his 22-year career, Mays led the league in walks once. Trout has done that three times, and he’s on pace to do it a fourth time. Mays led the league in slugging and OPS five times each; Trout is on pace to lead in slugging a third time and OPS a fourth time in 13 fewer seasons. Trout is on pace to lead the league in RBI for a second time, and that’s something Mays never did. In overall black ink, Trout only trails Mays by 14, and Mays played most of his career in a 10-team league. It was easier for Mays lead the league. Trout has already won as many MVPs as Mays, and he’s never finished lower than fourth in voting.

None of this takes away from Mays’ greatness. He owns the greatest career by a center fielder in 150 years of baseball. If Trout falters, it’s hard to see anyone ever coming close again. But if Trout continues like he has, Trout’s career will wind up better. If that makes you angry or resentful because Mike Trout isn’t a Giant, I don’t know what to tell you. Mays retired 15 years before I was born, so I never had the privilege of watching him. Getting to see Mike Trout is the closest thing I have, and as a baseball fan, I’m grateful for that.