The five players who could pass Mike Trout as MLB’s best player … this season

The Millville meteor. Kiiiid. Problem. God of war. Kingfish. Whatever you call Mike Trout, you also call him the undisputed best player in baseball for nearly a decade.

In fact, Trout has been ranked number one in our annual ESPN MLB Rank 100 for eight consecutive seasons. The last time a player other than Trout was at No. 1 was in 2013, when Trout, then 21, finished third behind Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander.

But after the 2020 season, when he turns 30, the window begins to open for another superstar to replace Trout’s throne.

With that in mind, we asked five of our MLB experts to pick the player they believe could capture the title of best player in baseball and make the strongest case for that player to take the crown in 2021. We then brought in our own arbitrator, Jeff Passan, to evaluate things and make a final decision on which stars could surpass Mike Trout as the best player in the MLB – and when they could do so.

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Last 162 games:

Yelich: .288 BA, .974 OPS, 43 HR, 88 RBI, 116 R, 31 SB, 6.8 WAR
Trout : .288 BA, 1,052 OPS, 56 HOURS, 134 REFS, 9 SB, 9.4 WARS

A case for Yelich: You may have forgotten how good Yelich was after his 2020 year in Milwaukee, but he’s the only player who can match Trout at the plate in the last two seasons.

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While Trout led OPS+ in 2018 and 2019, Yelich did the same in the NL. In fact, that’s 343 more total bases in 2018 than Trout has ever had in a single season. Add to that two batting averages and 52 stolen bases in those two years, and Yelich leads everyone in runs scored, including Trout. Both also rank first and second in MVP voting during this period. And Yelich’s .807 OPS against left-handed pitchers is in the top 10 for left-handed hitters in the last 40 years.

All we need to do to win this debate is delete 2020. If not, how do you explain Javier Baez, Jose Martinez, Jose Altuve, Eugenio Suarez and many other players all breaking down during the shortened season. The past year should not influence this debate. — Jesse Rogers.

Judge Jeff Passan said: Trout wasn’t bad during the shortened season. Juan Soto, Mookie Betts and Fernando Tatis as well. Being the best doesn’t mean you have to be perfect for a year. We are talking about a stable and constant value.

Since we’re in the mood to throw things away, maybe we’ll start with this one. Motion defeated.

Ronald Acuna, Jr.

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Last 162 games:

Akuna: .272 BA, .917 OPS, 47 HR, 107 RBI, 43 SB, 6.8 WAR
Trout : .288 BA, 1,052 OPS, 56 HOURS, 134 REFS, 9 SB, 9.4 WARS

The Acuna case: With three years in the big leagues, everything seems to indicate that Akunya will have everything going for him, allowing him to put up great numbers.

With Christian Pace at CF, Acuña won’t have to change positions as often. He has comparatively better defensive numbers than Mookie Betts as a right fielder over the last three years. He is one of the few talents to lead his league in both home runs and steals this season. Assuming his BABIP from last season returns, he should get on base often enough to run a 40/40 season on an elite team with Gold Glove defensive metrics.

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Acuña is the next man in baseball with 10 WAR, and at 23 years old, he could remain at that level for at least the next decade, a time when Trout will already be further into his 30s. — Bradford Doolittle

Judge Jeff said: The story of the 10-time winningest corner outfielder is this: The 2018 issues, seasons of Bonds and Sammy Sosa, go back more than three decades, two Carl Yastrzemski, one Stan Musial, three Ted Williams and eight Babe Ruth. Here’s how. The 10-win threshold is incredibly difficult for any player to reach – and exponential for anyone playing in the corner.

Acuna’s strikeout rate also went the wrong way, up from nearly 30% last year, and while he does a lot of damage when he hits the ball, he’s not hitting it enough at the moment to make up for that lack of hitting. Like Soto and Tatis, he has time on his side, and he can still be the best in Triple Crown baseball. But even in his nearly 40/40 years, Akuna failed to reach six WAR. 10 ? There are just too many things he needs to improve on to surpass his peers, let alone Trout. Motion defeated.

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Last 143 games (Tatis has played 143 games in his career):

Trout: .289 BA, 1,067 OPS, 52 HR, 123 RBI, 6 SB, 8.5 WAR
Tatis : .301 BA, .956 OPERATIVE, 39 STD, 98 RBI, 27 SB, 6.5 W.F.

The Tatis case: Let’s see – he’s a Gatorade and Adidas pitcher, an athlete on the cover of one of the most popular Major League Baseball video games, has a $340 million contract and is only 22 years old. Tatis has yet to play a full season of games, but it is clear that he is already on the verge of becoming the go-to athlete in his sport. The dynamic is too strong to be ignored.

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In 143 games – most of them before he reached legal drinking age – Tatis has a .301/.374/.582 batting line with 71 extra-base hits, 27 stolen bases and 6.5 wins over replacements. Those are MVP numbers every season. In 2020, a year when the logistics of playing through a pandemic halted the production of some of the best position players, Tatis became a more patient hitter, scoring pitches in the top 1% in the industry. He’s also become an elite defender at his position of choice, leading all outfield shortstops above average.

Yes, he’s incredibly cool and has a flair for the dramatic that only Trout himself can match. But he’s also very, very good at a very young age. And by the time the first full season is over, it’s clear that Tatis is already the best of the bunch. — Alden Gonzalez

Judge Jeff said: If this court was an argument for a better football player or the face of baseball, then yes, of course it works. But if it starts with sports drinks and sneakers, there’s a reason. And that reason is that there just isn’t enough statistical basis to support the idea that Tatis is at Trout’s level. His greatness lies not just in his 10-win seasons – Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Rogers Hornsby alone have more than his three – but in his consistency. The trout are excellent every year. Tatis did well in a couple of appearances in the preseason.

Anything to make it the best. He’s got a bat. He’s playing the right position. It’s dynamic on the baseboards. This shows the ability to adapt and improve. Tatis’ ceiling is perhaps the highest of all. But it’s 2021, because in each of the last eight full years, Trout’s WAR was higher than the 6.5 Tatis has recorded in his career. Motion defeated.

Mookie bets on

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Last 162 games:

Betts: .296 BA, .928 OPS, 38 HR, 96 RBI, 147 R, 23 SB, 7.9 WAR
Trout : .288 BA, 1,052 OPS, 56 HOURS, 134 REFS, 9 SB, 9.4 WARS

A case for Betts: Since Mookie in Boston, I’ve argued that if we lived in a world where Mike Trout simply didn’t exist, the discussion of the best player of this generation would begin and end with Mookie Betts.

Betts is one of those players who not only passes the statistical test, but also the eye test. Since his debut year in 2014, Betts has the second highest fWAR among active players at 40.2 fWAR, ahead of Anthony Rendon (34.3), Josh Donaldson (34.2) and Jose Altuve (32.7) and only behind Trout, who leads the way with 54.7 fWAR.

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Stakes makes a big impact on the field every game, whether it’s his ironclad defense, his hitting, or his smart play on the basepaths. And while his stats speak volumes about his greatness on the field, you only feel how big of an impact he has on a winning baseball team when you see the Dodgers’ outfielder on a daily basis. -Jung Lee

Judge Jeff said: The problem with the argument that trout don’t exist is that they do. When Betts arrived in the big leagues, Trout had already finished second in the MVP voting twice – and he would win the award this season. In one full season, Bette surpassed Trout’s WAR total – and that was a year in which Trout posted 10.2 wins. He plays a more important role than Betts. He’s a better hitter than Betts.

And it’s good. Betts is a Hall of Famer. He’s the linchpin of the Dodgers. He’s worth every penny of the $365 million he signed. Sure, he had his best year in 2020. But if you had seven years to miss Trout and didn’t, there just isn’t enough evidence to support that assumption. Motion defeated.

Juan Soto

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Last 162 games:

Soto: .309 BA, 1,047 OPS, 41 HR, 120 RBI, 131 R, 15 SB
Trout : .288 BA, 1,052 OPS, 56 HOURS, 134 REFS, 9 SB, 9.4 WARS

A case for Soto: OBP is life. Trout’s most valuable skill is his ability to work the bases, with a career OBP of .418 and a season high of .460 in 2018. Soto has an OBP of .415 in his career (up to .400 in each of his three seasons), including a ridiculous .490 in 2020. The last qualified batter with such a high batting average was Barry Bonds. For Bonds, it was Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle – in 1957. If you hit like Soto, you can be the best player in the game even if you don’t play center – just like Bonds or Williams. -David Schoenfield.

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Judge Jeff said: Speaking of three-letter acronyms, counselor, perhaps we should focus on AIO, DRS, and UZR. These are all defensive measures, and OAA in particular is a good measure of an outfielder’s value in the outfield. Soto was two games below average in 2020, good for 92nd among qualified outfielders. It’s not that he’s a defensive wreck – his AAU was solid in 2019 – and yet, as the best player in baseball, excelling in all facets of the game is a necessity. And no one will think Soto will be a threat on the bases anytime soon.

If Soto is much better at the plate all season, maybe his hitting can overcome his glove and legs – and Trout. Remember: Before Trout came along, the best players in baseball from 2001 to 2009 were just a bunch of guys taking batting practice: Bonds and Albert Pujols. Even if he doesn’t relieve Trout this year, Soto can live with the batting title, which is a great consolation prize for the 22-year-old. Motion granted.

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