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Drawing a historic parallel: Is Mike Trout better than Stan Musial?

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One is the greatest player in baseball today. One is the greatest player in Cardinals history. Which will go down as the greater player?

Oakland Athletics v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Stan Musial, by objective and subjective measures, is the greatest player in St. Louis Cardinals history. He is also among the greatest players in baseball history, regardless of team—by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, Musial ranks as the 12th greatest player in history, ranking 10th among position players. Only an extremely select group of inner-circle Hall of Famers (oh, and Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens) have exceeded Musial’s career mark of 126.8 fWAR.

Musial had a somewhat typical aging curve, aside from the fact that he did not have an age-24 season due to the Naval service which cost him his 1945 season. His best season came at 27, and while he was still very good in his late-thirties, his best seasons were mostly clustered between his early-twenties to mid-thirties. Musial is among the all-time best in terms of production through his age-25 season, as he is by most age breakdowns: through age 25, despite that season missed, Musial was the 24th greatest position player in Major League Baseball history.

#1 on this list is Ty Cobb. #2 is Mickey Mantle. #3, Mike Trout, still has 5 12 months remaining in his age-25 season.

Mike Trout is freakishly good, an observation which few with even a passing knowledge of Major League Baseball would dispute. Based on his track record, the Angels center fielder will probably pass Mickey Mantle in through-age-25 WAR, and it would not be out of the ordinary (by his standards) to pass Cobb, either. This would be par for the course for Trout—he led all position players in career fWAR through age 24, age 23, age 22, and age 21.

Asking if Mike Trout can be the greatest player ever is a popular question among baseball fans, but there’s a lot that Mike Trout still has to accomplish before that question can be answered. Musial, amazing as he was and as deserving as he is of being part of the discussion of the greatest players of all-time, is not the greatest player of all-time (the greatest position player of all-time by fWAR was also the 24th best under-23 pitcher of the World Series era), but he is a good baseline to determine the likelihood of Trout fulfilling the promise of his early years to become an all-time capital-G Great player. Also, Stan Musial was a Cardinal and this is a Cardinals blog. That helps too.

Through his age-24 season, Trout stood at 47.7 career fWAR, a record. This already put him in some pretty decent company for career fWAR—he was tied with former very good outfielder Moises Alou and he was ahead of Hall of Fame outfielder Ralph Kiner. Entering this season, he trailed Musial by 79.1 fWAR in his career, which is to say that Trout would have to, going forward, add more value than Ken Griffey Jr. added in his entire career. And again, this is on top of Trout’s historically great career start.

Here are the position players who have accumulated 79.1 fWAR from age 25 onward.

  • Babe Ruth (150.2)
  • Barry Bonds (143.3)
  • Honus Wagner (133.2)
  • Willie Mays (125.7)
  • Hank Aaron (108.0)
  • Ty Cobb (102.2)
  • Stan Musial (101.5)
  • Tris Speaker (100.5)
  • Mike Schmidt (95.0)
  • Rogers Hornsby (94.5)
  • Ted Williams (94.0)
  • Lou Gehrig (93.2)
  • Eddie Collins (92.4)
  • Nap Lajoie (88.7)
  • Joe Morgan (85.9)
  • Wade Boggs (84.4)
  • Rickey Henderson (79.7)
  • Carl Yastrzemski (79.1)

Now admittedly, an eighteen player list is a tad too long to refer to as “brief”, but this is still a list of top-tier Hall of Famers (and Bonds, whose continued banishment from Cooperstown remains absurd, but has allowed many a baseball blogger to pad his word count with disclaimers).

Does Trout have the ability to play like one of these all-timers in his prime and post-prime years? Certainly—he had the ability to outplay them in the early stages of his career, after all. But let’s consider the remaining career fWAR of the players besides Trout in the top ten of the 24-and-under division. Bear in mind that 79.1 was the amount needed to match Musial for Trout—each of these players needed more than this.

2. Ty Cobb (102.2)

3. Mickey Mantle (71.2)

4. Mel Ott (71.9)

5. Jimmie Foxx (64.4)

6. Ted Williams (94.0)

7. Rogers Hornsby (94.5)

8. Alex Rodriguez (78.0)

9. Ken Griffey Jr. (42.7)

10. Arky Vaughan (38.1)

Admittedly, Trout was the best of this group, but they’re the closest things to historical comparisons for him. And only a third of these truly great players sustained the level of excellence that Trout would need to match Stan Musial’s career productivity. Even the entirety of production of Alex Rodriguez in his Texas Rangers and New York Yankees career (during which only Albert Pujols was more productive) would not be enough.

Mike Trout is the defining superstar of his generation, and even as a Cardinals fan, I hope he is able to surpass Stan Musial’s career achievements. Sports are meant to perpetually improve, and watching greatness unfold would not diminish the experience of those who watched Musial’s greatness unfold. And Trout is already off to a torrid start to his 2017—he continues to be baseball’s preeminent offensive threat and a valuable fielder and runner.

But by the same token, to declare that Mike Trout’s stature as an all-time great in the long term and not just in the short term (to be clear, Trout has been so fantastic that I suspect he’s already a Hall of Famer on peak, even though he’s not technically eligible yet since he has not played ten seasons) has been set in stone diminishes how great the elite tier players were. Early results are generally a very good predictor of future results, but a Stan Musial-like career still requires a player to be a Hall of Fame-caliber player over several different segments of one’s career, and although he has as good of a chance as anybody to pull it off, Trout has yet to prove that.