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Don't Doubt Mike Trout: Why He's Still #1

It has become fashionable for fantasy owners to suggest that perhaps this is the year that Mike Trout should be supplanted as the consensus first overall draft pick. Not one, but two other players - Ronald Acuna and Christian Yelich - are being regularly selected in early NFBC drafts ahead of the 28-year-old Trout, who would be considered one of the greatest to ever play the game and a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, even if he chose to retire tomorrow.

Truth be told, though, a certain subset of owners have been beating this drum for half a decade at this point. In 2016, it was Bryce Harper, coming off an absurd MVP season in which he hit .330/.469/.649. In 2017, it was Clayton Kershaw, whose worst ERA in the four seasons prior (2.13) was still better than anyone else's in that span outside of Jake Arrieta and Zack Greinke's 2015 campaigns. In 2018, it was Jose Altuve, who had hit at least .338 in three of the four previous years, averaged 39 stolen bases during that time, and added 20+ HR power in the back half of that timeframe while also easily clearing 100 runs scored. Last season, it was Mookie Betts, who in 2018 had won a batting title, led the leagues in runs scored, and (along with Jose Ramirez) recorded the first 30/30 season in MLB since 2012.

Precisely none of these players followed up the seasons that launched them into the #1 pick debate with performances that deserved that distinction. Frankly, none of them have even come close to out-earning Trout in the years since. And yet here we are.

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Going Fishing

To be fair, the arguments for either Acuna or Yelich aren't without merit. Chiefly, they center on the advantage they're likely to hold over Trout in one category: stolen bases. It is a truth universally acknowledged that speed is at more of a premium today than at any point in the history of the sport. Steals simply don't happen as often as they used to, a consequence of the sports' analytics movement. Outs are simply too precious to gamble against the potential reward of successfully swiping a bag; the research shows that anything less than a success rate in the range of 75 - 80% is actively harming your club's chances of winning. Acuna and Yelich both meet or exceed that threshold, and were two of just eight players to rack up at least 30 steals (only 13 other players even managed 20 thefts). They also both cleared 40 home runs, which only eight other players accomplished. Trout was one of them, and he also eclipsed the century mark in both runs and RBI despite missing time with injury. But he stole only 11 bases, after averaging 25 in his previous three seasons.

Health is another plank in the anti-Trout platform. After successfully avoiding the injured list in his first six MLB seasons, Trout has averaged 129 games played in the last three. That he has still managed to put up numbers that eclipse the vast majority of his competitors' full-season outputs is a testament to his greatness, but Acuna has yet to suffer any significant bodily harm at the age of 22. Yelich's health-based case is a little shakier, given that he missed time with back issues last season and then broke his kneecap after fouling a ball off of it, but he's still been on the field more often than Trout over the last few years.

These are compelling points, and because there are multiple viable alternatives to Trout at 1.1 instead of just one, it's more likely than in years past that someone else seizes the crown. In addition to the two players already discussed, you could make credible cases for Cody Bellinger, Trea Turner, Francisco Lindor, Gerrit Cole, and maybe even Juan Soto or Trevor Story. Furthermore, time being undefeated means that each successive season carries a higher probability of Trout failing to maintain his status as top dog, particular if the injuries continue to mount. It won't be a shock if, after so many years of fantasy owners trying to be too cute or clever by half, 2020 winds up being the year that one of the other studs identified as a potential usurper to the throne is a better choice. After all, Trout hasn't actually finished a season as the top player since 2014.

 

Consistency Matters

What's important to note that Trout also has only finished outside of the top 10 once, in 2017, when he only played 114 games and still finished 19th. The early rounds, especially the first, are about minimizing risk and maximizing return on investment. That the gap between Trout's ceiling and his floor is so small is what keeps him the best bet if you find yourself picking first overall.

Acuna fell three stolen bases short of a 40/40 season at 21 years old. That's insane, but he has to prove he can do it again. Only four players have ever achieved a 40/40 campaign, and only a handful of others have even come close. Trout put up a 30/49 campaign at age 20, and then spent the rest of the decade proving how much better he is at baseball than anyone else, but he's never sniffed 40/40.

Yelich is the same age as Trout, but has only performed at his level for the last season and a half. Prior to that, he was more good than great, and there were plenty in the game who were skeptical that he would ever hit enough balls in the air to be a big-time power bat. Both players possess much more downside risk than Trout, even if their fantasy ceilings are arguably higher.

Trout won't be the best forever. But we've got half a decade of evidence that suggests picking someone else before him is a bad idea.

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