Rarefied air

Sometimes, you don’t have to wait long for greatness.

After a cup of coffee in 2011, Mike Trout began the next season in Triple-A, where he dominated the competition. Trout was batting .403/.467/.623 through 20 games, when the Angels gave him his second shot at the big league level. Trout hit the ground running, batting .303/.366/.521 in his first month in the majors. But as any everyday baseball fan will tell you, just over a month is a relatively small sample size, and that kind of production from a rookie is unsustainable, right? Trout doubled-down, batting .392/.456/.570 over his next 19 games, upping his season slash-line to .338/.402/.540 and earning him a spot on the American League all-star team when voting ending in late-June – an honor that garnered national attention and helped to make Mike Trout a household name, a name no one will ever forget.

Trout has put up MVP-caliber numbers over the last three seasons but finished second to Miguel Cabrera in 2012 and ’13; 2014, however, was Trout’s year, as he earned his first, and likely not last, MVP Award. As if to validate Trout’s greatness, he is the youngest unanimous MVP winner in history. Trout has proven himself as one of the best players in the game since his recall in 2012, but his success transcends his time, decade, or even generation – his first four seasons are among the greatest of all-time.

We are going to take a look at Mike Trout’s first four career seasons and use an adjusted WAR (Wins Above Replacement) formula – combining cumulative Baseball-Reference rWAR and average rWAR – to attempt to answer this question: Where do Mike Trout’s first four seasons rank during baseball’s live ball era (since 1920)?

10. Joe DiMaggio, Yankees – 26.3 WAR; 7.69 WAR/162 games; 6.20 WAR/600 plate appearances

Joltin’ Joe debuted on May 3, 1936, with a three-hit performance from the three-hole – a spot occupied largely by Babe Ruth for over a decade (1920-34). He helped the Yankees to their first World Series without the Babe later that season and was a key component in three consecutive encores. DiMaggio had 137 home runs to just 117 strikeouts through his first four seasons, receiving All-Star bids and MVP votes in each; he capped it all off with the first of his three MVP awards in 1939.

9. Johnny Mize, Cardinals – 26.2 WAR; 7.42 WAR/162; 6.64 WAR/600

The original “Big Cat” is the first of two rather surprising names on our list. Like DiMaggio, Mize lost three prime seasons serving in World War II, which may be a reason why his career totals don’t jump off the page. He batted at least .329/.402/.577 in each of his first four seasons, one of just two players ever to do so – the other will be found at number one on this list.

8. Arky Vaughan, Pirates – 26.7 WAR; 7.63 WAR/162; 6.46 WAR/600

Another surprise, Arky Vaughan, while not a regular household name, was a shortstop ahead of his time. He provided the Buccos with tremendous offensive production from what was regarded as primarily a defensive position. He steadily improved in each of his first three seasons and exploded in his fourth with a .385/.491/.607 slash-line, adding 19 home runs (then the club’s single-season shortstop record).

7. Wade Boggs, Red Sox – 27.0 WAR; 7.59 WAR/162; 6.35 WAR/600

In his 65th career plate appearance Wade Boggs singled to center field, raising his career batting average to .328 (.3276), it would never fall below that. A third baseman, Boggs provided unique offensive production from what had been predominantly a power-position. Despite hitting just eight home runs in 1985, his fourth season, he managed a 151 OPS+ — OPS relative to the league average, adjusted for park and level of competition and scaled so 100 is average — sixth best in baseball, edging the American League home run champion Darrell Evans (138) and juggernaut third baseman Mike Schmidt (149).

6. Stan Musial, Cardinals – 24.0 WAR; 8.55 WAR/162; 7.37 WAR/600

Despite just a 12-game cup of coffee in his first season, “Stan the Man” checks in on our list at No. 6. In his first three full seasons he led the Cardinals to three straight National League Pennants. He batted .357/.425/.562 in 1943, winning the first of his three MVP Awards. In 1944, he helped the Cardinals to their second World Series since his call-up; shortly thereafter he voluntarily enlisted in the United States Navy.

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5. Evan Longoria, Rays – 27.4 WAR; 7.88 WAR/162; 6.81 WAR/600

From 1998-2007, Tampa Bay finished fifth in the AL East in nine of ten seasons. In 2008, the Rays, led by All-Star and Rookie of the Year Evan Longoria, captured their first AL East title and would go on to win the pennant. Longo had at least an .850 OPS and 127 OPS+ in each of his first four seasons – the only third baseman in baseball history to do so.

4. Albert Pujols, Cardinals – 29.2 WAR; 7.52 WAR/162; 6.42 WAR/600

Albert Pujols is an anomaly – drafted 402nd overall in 1999, he played his only minor-league season in 2000 (including just three games above A-ball), and began constructing a Hall of Fame career in 2001. His 358 extra-base hits through four seasons are an MLB record. Only No. 1 on our list bested each leg of Pujols’ slash-line of .333/.413/.624 through his first four seasons.

3. Willie Mays, Giants – 24.8 WAR; 8.77 WAR/162; 7.52 WAR/600

Willie Mays played his first four seasons over five years – he was drafted into the United States Army during the 1952 season, after his Rookie of the Year campaign in 1951. Mays returned to New York in 1954 and did not miss a beat. He won the National League MVP Award as he led the Giants – who were 70-84 the previous season in his absence – to a 97-57 record and their first World Series championship since 1933.

2. Mike Trout, Angels – 28.2 WAR; 9.27 WAR/162; 7.71 WAR/600

The inspiration for this piece comes in at No. 2. Oft compared to the great Mickey Mantle – who fell just short of our list – Trout already has amassed more seasons (three) with at least a .550 slugging percentage and 15 stolen bases than The Mick had in his entire career (two). Trout is also just the second player in baseball history with multiple seasons in which he batted at least .320 and stole 30 or more bases while hitting at least 25 homers – Willie Mays had two such seasons in his career, but Trout accomplished this in his FIRST two full MLB seasons.

1. Ted Williams, Red Sox – 34.2 WAR; 9.45 WAR/162; 7.85 WAR/600

Ted Williams’ first four seasons are unmatched. He slashed .356/.481/.642 with a 190 OPS+. His .406 batting average in 1941 stands as baseball’s last .400 season. And after winning the Major League Triple Crown in 1942, he began a military career that would be equally impressive as – and at times coexist with – his baseball career.  Thanks in part to his historically hot start, Williams is regarded by many as one of the greatest ever to play the game, despite nearly six years away from the game while serving in the United States armed forces.

Follow Ryan Spaeder on Twitter @AceballStats.

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