Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout is a positive outlier in far too many ways to count. But one of the rare negatives in his career to date has been a lack of postseason success — or practically any postseason action, period. The lone playoff appearance of Trout’s career happened back in 2014, when the Angels were unceremoniously swept by the pennant-bound Kansas City Royals in the American League division series. Trout hit 1-for-12 in the series, and his teammates fared little better, bringing Los Angeles’ playoff journey to an end just three games after it began.
It’s hard to believe that those three winless games represent the sum total of playoff experience for a player who, by the numbers, is the greatest of this generation. Even though it’s impossible for any single baseball player to carry a championship team the way stars can in other sports, it is highly unusual for the best player of any given MLB era to go without as much as a single victory in the postseason. The last time it happened was 100 years ago, and that was back when the “postseason” was simply the World Series — so it’s especially shocking to see it happen with today’s expanded playoff structure in which 10 teams make the postseason each year. Even worse, there’s a very good chance that the drought will continue this season for Trout and the Angels, as the decade comes to a close.
Trout has, without question, been the best individual player of the 2010s. Over the decade thus far, he leads all hitters in on-base plus slugging and ranks No. 1 among all players — both batters and pitchers — in wins above replacement (WAR).1 But among his peers atop the WAR leaderboard, Trout stands alone with that goose egg under the postseason win column:2
When it comes to the best players of this decade, longtime Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto, whose teams have won just two playoff games during his tenure, and New York Yankees outfielder Giancarlo Stanton come closest to Trout’s zero-win postseason record. (Stanton used to be in the zero-win club, too, before winning two playoff games with the Yankees last year.) Most of the other top players of the 2010s crack at least double-digits in the playoff win column — headlined by Buster Posey, Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw, whose teams have all won at least 30 playoff games this decade.
Granted, Trout has had comparatively fewer chances — he’s played only eight of the decade’s nine possible seasons (through 2018), and one of those was an abbreviated rookie year during which he appeared in just 40 games. In a way, it’s only by virtue of how individually brilliant Trout has been that we’re even in a position to compare playoff records with his rivals like this. But Trout also started his career by joining a team that had been one of the winningest of the previous decade, so you might think that advantage would have helped him make up for the lost time.
Instead, the Angels have consistently surrounded Trout with one of the worst supporting casts of any star ever, largely squandering the windfall his historic output (and cheap price tag) should have offered them. Thanks to a series of terrible free-agent signings, weak drafts and — Shohei Ohtani aside — an inability to add prospects through the international pipeline, Los Angeles has somehow won an average of only 83.8 games per season since Trout’s debut campaign. Even when the Angels looked like they might finally have some promising players around Trout in 2018, they still found a way to finish around .500 in spite of Trout’s MVP-level numbers.
All of which is to say that very little of Trout’s zero-win postseason record is actually Trout’s fault. But it would still be historically notable if the best player of a decade (by WAR) ends up being on a team that wins no playoff games that decade. The best player of the 2000s, Alex Rodriguez, was on teams that won a whopping 26 playoff games, for instance, which is the same number as the best player of the 1950s (Mickey Mantle). Most decade leaders win fewer than that, especially as we go back in time — Willie Mays was the best of the 1960s, but his team won only three postseason contests that decade because, for most of it, the playoffs were World Series or bust. Even so, the last decadelong MLB WAR leader whose teams won zero playoff games was Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators in the 1910s.3
|Mike Trout||0||3||64.5||Alex Rodriguez||26||22||76.5|
|Clayton Kershaw||31||30||58.5||Albert Pujols||29||27||72.2|
|Max Scherzer||21||27||50.0||Barry Bonds||12||13||60.6|
|Robinson Cano||10||13||49.4||Randy Johnson||17||19||50.8|
|Joey Votto||2||7||49.3||Carlos Beltran||12||10||50.6|
|Barry Bonds||8||15||80.8||Rickey Henderson||11||4||69.4|
|Greg Maddux||39||29||68.9||Wade Boggs||7||11||60.0|
|Ken Griffey Jr.||6||9||66.7||Mike Schmidt||13||12||56.6|
|Roger Clemens||11||8||66.0||Robin Yount||8||9||52.7|
|Jeff Bagwell||2||9||56.9||Alan Trammell||8||5||50.9|
|Tom Seaver||6||9||68.3||Willie Mays||3||4||82.2|
|Joe Morgan||22||15||66.6||Hank Aaron||0||3||78.4|
|Johnny Bench||26||19||59.4||Frank Robinson||9||8||63.8|
|Bert Blyleven||7||6||59.3||Roberto Clemente||4||3||62.0|
|Gaylord Perry||1||3||57.1||Bob Gibson||11||10||59.2|
|Mickey Mantle||26||21||67.9||Ted Williams||3||4||68.0|
|Stan Musial||0||0||60.0||Lou Boudreau||4||2||60.4|
|Robin Roberts||0||4||59.4||Stan Musial||13||10||58.2|
|Willie Mays||6||4||57.7||Hal Newhouser||7||7||56.2|
|Warren Spahn||7||7||56.5||Joe Gordon||13||8||46.9|
|Jimmie Foxx||7||6||74.9||Babe Ruth||18||15||104.9|
|Lou Gehrig||20||3||74.7||Rogers Hornsby||5||7||95.1|
|Mel Ott||7||9||69.4||Harry Heilmann||0||0||55.4|
|Lefty Grove||7||6||66.1||Frankie Frisch||14||15||55.4|
|Charlie Gehringer||7||6||60.8||Tris Speaker||5||2||50.6|
|Walter Johnson||0||0||100.3||Honus Wagner||7||8||81.5|
|Ty Cobb||0||0||84.3||Christy Mathewson||4||1||68.0|
|Tris Speaker||8||4||75.6||Cy Young||5||3||66.4|
|Eddie Collins||19||15||72.5||Nap Lajoie||0||0||64.1|
|Pete Alexander||3||8||63.5||Rube Waddell||1||4||53.2|
It’s certainly more possible for baseball’s best players to come up short in the postseason than in, say, basketball. Going back to the start of the NBA in 1949-50, no best player of any decade (according to a mix of value over replacement player, win shares and estimated wins added) ever played on teams that posted fewer than 30 playoff wins during that span.4 Yes, more than 50 percent of NBA teams make the playoffs each year, but we’re still talking about a handful of playoff wins per season as the minimum baseline — at the high end, LeBron James’s teams have 120 playoff wins this decade (though he won’t be adding to that tally this year). But several moves to add more postseason slots since 1994 have theoretically made it easier for MLB to show its best players in the games that matter most. For the most part, you can see the effects of that bearing out in the playoff records for top stars since the 1990s — except in the case of Trout.
And this season may not remedy the situation. The Angels are desperately trying to put Trout in a position to drive more runners in, and Ohtani could be part of that equation as a hitter again by May. But for now, FiveThirtyEight’s early preseason MLB forecast projects Los Angeles to win 81 games, with a 25 percent chance of making the playoffs. If we assume they’d have about a 45 percent chance of winning any given playoff game,5 there’s an 85 percent chance they won’t win a playoff game this year either, continuing Trout’s dubious streak through the end of the decade.
If that does happen, it shouldn’t reflect poorly on Trout’s own greatness. In fact, it’s a testament to how far we’ve come in analyzing players that we no longer ask postseason records to carry anywhere near as much weight as they used to in these kinds of debates. But it won’t make Trout’s record any less of a historical anomaly. In an era where making the playoffs is easier than ever, baseball should be able to showcase its greatest player winning games on the postseason stage. That hasn’t happened yet — and the Angels are running out of time to change Trout’s fate before he potentially leaves town for good.
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