From 1893-2012, 20 players qualified for the batting title in their age-20 season and finished that campaign with an on-base plus slugging percentage of at least 120. Chronologically, the grouping ran from John McGraw in 1893 to Mike Trout in 2012; ordering the 20 from lowest OPS+ to the highest mark placed Willie Mays at the bottom (120 in 1951) and Trout at the top, with his mind-boggling 168 better than marks from -- among others -- Ty Cobb, Mel Ott, Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle, Alex Rodriguez, Ted Williams, Rogers Hornsby and Jimmie Foxx. Of the first 19 (leaving Trout out of the mix for a moment), 14 also qualified for the batting title in their age-21 season and posted a mark of at least 120, with eight (Stuffy McInnis, Orlando Cepeda, Sherry Magee, Ken Griffey Jr., Foxx, Hornsby, Williams and Cobb) of those 14 pushing their OPS+ in that age-21 season upward.
So while there was some precedent for an historic age-20 season serving as the immediate trampoline for higher summits, Trout's 168 had already set the hurdle so high, it seemed a better bet to imagine that his 2013 would not match his '12. Of the top-six marks for an age-20 season before Trout, four of those authors saw their age-21 season fail to match or surpass in OPS+. Could Trout actually follow Cobb and Williams, or would his '13 align itself with the paths trod by Ott, Mantle, Kaline and Rodriguez?
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Very early on in Trout's march toward answering that question, the latter development began to seem even more probable. April concluded with the Angels outfielder holding a .261/.333/.432 line: good enough for an adjusted OPS above the league average, but significantly below the bar he established in 2012. And then Trout went on a five-month tear, one that turned the early narrative on its head and established his two-year line as one of the most exceptional seen by a very young player. From May 1 through the end of the season, Trout posted a .337/.453/.586/1.038 line, with his lowest month OPS a still-superb .949 in September. Rolled all together, his age-21 season concluded with league-leading marks in runs, walks and times on base, top-four marks in batting, on-base, slugging and OPS, a third-place finish in total bases, a second-place result in extra-base hits, and the second-highest OPS+ in the league: a 179 that indeed improved upon the mark engineered in his historic age-20 season.
Trout's 179 OPS+ -- in the context of qualifying players in an age-21 season -- rests atop the marks produced by all other players since 1893, with Foxx's 173 in 1929 now relegated to second, Eddie Mathews' 171 in '53 coming in third and Cobb (in '08) and Hornsby (in '17) now tied for fourth, with a 169. And with his top marks for both an age-20 and age-21 season, Trout's combined OPS+ for these two seasons -- a 174 -- is the highest assembled for a player in these two age-seasons, with a minimum of at least 800 plate appearances: Cobb's 168 comes in second. In bettering his mark from 2012, Trout not only went in a direction that was almost absurd to imagine, he produced another substantial chunk of data that makes conversations in which he is mentioned alongside Cobb seem legitimate instead of fantastical and over-reaching.
Trout vs. Cobb
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Cobb's early-career arc with that perspective of improvement extends beyond just his OPS+, for his ascension among the game's elite also broadened as he got older. A quick look across Cobb's 1907 season -- his age-20 campaign -- causes the eyes to immediately focus on the outfielder's dominance. With league leadership in hits, RBIs, total bases, batting, slugging, OPS and OPS+, his across-the-board excellence as a hitter is easy to perceive. More (literally) of the same could be said about his 1908, as Cobb is not only shown with the best marks in all of those aforementioned categories again, he also tops the circuit in doubles and triples, as well as extra-base hits. Quite simply, there is no other age-21 batting season like it since 1893. Since that year, there are 202 individual seasons in which a player in his age-21 season qualified for the batting title, and in terms of league leadership, Cobb's 1908 stands tall above any other. In '17, Hornsby led the NL in slugging, OPS, OPS+, triples and total bases; in '40, Williams paced the AL in runs, times on base and on-base percentage; and in '53, Mathews led the NL during his age-21 season in homers and OPS+. No one comes close to matching Cobb's breadth of pace-setting.
Interestingly, three categories that eluded Cobb's leadership in 1908 did belong to Trout in 2013: runs, walks and times on base. And in the latter two, Trout not only paced the AL this past season, he posted historic numbers for a player in his age-21 season. With 309 times on base, Trout reached safely more often than any other age-21 player in history, and joined Williams in 1940 and Rickey Henderson in '80 as the only age-21 players to lead their league in this category; with 110 walks, Trout drew the second most for a player in an age-21 season (behind Henderson's 117) and joined Donie Bush (Cobb's teammate) in '09 and Joe Morgan in '65 as the only age-21 season players to lead either league in that category.
What might 2014 -- optimistically -- hold in store for Trout? Circling back to where this exposition began, only two players since 1893 have posted an OPS+ of at least 160 in their age-20, age-21 and age-22 seasons: Cobb and Williams. And for those two, that third season welcomed a significant leap while also witnessing some history being made. In '09, Cobb posted a 193 OPS+ and captured the Triple Crown. In '41, Williams compiled a 235 (the only players since 1893 to produce a higher figure in any age-season are Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth) and famously batted .406. It seems almost inconceivable that Trout could follow in those immense strides and actually improve on his OPS+. But if '13 taught the baseball world anything, it's that Trout making history lies within the realm of what we might consider.
Roger Schlueter is senior researcher for MLB Productions. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.