How 2018 could produce the best and worst individual baseball seasons of all time

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist
Some teams, like the Seattle Mariners, have given up trying to get Mike Trout to swing and miss. (AP)

Eleven years ago, The Washington Post arranged an experiment. Joshua Bell, one of the finest violinists in the world, would play during the morning rush at a subway stop, and the Post would chronicle what happened. For 43 minutes, Bell busked as more than 1,000 people walked by. Almost nobody stopped.

Maybe it was the myopia of the daily commute, the monotony of every trip, every step, every moment feeling the same, that caused those people to walk by Joshua Bell that day. None, after all, could fall back upon the iPhone-zombie defense; the first version of the device wouldn’t arrive for another six months.

The likelier culprit is the simplest excuse: that for all the praise we’re capable of lavishing, all the shackles we wear as prisoners of the moment, all the searches we enlist to find the biggest and best and ultimate, human beings can be horrible at recognizing brilliance when it stares them directly in the face, ignorant to the very thing they spend all that time seeking.

This is the only reasonable explanation for why nobody seems to be noticing that Mike Trout is nearly halfway to what might be the greatest season in baseball history.

Awfulness, on the other hand, should be obvious. It is a punch to the face, a roadkill skunk, a cloud of pepper spray meeting mucous membranes, a guitar plugged into an amp cranked to 11. Greatness can traffic in the margins, manifest itself subtly. Awfulness is visceral, punitive, palpable.

Which is what makes baseball so confusing. On any particular night, Mike Trout, who is the best baseball player in the world, and who is off to a pretty good start if he has intentions of being the best baseball player ever, is capable of looking awful. Perhaps that is the moral of this story, that it is easy to get caught up in one game or two games or even 10 games, but that greatness and awfulness in baseball exist over months, day after day, those games piling up so quickly that it takes an active interest to detect their cumulative enormity.

And that may go a long way to explaining why just as few people seem to be noticing that Chris Davis is nearly halfway to what might be the worst season in baseball history.

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It is June 15, and anybody who dare declare best and worst of anything on June 15 ought to come armed with a caveat, so here goes: All of the following is premised on what has happened over the first 2½ months of the 2018 season continuing to happen over the final 3½ months. And an infinite number of things can conspire to keep that particular destiny from being fulfilled, so if one wanted to deem this wish-casting, it would be difficult to argue.

Still, Major League Baseball has been around for more than 140 years. Nearly 20,000 players have accumulated more than 16 million plate appearances. The game has bred greatness and awfulness and everything in between. The notion that the very best and very worst seasons by a hitter would take place in the very same year, after the tens of thousands of individual seasons before it, is nothing short of incredible. That it’s even a possibility is a marvel.

Trout’s end isn’t altogether surprising. At 26 years old, he is in the midst of his prime during an era where the ball is flying like never before. He possesses rare power, plate discipline and speed. He plays center field for the Los Angeles Angels and plays it well. If a player of this era were to challenge Babe Ruth for the greatest season ever, the overwhelming favorite would be Mike Trout.

That Chris Davis finds himself slumming among the dregs of the sport, on the other hand, almost defies belief.

Only 18 men in baseball history have hit at least 53 home runs in a season. Chris Davis is one of them. In the 2013 season, he joined a group that includes Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Hank Greenberg and others whose struggles, whenever they cropped up, were mitigated by a swing that could send baseball over a fence. The home run does not provide immunity to baseball’s vagaries. It is one hell of a bulwark.

The closest comparable to what is happening to Davis is Ryan Howard, who hit 58 home runs in his finest season. A decade later, Howard couldn’t scrape his batting average above .200, barely walked, struck out about a third of the time he stepped to the plate and fielded at first base as though his shoes were tied together – all with a salary of $25 million. But he never stopped hitting home runs. He managed 65 hits in his last major league season; 25 of them were homers. Howard was bad. He just wasn’t all time.

Davis’ situation today is dire. He is in the third season of a seven-year, $161 million contract that the Baltimore Orioles should be able to write off as a donation to charity. In 57 games, Davis is batting .150. He has struck out 86 times in 229 plate appearances. His on-base percentage is .227. So is his slugging percentage. It is so bad that a bar near Camden Yards is offering free shots to patrons if Davis simply gets a hit.

Chris Davis has just four home runs in 229 plate appearances this season. (AP)

Nobody in baseball history has qualified for the batting title with offensive numbers as poor as Davis’. Not the slap-hitting shortstops of yesteryear, not the defense-only catchers of the old days – no one, and not by any measure. Advanced metrics like wRC+ and wOBA – weighted runs created-plus and weighted on-base average – agree: Davis has been worse than even Hal Lanier in 1968.

Lanier was one of those slap-hitting shortstops. His .461 OPS in 1968 is the lowest in the live-ball era. In his career, he played nearly 1,200 games and hit eight home runs. Davis once hit eight home runs in an 11-game stretch in 2016. Less than two years later, he’s threatening to join Lanier and even Jim Levey, the St. Louis Browns shortstop who in 1933 had what is typically regarded as the worst season in baseball history.

Baseball-Reference.com says Levey was worth -3.9 Wins Above Replacement that year, meaning a Triple-A-caliber player would have been an All-Star comparatively. FanGraphs concurs, saying Levey lost the Browns a full four wins that season, in which he hit .195/.237/.240 in 567 plate appearances.

Already Baseball-Reference has Davis at -2.1 WAR and FanGraphs at -2.0, and the questions about his ability for futility are two-fold. Can he possibly continue to play this poorly? And will the Orioles keep running him out if he does?

As for the former, Davis combines a pair of attributes that make it possible: the worst strikeout rate in the league (37.6 percent) and an incredible capacity to be neutralized by the infield shift. Of the 975 pitches Davis has seen this season, 920 have been against a shifted infield, according to Statcast. In those at-bats, Davis is hitting .145 and slugging .228. As low as he has gone, Davis still will not deign to bunt and beat the shift. His last bunt single was July 27, 2016.

Pride – and a faculty for still hitting the ball hard on occasion – keeps Davis swinging and praying. The Orioles, cognizant they owe him not just through the expiration of his contract in 2022 but all the way through 2037, with $42 million of it deferred, would prefer something substantive. It is only mildly cynical to see the Orioles in the oddest win-win possible: If Davis keeps playing and hits, maybe they can salvage him, and if he doesn’t, it won’t hurt their cause as they slop their way to the worst record in baseball and the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft.

The hope is that the power returns, that wherever it went, however it disappeared, it finds its way back into Davis’ bat. Of his 31 hits this season, only four are home runs. Starting at 7:14 p.m. PT on Monday and ending at 9:24 p.m. PT on Tuesday, Mike Trout matched that number. Two games, four home runs and the personification of a season that somehow keeps getting better.

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Seattle Mariners pitcher Ryan Cook, left, stands on the mound as the Angels’ Mike Trout greets third-base coach Dino Ebel after Trout hit a two-run home run. (AP)

On Wednesday, after Mike Trout singled and doubled in his second and third at-bats, the Seattle Mariners gave up trying to get him out. With a runner on first and two outs in the sixth inning, they intentionally walked Trout. With the bases empty and two outs in the eighth, they intentionally walked him again. When the game ended, Trout was hitting .314/.444/.686 with 23 home runs. His 56 runs led the league. So did his 56 walks. He had stolen 13 bases and not been caught.

We don’t just take Trout’s greatness for granted. It has become so customary that a player putting up Ruthian numbers fails to register on a national level, which says something about baseball, yes, but about Trout, too. Ruthian, by the way, is not merely an adjective trying to make a point here. Trout is literally threatening to dethrone Babe Ruth as the single-season king.

Ruth’s 1920, ’21 and ’27 seasons are arguably his best known, but FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference agree: His greatest year came in 1923, when they said he was worth 15 WAR and 14.1 WAR, respectively. Today, through 69 games, they’ve got Trout at 5.7 WAR and 6.1 WAR. Extrapolate that over 162 games, and his Baseball-Reference WAR of 14.3 would usurp Ruth’s record that has held for nearly a century.

Trout needs to keep up a pace he simply hasn’t kept over a full season to do so. He has had slightly better 69-game stretches than this run. In 2013, he slashed .382/.502/.602, and last year he had a wOBA of .474 over 69 games compared to this year’s .463, and he’d still need to keep running perfectly and flashing a well-above-average glove in center, and this conversation is totally absurd, you know, and really kind of unfair to Trout if not for the truth, which is that he warrants it. We’re not just talking about Babe Ruth. We’re talking about every player ever. About Bonds and Mantle, Mays and Williams, Aaron and Gehrig, Cobb and Hornsby, Musial and DiMaggio. Take every one of them, and take their best season, when they were at the absolute height of their powers, and right now, June 15, 2018, Mike Trout is on pace to have a better season than that.

Whatever Trout wants to do, he does. He stopped stealing bases a few years ago. He started again and now swipes them with the dexterity of a seasoned Tinder user. Never, over 69 games, has he swung at a lower percentage of pitches outside the strike zone, showing his command over the plate is only improving. He’s barely swinging and missing, either, with only a recent fit pushing him past his career low. When he does swing, he’s hitting the ball hard nearly 50 percent of the time.

It’s to the point now where words trying to describe Trout follow a formula. At the beginning of the season, it’s about how he’s the best, and then a few weeks in, it’s all, he’s actually even better this year, and then a couple months go by, and he’s really better, and by the four-month mark, it’s amazing how he’s maintaining, pushing, endlessly dissatisfied enough to look at whatever minuscule flaw he may have and rid himself of it, and then the end of the year arrives and he’s got 10 WAR again and he’s right back atop the all-time cumulative-WAR leaderboard for players his age.

Whether it’s because Trout doesn’t play on the East Coast or reveal a considerable amount about himself or ooze charisma, the coverage of his exploits, as NBA player Frank Kaminsky lamented Wednesday, feels insufficient. He’s not wrong. There are only so many ways to say a guy is great. At some point, it’s on the rest of the world to recognize it.

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In the story about Joshua Bell playing his Stradivarius for waves of people who never bothered to stop, the writer, Gene Weingarten, asks: “What is beauty?” For baseball, it’s that place where greatness can commingle with its inverse – where Chris Davis gets a hit that gets a whole bar a little more buzzed or at least puts up a fight in search of it. And it is that 93 games remain on the Los Angeles Angels’ schedule – 93 chances to watch Mike Trout play, to understand his excellence, even if he is awful for 10 or 15 or maybe even 20 of them.

It is this sport that can make one man look like a hero and another like a fool and you can’t say for certain which will be which on any particular night. Trout and Davis are more alike than the numbers ever will say: hunting for an advantage, holding on to the ones they’ve got, just trying to win the day. The difference between them isn’t even a hit a game.

And yet here we are, all those tens of thousands of seasons in between them, at the polar end of the spectrum that is baseball. Maybe the best. Maybe the worst. As well worth watching as they’ve ever been.

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