The MLB draft is a crap-shoot. Sure, most great players were taken in the first few rounds. But the greatest pitcher and position player in D-backs draft history, Messrs. Webb and Goldschmidt, were both eighth-round picks. And as we have documented before, the history of Arizona’s first-round picks has generally been less than stellar. But the mercurial nature of the draft is perhaps exemplified no better than the 2009 draft, where the likely greatest player of the current generation, Michael Nelson Trout, did not get selected until the twenty-fifth pick. 22 teams apart from the Angels could have picked Trout. But they all decided to go somewhere else.
A couple of things stand out about this. Firstly, Trout wasn’t even the Angels’ top pick. That honor belongs to Randall Grichuk, whom they picked immediately before with the 24th selection. Neither that nor #25 was originally theirs: the pick they used on Trout came from the Yankees, as compensation for their signing Mark Teixeira. Yes, there’s an alternate universe somewhere, in which Trout is a Yankee. Instead, they’re one of the bare handful of teams who didn’t “miss” on him, not having a pick until after he was off the board. The other startling point is that Trout wasn’t the first CF selected. He was actually fifth. Two of the four picked before him never made the majors. The others were Dustin Ackley and A.J. Pollock.
Which is where the Diamondbacks come in, being the only team to say “Naw, we’re good, Mike” not once but twice. Like the Angels, they chose back-to-back. The team’s first pick was a total bust, 3B Bobby Borchering at #16. He never got past AA and was out of baseball after 2015. They followed that up by taking Pollock with the next slot, which proved by no means a bad pick. Of the 49 players chosen in the first and supplemental first round, A.J’s 19.2 career bWAR trails just Trout and #1 overall pick, Stephen Strasburg. But I say “trails”, in the same way I trail Mark Zuckerberg in wealth. For Trout has so far put up 72.8 bWAR - basically the entire career of Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew (53.7 bWAR) more than A.J.
That’s a gap which is likely only going to increase going forward, and who knows where Trout might end up. He has finished in the top four for MVP voting in eight consecutive seasons. Through age 27, his bWAR is more than any other player in the history of the game, with Ty Cobb and Mickey Mantle the only ones to reach even 65 wins. It’s safe to say, if the D-backs had drafted him instead of Pollock, it would have helped Arizona. But, as we saw with the earlier piece on Brandon Webb, adding a star doesn’t necessarily equate to making the playoffs more often. But let’s move Trout’s production over on to the Diamondbacks in place of Pollock, and see what we find.
I will admin this is a fast and loose approach. It doesn’t take into account the injury-plagued nature of A.J’s career. Since 2013, when both became considered full-time players, Pollock has missed an average of 63 games per year, compared to Trout’s 16. Someone had to play those for Arizona (and LA), and one or two of those were better than replacement value. But let’s keep things simple, and just add Trout’s production on to the wins total for the D-backs each year since 2011, while taking off Pollock’s output. In what seasons would the change have had the greatest impact on our team’s fortunes? [Which might not necessarily be the seasons with the biggest gap between the two players, of course]
Below, is a chart showing the bWAR for our pair of fish-flavored center fielders since Trout made his debut as a raw teenager on July 8, 2011. The next column is the difference between the two players, then the actual number of Diamondbacks wins. Finally, we have the theoretical D-backs’ win total, swapping Pollock out for Trout.
I’ve color-coded the last column. Green are seasons the D-backs made the playoffs anyway, without Trout. Yellow are years where his presence would appear to have given them enough of a boost to make it in. Blue are seasons where he’d have got them above .500, but not into the post-season. And red... well, we’d be below .500 with or without Trout. While it doesn’t appear he would have brought any more NL West titles to Arizona, it does seem to indicate there would have been two more wild-cards in our history. And as the Nationals showed last season (how long ago all that seems now!), you just need a ticket to the dance. So let’s focus in on those seasons shown in yellow and do a more nuanced analysis.
2012. D-backs expected record: 89-73.
This was the year Trout was an unanimous and very easy Rookie of the Year winner in the American League. Meanwhile, Pollock was still mostly in Triple-A, so it is a bit unfair to compare his production to Trout. Chris Young started about half the games there, Gerardo Parra another quarter, and the rest a mix of Adam Eaton and Pollock. Pro-rating all of these for playing time, CF was worth about three WAR, so a truer estimate is that Trout would have made the D-backs 7-8 wins better that year. That would have been in the 88-89 win range, and the second wild-card went to the 88-74 Cardinals. Those wins would have had to come from somewhere, so I’m calling this one in favor of Arizona.
It’s interesting and sad to note that Trout’s two MVP awards, in 2014 and 2016, would have been entirely wasted on the Diamondbacks, not lifting them up even to the .500 mark. In between, Pollock’s best season i.e. The One Where He Didn’t Break, had similarly little or no impact on the team. 2018 would have been a close thing. We’d have ended the season with eight more wins, taking us up to ninety. That puts us just one behind the Rockies: and it’s quite likely one of our bonus wins would have come against them, putting us in a play-in game against them. Given how they blew chunks against the Dodgers in their real play-in contest, I like the D-backs’ chances. But not close enough for this exercise!
2019. D-backs expected record: 92-70.
Again, a direct comparison from Trout to Pollock needs adjusting, since he was on the Dodgers last year. However, it’s a hell of a lot more complex, since he’d not be replacing our center fielder, so much as shifting Ketel Marte back to the infield. So what Trout really replaces is really 61 games of Jarrod Dyson, 56 of Wilmer Flores and 28 of Ildemaro Vargas. If my napkin is to be believed, that’s about 1.5 bWAR, reducing the Trout boost last year to 6.7 wins. While still leaving Arizona a long way behind Los Angeles, that would have pushed them well past Milwaukee (89-73) for the second wild-card spot. Not a bad way for Trout to repay the team after his mega-extension last winter...
The D-backs would not just have been better off drafting Mike Trout. Mike Trout would have been better off being drafted by the Diamondbacks. He’d likely have made the post-season three or four times already (depending on whether or not he made the playoff roster in his debut year of 2011). As is, he has done so just the once, in 2014 when the Angels were swept in the Division Series by the Royals. As we discussed when looking at that franchise’s ownership, unless things change going forward, they will have frittered away this generation’s greatest talent. However, they do at least have another decade in which to take advantage of Trout, though Father Time will inevitably begin catching up on him...