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Numbers don’t lie: Trout is better at baseball than LeBron is at basketball

Trout shows crown to LeBron as the new King

Getty Images/TieBreaker illustration

Is Mike Trout better at baseball than LeBron James is at basketball?  

It’s an interesting comparison, worth bringing up because of Trout’s remarkable career arc, which is expected to include his third MVP Award — although he missed a majority of the last month — in nine seasons and his meteoric rise up MLB’s career WAR list.

Certainly the two superstars are considered the best active players in their respective sports. How much you can compare them, though, is somewhat difficult because James’ NBA career has stretched nearly twice as long as Trout’s time with the Los Angeles Angels. James is heading into his 17th season overall and second with the Los Angeles Lakers.

More importantly to some, there is a vast difference in playoff experience that totally tips the scales toward James. He has made it to the NBA Finals nine times and won the title three times and in some people’s minds, that’s where the comparison ends.  Trout has only played in only three postseason games, period and never has come close to playing in the World Series.

We asked a number of observers about the topic, and they came up with different perspectives. It’s a fun comparison — or argument — that seems to point to the same conclusion. Some come from a hardcore baseball background, others from a hardcore hoops background. Then there are those that like to look mostly at analytics.  Another group looks at it like maybe how two buddies would, talking about it over beers.

Here’s the starting point: Trout has been in the big leagues nine seasons. He’s been so good that he’s never finished lower than fourth in MVP voting, winning it twice, finishing second four times, and fourth once. Again, he’s only played in three postseason games, when the Angels were swept by the Kansas City Royals in the ALDS in 2014.

In James’ first nine seasons, he won three NBA MVP Awards, was an eight-time All-Star, and won his first NBA title, on his third try.  As opposed to Trout who locked up his future with the Angels, James joined an all-star cast of teammates after failing to carry the Cavaliers during his first stint with the team.

“If we look at the first nine seasons of a career, Mike Trout would be on the baseball Mount Rushmore,” says Mark Simon (@MarkASimonSays), senior research analyst at Sports Info Solutions (@SportsInfo_SIS), an analytics company that services MLB and NFL teams. “His combination of being able to hit, hit for power, run and field, is almost without parallel. The comparisons are to all-time legends like Ted Williams or Willie Mays. LeBron through nine seasons is right there too, with Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (and Bill Russell too, I suppose).” 

Simon continues, “To say Trout is better … I don’t know. I think they’re on similar footing through nine seasons (and I wouldn’t want to judge Trout’s nine vs. LeBron’s whole career). When you say ‘who’s the best player in _____?’ the answer is equally immediate, equally a no-doubter, and true for an extended period of time. That the Angels haven’t made the postseason much isn’t his fault — imagine how bad they would be without him.”

“I think the thing that stands out about Trout is just how much better he is than everyone else in the time that he’s played,” says Simon. “His WAR entering today is 72.5. The next-best from 2011 to 2019 for a position player is Josh Donaldson at 44.6 … Donaldson is 27.9 behind (the equivalent of about three Trout seasons!) — this is a good argument for ‘they’re about the same’ — if you measure LeBron by VORP … his first 9 seasons are 77.3. Kevin Garnett is second at 48.2.”

Mike Trout #27 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim hits a RBI double

(Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

We tapped a few basketball minds for their general thoughts, and they tend to come down on James’ side.

One person, who preferred to remain anonymous, played both college hoops and major league baseball. He says players have had this exact conversation during spring training (you’d have to think a convo about Trout vs. LeBron is far more scintillating than dissecting that day’s pitcher’s fielding practice, or PFP, for short). That person gave the edge to LeBron, mainly because of his ability to control a game much more so than Trout can.

The basics: A basketball player can control a game more so than a baseball player. James can have a big impact on both ends of the court. While Trout comes to the plate four, maybe five times a game, a basketball player in James’ orbit can use up to 35%-40% of a team’s offensive possessions and use an average of 20% on defense. It’s the old 1 out of 5 is bigger than 1 out of 9.

And then there are the playoffs. James has been there 13 times, winning the NBA title and the Finals MVP three times. Trout has been to the postseason once. Playoffs generate revenue for owners and memories that last years. We’ve yet to see Mike Trout on the biggest stage, the World Series. There’s no doubt he’d do something big, but he’s got to get there first.

But who can forget James’ chase-down block on Andre Iguodala in the closing minutes of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals? James carried the Cleveland Cavaliers on his shoulders and carried them to their first championship, and that was the crowning moment.

OK, on to a baseball expert.

“This is a tough one!” baseball writer Jayson Stark of The Athletic said via email when asked about the comparison. “But no matter how you frame this, it’s challenging to argue that Trout is better at his sport than LeBron is at his. Statistically, if you use Win Shares comparably to how we’d use Wins Above Replacement in baseball, LeBron ranks as one of the four best players of all time — not even including his playoff Win Shares. And since he has more playoff Win Shares than any player in history, while Trout has had so few postseason opportunities, that pretty much ends the argument.”

Stark then said, “The question is whether it’s possible to argue that Trout has dominated his era more than LeBron has dominated his. If that’s the debate, I’d say they’re extremely close if you just look at regular seasons, MVP finishes, etc. But again, there is just too much playoff imbalance to place Trout above LeBron — and I say that as someone who is dying to do that! Just don’t see the factual evidence to make it possible.”

He also added, “Many things blow me away about Mike Trout. One is that he seems to get better every year — and considering he’s the best player alive, that’s almost impossible. But whatever small aspect of baseball he may not be great at in one year, he seems to fix and improve by the next year. Second, he could easily have won the MVP award every year of his career. And that’s pretty much unheard of. I guess Mays or Ruth had stretches this long where you could have said that about them in other eras. But this is going to be his seventh top-two finish in eight seasons. As I wrote earlier this year, only Stan Musial (eight), Albert Pujols (eight) and Barry Bonds (nine) have ever had that many — and none of them did it by their age-27 season.”

Stark also likes who Trout is as a person. “The third thing I truly admire is that Mike Trout is such an authentic person. He has no public veneer, no phony image-building shtick whatsoever. I’ve seen him sign dozens of autographs before games, banter with kids on the field and take such genuine joy in playing baseball that there’s almost no one like him — in any sport.”

On the topic of Trout’s lack of postseason experience, “How can it not hurt?” Stark said. “It’s obviously not his fault. And I would never use that to penalize him in trying to assess his greatness. But you’re asking me to compare him with a player in another sport who has played in over 200 playoff games, who has taken his team to the finals nine times, who has won three Playoff Finals MVP awards. It’s one thing to assess Trout’s brilliance in a vacuum. It’s another to have to stack him up against someone like that.”

Stark raised an interesting point, that Trout has opted to sit out the World Baseball Classic every time he’s been invited, while James has played in two Olympics.

“Not everything about those choices is the same, but it’s one more reason it’s difficult to argue Trout has been greater,” Stark said.

“It’s also true that LeBron has taken on a lot more responsibility in elevating and promoting his sport than Trout. That’s a reflection of their very different personalities, and again, I don’t have any interest in penalizing Trout for being genuine. But those, too, are choices they made. And it at least plays a part in understanding why LeBron’s national and international impact have gone so far beyond Trout’s.”

LeBron James hoists the Larry O'Brien and the Finals MVP trophies

(BECK DIEFENBACH/AFP/Getty Images)

Another person with an interesting perspective is Tony Gwynn Jr., whose late father was drafted by both the San Diego Padres and San Diego Clippers on the same day, before choosing baseball.

Asked if Trout is better at baseball than James is at basketball, Gwynn Jr. said, “At this point, you can’t. LeBron James has won what, three titles now? I mean, that’s what we play the game for. I would say LeBron is ahead from that standpoint. They are both faces of their respective sports. I don’t know that Mike really wants to be the type of face that LeBron is. LeBron is at the forefront of social issues. Anything that’s going on with their league, he’s the one speaking up about it. I think Mike could have that type of impact if he wanted to. But everybody is different.”

“In basketball, individual stars have way more of an impact on the outcome of a game than individual stars do in baseball,” said Gwynn Jr., who played parts of eight seasons in the major leagues. “LeBron can literally dictate the outcome of a game single-handedly in most games, where you don’t have that opportunity in a game like baseball.”

Gwynn Jr. said his dad would have enjoyed this conversation because he was a fan of James.

“LeBron in so many ways is so much like Magic Johnson, just a better scorer and just a different type of athlete. But the mindsets are the same. They want to get everybody else involved. They want to make everybody else better. My dad enjoyed those type of players.”

Jim Calhoun, who coached UConn to three NCAA basketball championships and is a huge baseball fan, says you can’t declare Trout better at baseball than James is at basketball “for this reason and this reason alone: LeBron has won championships.” Now coaching at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut, Calhoun then added that he considers Bill Russell to be the greatest winner of all, mentioning his 11 NBA titles with the Boston Celtics; and Michael Jordan as the greatest player of all. 

“Maybe we’re asking an argument that can’t be answered. Baseball seems too complex,” Calhoun says. “This is apples and oranges. You can’t mix the two, except in a decent salad.”

What about boiling the comparison down to Trout’s nine seasons vs. LeBron’s first nine seasons?

“That’s undoubtedly more fair,” Stark said. “But even then, LeBron had played in four other finals before he won one. So the only way to truly level this playing field is to take the playoffs completely out of it. If we’re just talking first nine regular seasons for each guy, then we’ve got a fascinating little debate on our hands!”