The Allure of the One-Man Show
Bill James has written about this — in the 1985 playoffs against Toronto, Kansas City’s George Brett had one of the greatest games a player has ever had. The Royals had lost the first two games of the series and so, obviously, needed to win Game 3 or make their winter vacation plans. Brett said to his teammates: “Jump on my back.”
Then he delivered his game for the ages — 4-for-4, two homers, a double (that went off the top of the wall), directly responsible for five of the six runs the Royals scored (he scored four of them and drove in another), plus he made probably his greatest defensive play when he ranged far to his right, made a backhand stab and threw off-balance to the plate to get Damáso García and save a run.
I mean, you just can’t do much more than that.
But, as Bill points out, the Royals STILL almost lost that game. They trailed 5-2 at one point (and were lucky it was that close — the Blue Jays left the bases loaded in the fifth inning), and didn’t score the winning run until the bottom of the eighth. The point is that there’s only so much one player can do — even a player having an all-time game like George Brett does not guarantee victory.
Such is the lot of Mike Trout. He has had the misfortune of spending his brilliant career playing for one of the oddest teams in baseball, a team that doesn’t seem to know where they play (California Angels, Anaheim Angels, Los Angeles Angels …), a team that has the longest consecutive stretch of losing seasons, and yet a team that will spend money in an effort to win.
But the WAY the Angels spend money is exactly what we’re talking about here. I’ve been doing a little research about giant contracts lately. It’s kind of interesting.
In all, there have been 112 nine-figure contracts in baseball history.
Those 112 contracts have been given to 102 players. That’s because there are 10 players who have received two nine-figure contracts in their careers. They are:
Albert Pujols (Cardinals in 2004, Angels in 2012)
Alex Rodriguez (Rangers in 2001, Yankees in 2008)
CC Sabathia (Yankees in 2009, Yankees again after opt-out in 2012)
Freddie Freeman (Braves in 2014, Dodgers in 2022)
Justin Upton* (Tigers in 2016, Angels in 2018)
Max Scherzer (Nationals in 2015, Mets in 2022)
Miguel Cabrera (Tigers in 2008, Tigers again in 2016)
Mike Trout (Angels in 2015, Angels again in 2019)
Stephen Strasburg (Nationals in 2017, Nationals again after opt-out in 2020)
Zack Greinke (Dodgers in 2013, Diamondbacks after opt-out in 2016)
*The asterisk next to Upton is just a reminder to come back to him shortly.
A few fun facts before we come back to the Angels — there are four teams that have never given out a nine-figure contract. You could probably name three of them without any trouble at all: Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Oakland.
The fourth, though, is a bit of a shocker: The Chicago White Sox. It’s interesting, the White Sox handed out the richest deal in baseball history back in 1996, when for some reason they gave Albert Belle $55 million over five years. But that was more than a quarter-century ago, when the idea of a nine-figure contract was still years off.*
*The first nine-figure contract in baseball history was given in 1999 — by the Los Angeles Dodgers to Kevin Brown. That one, like most of them, did not work out too well.
The White Sox have not only never given out a $100 million deal, they’ve never really come all that close. The biggest contract in White Sox history belongs to Yasmani Grandal: a four-year, $73 million deal that began in 2020.
The team that has given out the MOST $100 million contracts is … right, the Yankees. The Yankees have signed NINE nine-figure deals (counting Sabathia twice) and I’m sad to say that most of them turned out OK. The Derek Jeter deal was a steal. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira won them a World Series. Sure, the Jacoby Ellsbury deal was terrible and the A-Rod deal ended very badly and Masahiro Tanaka probably wasn’t quite as good as they had hoped (though he was quite good).
Compare that to, say, the Red Sox, who have had eight nine-figure contracts that include several bad deals, such as full-blown disasters with Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. Or compare that to the Dodgers, who have had seven monster contracts, including two of the worst deals ever: the aforementioned Kevin Brown contract and the astonishingly terrible and easily avoidable Trevor Bauer contract.
Anyway, the Angels have not been shy about entering $100 million territory. Other than Trout, they have handed out four big deals. So there’s been some effort to build a team of superstars around Trout. The four contracts are:
— A 10-year, $240 million deal to Albert Pujols. He posted 12.8 WAR for the Angels. That’s $18.75 million per win.
— A five-year, $125 million deal for Josh Hamilton. He posted 2.7 WAR for the Angels. That’s $46.3 million per win.
— A five-year, $106 million deal for Justin Upton. He posted 2.1 WAR for the Angels before being released. That’s about $50 million per win.
— A seven-year, $245 million deal for Anthony Rendon. This deal is through 2026, so you can’t say for sure how it will turn out … but the signs aren’t good. He has only posted 3.1 WAR in his first two-plus seasons, and now he’s out for the year with a wrist injury.
It’s probably fair to say that all of these ended up (or will end up) being baseball catastrophes. And I would argue that none of them were just bad luck. Pujols was 32 years old and showing clear signs of decline. Hamilton was 32 years old and had a troubled history. Upton was 30 years old with a lot of mileage on his tires. Rendon was 30 years old and had been hampered by nagging injuries for years.
But even if they had turned out, I don’t know that the Angels’ fate would have been much different. Sure, you need stars to win in baseball. But stars alone won’t get it done. Baseball is not like the NBA. It takes a village.
Look at the one year in the Trout era that the Angels made the playoffs. It wasn’t because Trout had some sort of magical year — all things considered, it was probably no better than his sixth- or seventh-best season. It wasn’t because high-priced Pujols and Hamilton delivered. No, that team had NINE above-average hitters in their lineup and so led the league in runs. They also had three above-average starters and a solid bullpen. That’s how you win games.
And even that team was swept by a Kansas City Royals team that did not have any high-priced stars.
I bring this up now because over the weekend, Mike Trout WAS a one-man show. The Angels played the Mariners in a rare five-game series, and Trout hit five home runs in the series. But it was more than that.
— On Thursday, he hit two two-run homers to account for all four runs in a 4-1 victory.
— On Saturday, in the first game of the doubleheader, he homered in the 10th to give the Angels a 4-2 victory.
— On Saturday, in the second game of the doubleheader, he homered in the third inning to give the Angels a 1-0 lead they would never relinquish (they eventually won 3-0).
— On Sunday, he hit another home run — a two-run homer this time — and the Angels won 4-0.
It is worth noting that on Friday, Trout went 0-for-3 and the Angels lost 8-1.
This sort of breathtaking run gives the illusion that maybe a player of Trout’s caliber CAN carry a team. Isn’t it pretty to think so? All Trout has to do is hit a home run every day.
But that’s the trap: Even if Trout COULD somehow hit a home run every day — and who would ever bet against Mike Trout? — the Angels would still need a lot of help to become a real contender. See, that’s the lesson that the Angels have never learned. Sure, what Trout did was unprecedented (first player in MLB history to hit four game-winning homers in a single series).
But now, look at the scores: 4-1. 4-2. 3-0. 4-0. The Mariners scored THREE runs in those four games. That’s why the Angels won. Trout’s homers mattered, of course they did, but if the Angels could just hold opponents to two runs or less every game — with a smattering of shutouts — they would win almost all of their games, and that’s with or without Mike Trout’s brilliance.
I love Mike Trout and that’s why I think it’s important to say: There are no One-Man Shows in MLB. Get our man some help there in Anaheim.