- ESPN baseball columnist/feature writer
Former editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus
Co-author of “The Only Rule Is It Has To Work”
In 2009, before he was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels, Mike Trout had committed to play baseball at East Carolina University. Because Trout has gone on to have the most historically significant career of his generation, that alternative history has always been delicious: What if he’d gone to college? How would it have changed the course of history, for Trout and the sport? How would it have changed our own lives?
That what-if exercise has become even more profound in the past few months because of one simple fact: Had he gone to college, it’s almost certain that Mike Trout would have been on the 2017 Houston Astros. And so?
1. When the Angels drafted Trout in 2009, the recommended bonus for his spot in the draft — 25th overall — was $1.2 million. But that’s not in any way binding, and for some players the slot recommendation is just the start of negotiations. As the draft approached, word was getting around — including to the Angels — that “people had been getting at him,” and that he might require more than slot to sign.
The decision Trout had to make — to negotiate, to not negotiate; to sign, to not sign — was a big one for a 17-year-old. If he signed without negotiating, he’d have $1.2 million, more than most 17-year-olds will make over the next quarter century. He’d start his pro career. He’d join an organization that, at that point, had been one of the most successful in baseball. But if he negotiated before he signed, he might get all of that and $2 million, or $3 million — with prudence and a decent investment or two, he’d be secure for life. And if he negotiated but didn’t sign — if he or the Angels had walked away from negotiations — he’d go to college, get an education. He’d still be eligible to reenter the draft three years later, so he’d essentially be betting on himself: Maybe his draft stock would rise, and he’d end up being a top-10 pick, or a top-3 pick, or the No. 1 pick, and sign for $4.2 million, $5.2 million, $7.2 million.
Put yourself in that position as a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, and the decision could paralyze you. The difference between getting $1.2 million and getting $7.2 million is, in raw terms, as big as the difference between getting $5,990,000 and owing $10,000. Could you make that gamble?
Trout signed for $1.2 million, no negotiation. Maybe the decision weighed on him. Or it might have been as simple as summer restlessness: “I need to get him out of the house and back on the baseball field, because he’s driving us crazy,” his dad told the Angels.
2. In the “Road Not Taken” way of viewing history, life is a series of difficult and consequential choices, and we are doomed to wonder about that thing we passed up.
If Mike Trout had gone to college, he would have certainly been the best college player in the country — he was, after all, the best player in the world at any level by 2012, which would have been his final season before he became draft-eligible again. He probably would have been the greatest college player in history as a junior, just before his draft year. If Bryce Harper was “Baseball’s Lebron,” Trout might have been Baseball’s Zion — to the degree that college baseball can produce such a phenomenon. It can’t, not really, but all the same: For a few decades, Trout would be famous as the greatest college player ever, a fun designation. He’d have been the first pick in the draft and signed for $7 million, maybe even $8 million, far more than $1.2 million.
Of course, he would have given up many accomplishments, too. Despite being the best player in the world by early 2012, he probably wouldn’t have made his major league debut until at least the middle of 2013, and quite possibly a couple of weeks into the 2014 season. He might well have followed the schedule the Cubs kept for Kris Bryant, another all-time-great college hitter who put up ludicrous minor league numbers in his first full pro season, and who debuted — at age 23 — a couple of weeks into his second full pro season.
If Trout’s team had done the same, he would have debuted two weeks into the 2014 season, at the age of 22. No MVP chases against Miguel Cabrera in 2012 and 2013; quite possible no MVP award — or even Rookie of the Year award! — in 2014; and two fewer years to have built up what will someday be record-challenging career totals. Instead of the most WAR ever through age 22, Trout might have had the 100th-most WAR ever through age 22. Instead of having an outside shot at the career home run record, the career WAR record, 4,000 hits, and so on — instead of being on his way to surpassing any number of Hall of Fame careers before he turned 30 — he’d be, merely, in the conversation for the best player in the game. And, despite the much larger signing bonus, it would have cost him tens of millions of dollars to have started his big league career two years later.
On the other hand, starting in 2015, he’d have begun playing in the postseason every year. The Astros, in the midst of their long rebuild, had the worst record in baseball in 2011 and the first overall pick in 2012. That one thing that the Angels have never been able to provide him? The Astros would have been perfectly set up to give that to him. Instead of zero postseason wins, he’d have dozens, and quite likely a World Series ring. But that, too, might have come at an unexpected cost.
3. In the “Sliding Doors” way of viewing history, we are often given choices that turn out to be tremendously consequential but in ways that are totally unforeseeable and completely disconnected from the original decision. We think we are choosing between honey and sugar; we are actually choosing between whether to retire in Idaho or Chile, but that choice is obscured behind billions of subsequent events that take us further out than we ever see.
The decision Mike Trout made in 2009 was about money and his immediate future. But really it was about his vision of his future, and maximizing the possibilities if he turned out to be an all-time great ballplayer. But really it was about … his soul? Is that too much?
There were, essentially, three ways for a Houston Astro in the 2017 season to respond to the club’s widespread and illegal sign stealing: Pleading, acceding and cheating. The first — pleading — would be to declare loudly, forcefully, publicly when necessary, that the scheme was repugnant. To recognize that the scheme was repugnant is simple enough: We’ve seen scores of major leaguers in the past few weeks unanimously declare it so, in unusually harsh language directed at the Astros. This is not, it seems, a particularly ambiguous moral decision. All The Ballplayers agree.
But that wouldn’t make it an easy decision to blow the whistle, for a lot of obvious reasons. The whistleblower’s teammates — friends — would hate him for it. The public reaction to the whistleblower would likely be conflicted. And while the Astros’ crime seems morally unambiguous to us, it almost certainly didn’t seem quite so obvious to the individual Astros at the time. They were under the sway of group reinforcement. They were at least half-convinced that other teams were doing it, or doing something like it. They saw their older teammates and their coaches not concerned, going openly along with it — unlike PEDs, where players cheated in secret from each other, ashamed. It would all create an impression to the motivated reasoner that this wasn’t that bad. And their reason would be very motivated: It’s hard to see something is wrong when you profit from not seeing it.
Which is all to say it would take a moral titan to blow that whistle. We will all raise our children in the hopes of raising that moral titan. But Paul Dickson’s great book “The Hidden Language of Baseball” suggests that hundreds, maybe thousands, of ballplayers throughout history have engaged in sign stealing near or at the level of the Astros’ scheme, particularly from around 1900 to around 1965. Of those hundreds, perhaps one — a pitcher named Al Worthington in the 1950s and 1960s — is known to have chosen this option, for religious reasons. Even whistleblower Mike Fiers appeared to have stayed quiet until he was on another team, when the cheating worked against instead of for his own interests. (And now he maybe needs protection?) Moral titans are rare, in life and in baseball. Most of us will go through our lives fighting a low-grade fever of fear, greed and pride, the great trifecta of self-interest.
The second way would be to reluctantly, perhaps quietly and conflictedly, accede. There’s circumstantial evidence Jose Altuve might fall into this category, since the banging largely stopped when he came to the plate. But, as we’ve seen over the past month, this option doesn’t do anything to protect the player from criticism. Altuve, who might — I say “might” because we simply don’t know all the facts here and the circumstantial evidence might be exactly wrong — be the most innocent Astros hitter, has become instead the most suspect Astros hitter, the one whose uniform wrinkles and tattoos have pushed this mystery into lasting-meme territory as buzzer conspiracies replace the clearer banging scheme. It’s Altuve whose MVP award is being relitigated. It’s Altuve for whom this scandal will come up in Hall of Fame considerations, and it’s Altuve — whom we adored — who has become the symbol for this.
And, anyway, even if Altuve really is “clean” — what does that mean? He still benefited by being on the same team as the cheaters. He hoisted that MVP trophy thanks to looking the other way at cheating. And a person who knows it is wrong and says nothing (or passively benefits!) is arguably more morally compromised than somebody who doesn’t see the sin in the action at all. Finally, even if Altuve is fully exonerated, we’ll never know whether he didn’t take the bangs because he had a moral code or because he found it distracting and unreliable.
And so, the acceders end up looking pretty indistinguishable from the third category: the cheaters.
It’s worth noting two things here:
1. Essentially every non-Astro who has been asked is angry and clear about what they think of the banging scheme: It’s wrong, the Astros suck because of it, they deserve severe penalties up to and including vigilante justice, and so on. Even the Astros players admit it was wrong. They aren’t all as self-reflective as we’d like, and some are showing an annoying tic of denying the benefit of the scheme, which is definitely not their point to make. But nobody is making the “actually it’s fine” argument. A number seem truly shaken by the fact they were involved.
2. Every Astro (except arguably Fiers) did it or at least acceded to it.
The Astros as a club didn’t acquire all those players because they identified them as willing cheaters. And the Astros as players didn’t go to the club because they wanted to be on the cheating team. The dozens of Astros who cycled through the roster that year share nothing in common except that, for largely arbitrary reasons, they all had the same jersey and dugout that year. This was enough for them all to participate in something every other major leaguer recognizes as wrong. It’s a fair assumption that most of the 2017 Astros would right now be furious and loudly critical of the scheme if they’d been traded to another team just before the 2017 season, just as it’s a fair assumption that nearly all of the loudest voices in baseball right now would have been silent had they been Astros in 2017.
This isn’t an accusation of hypocrisy. The players who are furious at the Astros for cheating are right to be furious at the Astros for cheating, and they’re certainly within their rights to be. They’re doing good for the sport by loudly condemning these sins, establishing a clear set of norms.
It’s just to note how much a career is defined by fate. Fate didn’t put most players on a slumping Carlos Beltran’s team in 2017, and it didn’t make them choose between three unwelcome options — one almost impossibly difficult, two morally compromised. Because of that, they will never know whether they would have been strong enough to make the almost-impossibly-difficult choice. More generously, they’ll never know whether they would have made the morally compromised one, as their friends on the Astros all did. Every day you wake up without a devastating moral quandary to face, be grateful. It’s mostly luck.
For years, I’ve thought about the Mike Trout hypothetical: If he’d gone to college, ended up on a wildly successful Astros team, won his World Series ring, would that have been better? Or was it better that he had three extra years as a professional to start the record chases? Would I rather see Trout win a World Series or challenge the career home run record?
All along, the answer was overwhelming but hidden. We have no way of knowing what Mike Trout would have done if he’d been in the Astros’ dugout during the 2017 season. We couldn’t even speculate, and will never have to, which is an absolute blessing for him and for us: Trout was nowhere near it!
This is the scandal that might ultimately leave no survivors in Houston, and every major leaguer who was passed over by the Astros in the preceding years should thank their fates, as surely as they thank the bloopers and bleeders that fall in for hits and the elbow ligament that was created a little bit stronger than everybody else’s. Trout had no idea what path he was really, ultimately choosing way back in 2009, but, in perhaps the most consequential decision of his career, he chose right.
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