MLB’s Overpayment Problem: Does Mike Trout Truly Deserve $35M+ AAV?

Image: Ashley Landis / Associated Press

All stats current as of October 4, 2022

Over the past few years, players have been signing long contracts for massive amounts of money. It is clear as time goes on that these players will continue to be paid more and more. When seeing tens of millions of dollars flowing into these players’ pockets, it is worth it to question if any player is really worth more than thirty million dollars for one year of baseball?

If a player is getting paid that $30M+ salary per year, then what production should we expect? And when should we consider a player “overpaid” or “overvalued”? These are all tough questions to answer.

If you watch baseball, it is clear that Mike Trout is one of the best players ever to step foot on the diamond. At the age of 31, he is already a three-time MVP, ten-time All-Star, and an eight-time Silver Slugger. No one can question his greatness. As a result of his dominating and incredible play, Trout signed a contract at $426.5M through 12 years. On average, that is about $35.5M per year. 

However in recent years, Trout has struggled with injuries, and his production has significantly decreased. In the last three seasons, Trout has only played around 54% of the games. If he is only on the field for just over half the games, then his value to the team significantly decreases. You can’t help win games when you’re not available.

Also, Trout’s strikeout percentage over the past two years has been the highest in his career, hovering around 28 percent. Additionally, his WAR has declined. From 2012 to 2019, Trout’s WAR averaged around 8.99, but in the past 3 years his average WAR is around 3.2. It is clear that Trout is not the same player he once was.

Here are two lines of stats. You tell me the true difference between these guys:

The stats from the upper line are Mike Trout’s, with the bottom line being Jeff McNeil’s stats. 2022 Jeff McNeil has played more games, has hit for a higher average, has been on base more, and has a difference of WAR by just -0.4 (!!!), when compared to Trout. In the context of this discussion, McNeil was paid $34,116,666 less this year. When you think about this from a business standpoint, from which owners should, why would you pay $34M more for a player, when you can get similar production from another player at a much lower salary?

If I asked you the question again and framed it differently and said “Would you rather have Trout or McNeil in the outfield for your team this season?” Everyone, including myself, would want Mike Trout. However, his production this year has not been significantly better than McNeil’s, yet Trout earns much more than McNeil. Just because he is Mike Trout doesn’t mean he deserves $35M+ this year for his play. 

There are a bunch of other guys who are in a similar range of WAR compared to Mike Trout, like Austin Riley (6.3 WAR), Steven Kwan (5.6 WAR), Marcus Semien (5.6 WAR), José Ramírez (5.6 WAR), and Dansby Swanson (5.6 WAR). These players do not receive close to the amount Trout makes per year, yet statistically they have the same impact for their team.

The reality is that Trout is not the same player because of the injuries impacting his career. Trout’s production is likely to decrease even more as time goes on. Additionally, there are many other players who match or come close to Trout’s production for much lower salaries. So as the Angels front office, why would you pay Trout almost half a billion dollars just to watch him decline, and continue to not make the playoffs?

I know what you’re thinking. How can you criticize one of the greatest players of all time like this? How can you say Trout is not playing well when he is still a top player in the league, when he hit 39 home runs so far this year? How can you say Trout is overrated or overvalued?

I am not suggesting that Mike Trout is a bad player, rather I am arguing that his contract does not match the level of production from these past three seasons. In reality, with these big contracts, no player ever really lives up to play at a high level that matches their high salary.

The point of this is to show that no player, not even one of the all-time greats, can sustain their production over such a long time. So why should owners pay the players so much? Why pay someone so much money if it’s highly probable that they will not produce and play like a $30M+ player every year? Why just throw money in the air and put it all to waste? Why do owners put up with this?

As an MLB owner, how can you be comfortable paying a guy hundreds of millions of dollars to perform at the same level as guys who get a fraction of their salary? From a business standpoint, paying guys these huge contracts just does not make sense, because the return on investment has not been adequate in many cases. Think about Francisco Lindor, Anthony Rendon, Gerrit Cole, Giancarlo Stanton, Corey Seager, Miguel Cabrera, and even Mike Trout.

Those kinds of players have all been paid incredible amounts of money, but when comparing their production to other players, and there is not a significant difference in production that matches the significant difference in pay. The goal of a baseball team is to win games and bring home a World Series trophy, and spending mass amounts of money on one singular player for not enough relative production does nothing to help achieve that goal.

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