- 2021 MLB Preview: The Trout Drought
All-time great Mike Trout remains winless in playoff series. That needs to change.
Because Mark Gubicza is a graduate of the prestigious, 331-year old William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, he certainly knows not to use cliches. But when it comes to Kansas City’s 1985 World Series title, he can’t help but employ a relatively trite description of what it feels like to be a champion.
"You walk together forever if you win the World Series," he says.
Gubicza was just 22 in ’85 and did not pitch against St. Louis in the Series, although he did earn a win in the ALCS over Toronto, but that doesn’t matter to him. He had gone 14–10 during the regular season for the Royals, and when he ran onto the field to celebrate the Series win over the Cardinals, he felt the same euphoria as those who had played every inning in the series. Thirty-five-plus years later, Gubicza still plays golf with other members of that team and revels in the stories they tell.
Gubicza will always be able to call himself a champion, even if he never did make it back to the postseason once during the rest of his 14-year big-league career.
"There are no guarantees," he says. "My first year in the big leagues, we made the playoffs. The next year, we were in the World Series. You begin to think you’ll get there every year. The Royals didn’t get to the World Series again until 2014."
For Gubicza, that one title was enough. And there is plenty of truth to the idea that trophies define athletes forever.
Gubicza will enter his 15th season providing analysis on the Angels’ TV broadcasts, which means he has witnessed just about every moment of Mike Trout’s remarkable 10-year career that has included three MVP awards (and four second-place finishes), eight All-Star appearances, and a total of 15 extremely ordinary postseason plate appearances. That’s three games worth of action, back in a 2014 series sweep at the hands of those Royals in the ALDS, for MLB’s top player and someone who could end up being one of the five best ever.
If he retired today, Trout would already have a slam-dunk Hall of Fame resume. A small sampling of his statistical greatness: He ranks eighth all time in career OPS (1.000); he ranks fifth in OPS+ (176), one spot behind Lou Gehrig; and he has led MLB in offensive WAR seven times in his nine full seasons.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Bryce Harper has an MVP award, six All-Star appearances, and four playoff series losses on his resume. His 13-year, $330 million contract is nice (Trout is in the early days of a 12-year, $426.5 million deal), but if Harper — like Trout — continues his postseason futility, he will join the list of great players who had outstanding careers but who will be forever trailed by the "yeah, but" criticism of their inability to win a title. And Major League Baseball, which has a problem promoting its top players because they often don’t play into October, will continue to lag behind other major sports in terms of star power.
"Baseball is so far behind in promoting its players," Gubicza says. "It promotes teams, but it doesn’t promote players."
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If Trout and Harper don’t win Series titles, it’s not as if they will be all alone in baseball history as players unable to experience the sport’s ultimate team success. Fielding a team comprised of people without rings would not only be easy; it would also produce a roster capable of winning plenty of games — and perhaps the whole thing.
Leading the way are Ted Williams, Ken Griffey Jr., Ty Cobb, and Ernie Banks. Throw in Tony Gwynn, Carl Yastrzemski, Nap Lajoie, Rod Carew, and Harmon Killebrew, and you have a pretty impressive lineup. You want some pitching punch? Then let’s go with a rotation of Juan Marichal, Robin Roberts, Fergie Jenkins, Gaylord Perry, and Phil Niekro. Bring Trevor Hoffman out of the bullpen, and you have quite a team.
Because none of them won a ring, they are considered great — legendary, even — but they aren’t champions, for whatever reasons. Williams is considered by many to be the greatest pure hitter in baseball history. But he happened to play a lot of his career at the same time as the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio, who was part of nine Series winners (and might have won more had he not missed 1943-45 while in the service) during his 13-year career with some stacked Bronx squads. DiMaggio is considered by some to be a better all-around player than Williams, despite hitting more than 150 fewer homers and finishing his career with a batting average 19 points lower than Williams’. But The Splinter made it to only one Fall Classic and hit a desultory .200, with just a .533 OPS and no homers in a 1946 seven-game loss to the Cardinals.
At least Williams played in the Series. Banks never made it that far. During his 19 years in Chicago (1953-71), the Cubs spent most of the time in the NL’s second division. Although they moved forward some in the late ’60s, they never won a pennant or the NL East, although in 1969, they led much of the season, only to get passed by the Miracle Mets late in the year.
Lajoie is another of the all-time greats who never even had the chance to play in the postseason. Although his career began in 1896, seven years before the first World Series, he played until 1916, registering a career .338 average with 3,243 career hits. And no Series appearances. It’s sad.
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To some, a star’s failure to reach the postseason is about his inability to deliver or because of some deficiency in his clutch gene. More likely, it’s due to the team’s shortcomings in one or more areas. Scoring five runs a game seems like a good way to amass victories, unless the pitching staff gives up six every time out. It’s not about one player. So much has to go right for a team to reach and win the World Series. Putting it all on the shoulders of someone with a giant contract is not appropriate.
Other professional sports benefit from having their top talents playing when it means the most. But a star like LeBron James can lift his team into the playoffs, because one player can spur a squad of willing role players to big things. And a great quarterback is often enough to lead his crew into the postseason. But no matter how great Trout and Harper — and others — are, they only get four or five at-bats a game. Quarterbacks touch the ball every offensive play. NBA stars almost always get the ball at crucial moments. But baseball’s best hitters don’t pitch in highly leveraged situations. They may not even get a chance in the field all game. They may be transcendent talents, but they can’t strike out the side in the ninth or throw seven shutout innings. And they can’t hit grand slams every time up. The best starting pitchers only play every fifth day.
"It’s so crazy when GMs give one player so much money," Gubicza says. "You need stars, but you need co-stars, too. Look at the movies that win Academy Awards. You need stars, but you need the co-stars around them. You could have one great starting pitcher, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to win. You need guys around him."
Last season backs up Gubicza’s assertion. The Angels did add a pretty impressive co-star for Trout to the lineup — free agent third baseman Anthony Rendon, who had a strong year, hitting .286 with a .915 OPS and helping L.A. to finish fourth in the AL in runs per game (4.9). However, the Angels had the third-worst ERA in the league (5.09). A similar fate befell Harper, whose Phillies scored 5.1 runs per game, fourth in the National League, but were laid low by that aforementioned rotten bullpen.
Without two of its best players in the postseason, when fans tune in to experience baseball’s best, the sport is minimized and loses the opportunity to promote some of its best talent. Though the sport’s revenues have been strong — pre-COVID — it hasn’t been able bring its best players to the biggest stage.
"Baseball would be a zillion times better if [Trout] were in the postseason," Gubicza says.
It’s up to their teams to assemble strong casts around them and to hire managers capable of making the right decisions throughout the season to amass enough wins to reach the playoffs. Trout is otherworldly. Harper is outstanding. And each is still looking for a postseason series win.
Baseball needs that to happen. Soon.
— Written by Michael Bradley () for the Athlon Sports 2021 MLB Annual. At 224 pages, it’s the largest on the newsstand and the most complete preview available today. .
(Top photo by Kyusung Gong/AP Photo)