It’s April 27. The Cleveland Indians are celebrating a walk-off victory, after getting to the Angels’ bullpen, an occurrence that has become a fixture for the Halos in April. The Angels sit at 6-14, having lost five straight games and won only one series.
Albert Pujols isn’t hitting. In fact, no one is hitting. The bullpen can’t get any one out. This team that was supposed to be magical instead is boring. If you want to see a magical team, look no further than the top of the American League West, where the Texas Rangers boast a 15-5 record and can do no wrong. The Angels sit nine games behind their rivals and there’s no sign of things turning around any time soon.
Fast forward to June 11. The Angels are 32-29 and are 14-4 in their last 18 games. The starting pitching has been brilliant. The bullpen has turned things around. Even the offense is performing. What happened?
Mike Trout happened. Since being recalled on April 28, Trout has raked, posting a .350/.407/.548 slash line along with five home runs, three triples and 10 doubles. He’s also stolen 13 bases in 16 attempts. Over the weekend, he went 8-for-14 with eight runs scored in three games against the Rockies. Since May 26 he's batting .441.
Defensively, every metric loves him. He’s been worth between 2.3 (Baseball-Reference, eighth among AL position players) to 2.9 (FanGraphs, third in AL) wins above replacement, depending upon which advanced metric you choose to subscribe to. That may not sound like much, but it’s the difference between the Angels sitting five or six games behind Texas instead of their current three-game deficit.
Forget about what the numbers say for a second. Every baseball cliché you can think of applies to Trout. The 20-year-old is a "professional hitter" who "plays the game the right way" and is an absolute "gamer." This kid is arguably the best player on this team right now, and he’s expected to get better and better. The swagger and attitude he’s brought to the Angels aren’t quantifiable, but have certainly helped this team turn things around.
So where would the Halos be without Trout? You could argue that the bullpen’s success was inevitable, especially given what Ernesto Frieri has added. The starting rotation has always been solid, but the offense is where the Angels have seen the most improvement since Trout came up.
Trout turns 21 in August, but this is considered his age-20 season. Can he really contend for a batting title in his rookie season? His batting average on balls in play is .410, which is probably unsustainable (since 2000, only two hitters have hit .400 on balls in play over a full season -- Manny Ramirez in 2000 and Jose Hernandez in 2002), but Trout is also improving rapidly. In his first 20 games this season, he struck out 20 times in 88 plate appearances; in his next 19 games, he struck out 13 times in 89 plate appearances. So while the average on balls in play may come down, he may put more balls in play as the season progresses.
Currently, Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system projects Trout to hit .301/.367/.467, worth about 5.8 wins above replacement. If we project his current Baseball-Reference WAR (2.3 in 39 games) over an additional 100 games (the Angels have 101 remaining), we get 8.2 WAR by season's end. Since 1901, Baseball-Reference lists only 10 20-year-old position players as recording 5.0 WAR or more:
Alex Rodriguez, 1996 Mariners: 9.2
Al Kaline, 1955 Tigers: 8.0
Mel Ott, 1929 Giants: 7.3
Ted Williams, 1939 Red Sox: 6.6
Ty Cobb, 1906 Tigers: 6.6
Jason Heyward, 2010 Braves: 6.3
Vada Pinson, 1959 Reds: 6.3
Mickey Mantle, 1952 Yankees: 6.3
Frank Robinson, 1956 Reds: 6.2
Ken Griffey Jr., 1990 Mariners: 5.0
OK, matching Alex Rodriguez's 1996 season will be next-to-impossible. But 5.0 WAR seems like a realistic expectation, which would make Trout one of the best 20-year-olds in baseball history.
Hudson Belinsky attends Cornell University, is the Owner/Editor of Halosdaily.com and an intern for Baseball Prospectus.