Mike Trout: History in the making
A reflection on the Angels star's improbable first season
Mike Trout does everything fast. It took him just two years and 29 days to reach the major leagues after the Los Angeles Angels took him 25th overall in the 2009 draft. It took him another year and two days to play on his first All-Star team. It took him just 31 more days to compel Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland to make an impassioned case as to why Miguel Cabrera should win an MVP award in a year he became the first player in 45 years to hit for the Triple Crown.
That's just the historical stuff. In early May, the Angels clocked Trout at 3.53 seconds running out a bunt to first base, which translates to an average of 17.38 miles an hour. That's obscenely fast for a baseball player. Very few right-handed batters can cover the 90 feet from home to first in less than four seconds.
According to biomechanical analysis from the International Association of Athletics Federations, the fastest Usain Bolt has ever run is 27.78 miles an hour over a 20-meter split when he broke the 100-meter dash record (9.58 seconds) back in 2009.
But to fully appreciate the brilliance of the play Trout made June 27 at Camden Yards in Baltimore, you have to slow it down. In real time, Trout's over-the-wall grab of a sure home run off the bat of J.J. Hardy looks like a pretty good catch -- better than an average robbery, but nothing Ken Griffey Jr. or Torii Hunter hadn't done before. It's not until you slow it down that the catch becomes iconic.
Trout doesn't just get up; his feet are four feet off the ground, even with the Southwest Airlines sign on the outfield wall. Half his body is above the fence. Then he crashes into it. His body absorbs the shock like a tight end coming across the middle. He lands and checks his glove. Got it! And as he holds up the ball to show the umpire, he lets out a joyful "Hoo-ahh," and you realize, this time, he's impressed even himself.
That's Trout: supernaturally athletic and powerful, freakishly fast, and nothing like you've seen before. The play becomes the catch of the year in baseball. The catch against which all other catches -- including the three other home run-saving catches Trout made -- will be measured.
It is the burden all great players must bear: Do something amazing, and forever be held to that standard.
Trout's rookie season was one for the ages. He became the first major leaguer to steal 45 bases, score 125 runs and hit 30 home runs in a season. He's also the first player to hit .320 or better with 30 homers and 45 stolen bases in a season.
If that's his base, or even if he does anything close to that in the future, he will be an automatic Hall of Famer.
The problem with replication, though, is that it's never quite as good as the original. Never quite as sweet or special. So before baseball crowns its new champion and fall turns to winter and then spring, here's a look back, an appreciation of the 10 things Mike Trout should not have been able to do this year but did anyway.
1. Make Rajai Davis question his assumptions.
The rule is pretty simple: When the ball is hit to the outfield, a baserunner on second base goes a quarter of the way to third until he can make a decision about whether the ball is going to get past the outfielder. If the ball is going to be a sure catch, the runner heads back to second, tags up and, if he thinks he can make it, heads for third as soon as the outfielder catches the ball.
In the first inning of the Angels' 10-6 win over the Toronto Blue Jays on July 1, Trout started out coloring within the lines. After leading off with a double, he tagged up on Albert Pujols' fly ball to right. But when Blue Jays right fielder Rajai Davis dropped the ball, Trout -- relying on only the instruction of third-base coach Dino Ebel -- rounded third and headed for home, scoring easily.
Davis seemed stunned. The ball didn't bounce all that far away from him. Had he been expecting it, he easily could have picked it up and made the throw home to at least make it close. But this was early in the season, before the baseball world had fully begun to grasp just how special Trout was. So Davis played it as almost any player would. He threw the ball to second base to stop Pujols from advancing, never expecting Trout would aggressively turn for home.
The play looks silly in highlights. Like Trout is playing a different game than everyone else.
"So many times in baseball, a ball is hit and you pretty much know what's going to happen," former Angels outfielder Tim Salmon said. "It's in the gap so it'll probably be a stand-up double. It's in the corner, maybe it'll be a triple. It's a sacrifice fly, whatever.
"But with Mike, you're never sure what's going to happen. He hits the ball to the outfield and he makes something different happen than is supposed to happen."
2. Turn Bryce Harper into the other young guy.
Bryce Harper had a good year. As a 19-year-old rookie, he more than lived up to the expectations the Washington Nationals had for him when they called him up at the end of April.
Had there been no Mike Trout, Harper's .270 average, 22 home runs, 59 RBIs and 18 stolen bases probably would have been lauded as a breakthrough season for someone so young.
Because of their age and ability, Trout and Harper probably will always be linked. Harper, of course, has been in the limelight since he was on a Sports Illustrated cover at the age of 15. It took longer for Trout to command attention. Whereas Harper played in just about every big showcase tournament there was on the West Coast all through his teenage years, Trout was just a schoolboy legend in small-town New Jersey, a coach's kid who grew up shagging balls on a baseball field and sleeping in his uniform every night after little league games.
Trout's father, Jeff, likes to joke that it was the zucchini bread their neighbor made for visiting scouts -- not necessarily Mike's ability -- that kept people coming all the way out to Millville, N.J., to watch him.
Harper's and Trout's paths first crossed a few years ago when they were teammates in the Arizona Fall League. Harper excelled; Trout struggled. And people assumed they'd always stay in that order.
Trout is a year older, and so he got his first big league call-up at the end of last season. But really, they both arrived this year. Was it too much too soon? Did they need more seasoning? It wouldn't have been surprising if both had spent the year adjusting to the majors, shuttling between the bigs and Triple-A most of the season.
Instead, they both rose to the occasion. Like they'd been waiting their whole lives to play at a level that challenged them.
3. Outshine Albert Pujols.
By the time the Angels decided to call up Trout, nothing had gone according to plan. Albert Pujols, the man they'd signed to a 10-year, $240 million contract over the winter, had gotten off to a miserable start. He was the new face of the franchise all right, but not in a good way.
On April 28, the day Trout arrived, Pujols was batting .226 with four RBIs and no home runs in 20 games. The Angels' record stood at 6-14. Their offense was averaging 3.7 runs a game.
The Angels called up Trout hoping he could give them a spark. He ended up giving them a makeover. Within a few weeks, everyone in baseball began to catch on. All-Star talk started cautiously in May, then became a reality by the end of June.
Pujols eventually found his stroke, but by then, he wasn't the story anymore. Trout had lapped the field. The Angels posted the best record in the American League (82-27) and averaged 4.9 runs a game after Trout's call-up.
"The first six weeks of the season, it was bad," Angels outfielder Torii Hunter said. "We didn't play good baseball at all.
"Then we called up Trout and he changed some things and we started winning."
4. Look that much like Mickey Mantle, and play like him, too.
I wrote my first story on Trout before the 2010 Futures Game during All-Star weekend in Anaheim. He was all promise and potential then, too early to compare him to any of the all-time greats against whom he is measured now.
Except that he looked way too much like Mickey Mantle. Seriously, the resemblance is uncanny. The short blond hair, the boyish grin, the chiseled face.
I suppose the Mantle resemblance is where all these comparisons started. But quickly they became rooted in something different. Every baseball man had an all-time great Trout reminded him of. Names such as Rickey Henderson, Willie Mays and Kirby Puckett were thrown about.
Statistically you can pick out almost any Hall of Famer and find a measure in which Trout's season exceeded what he did.
The Angels' public relations staff came up with this nugget: Trout, Ted Williams, Mel Ott and Alex Rodriguez are the only players to hit .320 or better with 30-plus home runs during their age-20 seasons.
Salmon, who watched Trout every day as a color commentator on the Angels broadcasts on Fox Sports West, initially thought Trout reminded him of Bo Jackson, but then revised it.
"Bo Jackson was the most amazing player I've ever played against," Salmon said. "Athletically, he was Superman. And that's who I used to compare Trout to.
"But I was thinking about it the other day, and Bo never had the plate discipline and approach that Mike does at age 21. And I'm asking myself, 'Is Mike already better than that? Than the guy I considered Superman?'"
5. Drag Ron Washington into it.
You should know that Texas manager Ron Washington was not bitter when he said this: "He's not Willie Mays. He's a pretty good player, but I think the comparisons have to stop," Washington said. "Let the kid play. When he's been here five years, six years, then you can start doing that."
He didn't have to say anything. He probably didn't mean to cause controversy.
He also was exactly right.
Yes, Trout reminds people of the best players to ever play the game. But he's also just a rookie. He's had one amazing season. The best to ever play were the best for a long while.
"I haven't done really anything yet," Trout said. "This is my first full year. There's a lot of years to come."
6. Make everyone like him.
OK, so Trout is special. Really, really special. Which means droves of local and national reporters flooded the Angels' clubhouse daily to ask every other player just how special Trout is. Big leaguers being what they are, you'd expect it to take a few weeks for all the hullabaloo to grow pretty old. Especially over a rookie.
But in Trout's case, no one ever seemed to get sick of talking about him. No one. Not his teammates, not his opponents, not even the older players to whom he's frequently compared.
In July, Tigers legend Al Kaline practically gushed over him. "He's a strong guy, runs really well, power -- he reminds me a little bit of a Mantle," Kaline said in an interview with the Detroit Free Press.
This was long before Cabrera became Trout's primary competition for the MVP award. But that's not the point.
The point is, you'd think at some point his peers would want to put him in his place or get sick of talking about how great he is. But that never happened. People just like Mike Trout.
Maybe it's the way he plays; the joy and love of the game oozes from him. He still looks like a kid on a sandlot.
"He's like that kid in the back seat who is always asking, 'Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?'" Hunter said with a smile. "But that's a good thing, you know. He listens. He wants to learn and get better. At 20 years old, I was like that, too. I wore [Minnesota Twins veterans] Paul Molitor and Kirby Puckett out. I asked them so many questions they just put their hand up after a while."
7. Never go more than two games without getting a hit.
Yes, you read that correctly. Trout never went more than two games without getting a hit. And that happened only six times (April 28 and 29, May 22 and 23, June 15 and 16, Aug. 24 and 25, Sept. 16 and 18, and Sept. 22 and 23).
He never fell off. Never went into much of a slump or hit a rookie wall. If there was an adjustment to be made, he made it quickly. That kind of self-awareness is perhaps the most remarkable thing about Trout. It takes most players an entire career to develop anything close to what Trout already seems to have.
There are all sorts of statistics to measure this phenomena. Things such as Trout's obscenely low 9 percent first-pitch-swing percentage (the MLB average is 26 percent). Or the way his batting average goes up each time he sees a pitcher: .291 in his first at-bat versus the starter, then .381 in his second at-bat, then .387 in his third at-bat.
He knows his swing, he knows how to hit, he knows what pitchers are trying to do to him ... like he was born knowing all of it, and should be swinging a stick named "Wonderboy" and knocking out the light post in right field at the end of a movie.
8. Wear an Angels uniform.
If Trout is this good, this young, he had to be pretty close to as good as he is now back in 2009 when he fell to the Angels with the 25th overall pick.
How did 21 teams pass on him?
There is only one good answer: They ALL wish they hadn't.
9. Get me to spend $11 on a red foam head in the shape of a trout.
I buy a lot of stuff I don't need. Souvenirs from trips that I tell myself will help me remember the place and the people but usually end up on a shelf nobody really notices. I'm a sucker for kids selling candy bars or magazines for a school fundraiser. It's almost impossible for me to drive past a woman on a street corner selling flowers.
But this red Trout head is in an entirely different category. It's hideous. I'm literally never going to wear it unless someone pays me or dares me. And you can't exactly put it anywhere. It's a giant, red foam trout head.
But as I walked into Angel Stadium for the last home game of the season and saw a vendor selling them at "fan appreciation prices," I just had to get one.
I'd seen something special this year. We all had.
And even if he does it again, there's a reason we all jump at the first bolt of lightning, then sleep soundly as the storm rages through the night.
10. Miss the playoffs.
A story came out the other day that Trout spent the weekend in Atlantic City, N.J. He's 21 now; that's allowed.
What's hard to digest is that he's not in the playoffs. That after a season for the ages, he and the Angels came up short, and five other American League teams got the chance to win a World Series.
I can't imagine that sits well with Trout. Last year his dad told me a story about Mike's competitiveness.
He was 9 and pitching in his little league all-star game against a nearby, rival little league. Mike's team lost 2-1, and he was devastated.
When it was time to hand out trophies, he was in tears.
"He just did not want to take second place," Jeff Trout said. "Finally, his mom came out and said, 'If you don't go out and get that trophy, you'll never play again.'"