There’s a lot to watch in any given game.
On May 19, we headed to Citi Field with the primary purpose of tracking Trout. If you want to watch the perfect player -- the LeBron James of his sport -- he's the one to pick. Nine days after we watched Trout, he tore a ligament in his thumb and missed nearly two months. When he returned, he didn't skip a beat. Part of the beauty of watching Trout is confirming what so many observers tell us about him: he’s the same player every single day.
"He is just the most consistent hitter, defender, player that plays baseball right now,” says Sunday Night Baseball analyst Jessica Mendoza. "He can do it all, all the time. I would tell someone watching him, 'Try to find a mistake.'"
What did we find when we watched Trout before, during and after a game, at bat, in the field and on the bases? Spoiler alert: We didn’t find any mistakes, but we did get a good feel for what makes the two-time American League MVP great.
If he wanted it to be, Trout’s batting practice could be among the most thrilling in baseball. But for the 26-year-old, it’s not about entertainment.
“Getting loose, working different things, working the other way, shooting the gaps, pulling the ball, feeling how your swing is,” Trout says, running through his decidedly practical BP checklist.
In the first couple rounds, we see him hit a ball or two to the opposite field, and one on the ground in the hole between shortstop and third base. He takes maybe one big cut. In contrast, the hitter before him, Cameron Maybin, whacks away, going deep multiple times and hitting some mammoth shots to left center.
"He is just the most consistent hitter, defender, player that plays baseball right now. He can do it all, all the time. I would tell someone watching him, 'Try to find a mistake.'" Jessica Mendoza, ESPN MLB analyst, on Mike Trout
The young kids in the front-row seats in left field call out “Trout!” when it’s his turn again, but they’re in the wrong spot. Trout's final three hacks look easy and effortless, but the ball soars -- one off the facing of the third deck and another off the facing of the second deck, on back-to-back swings. These are the shots you'd expect from someone like Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton.
With that, Trout’s pregame hitting is done, and it's like clockwork. One scout told us beforehand to expect this exact sequence of events, that it’s all part of Trout's plan.
“That’s what the best do every day,” the scout said.
What we learned: If he really wanted to, Trout could probably hit a home run as far as Judge did at Citi Field last Wednesday, a monster shot into the third deck measured at a stingy 457 feet. Instead, he has other priorities.
Preparing for an at-bat
Trout watches the hitter before him from a step in front of the on-deck circle. Before each pitch, he takes two phantom swings. When it’s his turn, it’s a 15-step walk to the plate.
He gets in the batter's box, lightly taps both the plate umpire and the catcher with his bat as a way of saying "hello." He then positions himself, his back foot touching the back corner of the box closest to home plate. He’s brave enough to stand close, but smart enough to stand at the back of the box, giving him the most time to see, and react to, a pitch.
Trout is 6-foot-2, 235 pounds. He’s big, perhaps even linebacker-like, but he's not huge. His stance is menacing, though. He holds his hands out in front of his head and moves the bat back and forth, almost as if he’s starting to swing an axe. It's a more intimidating look than Trout had circa 2012, when he kept his hands behind his head, less visible to the pitcher.
It also helps him get into a rhythm with his timing, so he can turn on pitches and hit them a long way.
What we learned: The Trout pre-pitch routine is equal parts setup and intimidation. It provides him confidence. “Right now, Mike is really comfortable in the box,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia tells reporters.
Adam Sherr, a 46-year-old attorney from Anaheim who now lives in Seattle, is in the Big Apple celebrating his 20th anniversary with his wife, Annette. He's at Citi Field specifically to see Trout. Sherr is 46 and can queue up an article on Trout from FiveThirtyEight on his phone at a moment’s notice, but part of him is still a 16-year-old, crushed as he watched his Angels blow the 1986 American League pennant against the Boston Red Sox. He says he loves watching Trout hit.
“A beautiful, short swing,” Sherr says. “It’s amazing how he can pull his hands back and turn on a ball. He can do that and he can do the Vladimir Guerrero -- hit a ball on the bounce over the fence.”
Trout doesn’t get to do much with the pitches that bounce in this game. He does swing at a pair on the outer edge of the plate, though, and gets hits on both, one to left field and one to right center. His reach with his bat extends as far as he wants.
A scout says that when he watches Trout, he “figures out how to contain the least amount of damage he can do.” A couple days earlier, Trout had homered on a down-and-in pitch from White Sox starter Anthony Swarzak that seemed almost impossible to hit out of the park.
Another scout marvels at how Trout "fires his hips so quickly. He has great strength and great timing.”
In this case, the least amount of damage is two solid singles -- one to right center, one to left. Trout takes wide turns around first base for each, forcing a good throw to second from the outfield. He claps his hands together once, the same way both times, and offers a fist-bump to first base coach Alfredo Griffin.
Those hits (both with no one on base), a walk and a strikeout feel like a win to Mets manager Terry Collins, who, when speaking after the game of how his pitchers handled Trout, says simply:
“They did a good job.”
What we learned: If you keep Trout in the ballpark, you’ve done a good job. If you’ve kept him off base, you’ve performed a baseball miracle. But the measure of a win is in whether you can avoid having his performance be the difference between victory and defeat. On this day, the Mets win 3-0.
Disagreeing with an umpire
Trout has never been ejected from a game. During his pregame media gathering, he speaks reverentially about Derek Jeter and carrying the mantle of being a face of the game. Jeter, too, was never ejected from a game.
That doesn’t mean Trout doesn’t have his moments.
In the fifth inning, Mets starter Jacob deGrom throws a 95-mph fastball on a 2-1 count. It’s a little more than a baseball’s width off the plate, but it’s in a spot that, amazingly enough, is called a strike 49.9 percent of the time. Umpire Phil Cuzzi calls one here.
Trout takes a step back and shakes his head. You can’t see it from the stands, but on television they show him scrunching his face. He steps back in the box. DeGrom strikes him out on the next pitch, one at the top edge of the strike zone. The 50-50 call turned out to be an at-bat changer.
"He does certain things that seem impossible, but he makes them look so easy. All those home runs he robs. It seems like no other human being could do it, but he makes it look like every baseball player could be able to do it." Baseball fan Jack Ramsay, 14
Trout goes back to the dugout. He’s perturbed, but still in the game.
"Don't let one at-bat affect you," Trout says later.
Following that mantra, Trout doesn’t let calls bother him. In the sixth inning, Trout falls behind deGrom 0-2, but after three foul balls and three takes, the last of which is a wild pitch that advances the runner to second, Collins concedes. He orders something that happens in baseball about once a year -- an intentional walk during an at-bat that had started 0-2.
“I don’t expand my zone for anything,” Trout says. “I keep the same approach. I’m looking for a pitch in a particular zone. If I don’t get it, I’ll take the walk.”
What we learned: Trout doesn’t do distractions. Once a moment is over, it’s on to the next one.
Playing the outfield
Watching from the stands, you'll notice Trout plays a deep center field. He even plays deep for the opposing pitcher.
In three games at Citi Field over that weekend, Trout’s average starting position is 330 feet from home plate. That’s 12 feet deeper than the average for the next-deepest center fielder against the Mets, Christian Yelich.
Playing that deep helps him make highlight-reel plays -- and inspires 14-year-old ballplayers in the stands, like Jack Ramsey from Southington, Connecticut, to call him “slick.”
“He does certain things that seem impossible, but he makes them look so easy,” Ramsey says. “All those home runs he robs. It seems like no other human being could do it, but he makes it look like every baseball player could be able to do it.”
This is an easy night for Trout in the field. He catches one harmless can of corn during which he barely budges. But you can see the flashes of what makes him a good defender on balls hit into each of the gaps. These are hard-hit but clearly catchable for the left fielder, Maybin, and the right fielder, Kole Calhoun. Still, Trout is right there to back up both or, if they stumble, to make the play himself.
“There doesn’t seem like [there's] a ball he can’t get to,” Sherr says. “I’m impressed by his speed and his instinctive response to where the ball is going to be and his youthful enjoyment after he makes a great catch.”
What we learned: Though Trout often ranks as average or even below average in outfield metrics, that might be a product of where he plays rather than how he plays. The Angels appear to have prioritized snagging long extra-base hits at the expense of giving up a few extra singles, knowing Trout can get to some deep-hit balls others can’t.
Running the bases
One of the things we were hoping to see was Trout run the bases, or attempt to break up a double play, because since 2012 he has the best baserunning stats in baseball, per Fangraphs, whose version combines base stealing, base-stealing efficiency, and frequency of taking extra bases on hits.
Alas, no such situations occur. There is a normal-speed run to second base on an infield hit, but nothing eye-popping.
On this day, his leads are short, which makes sense given deGrom had allowed only 17 steals in 32 attempts in his career at the time, and Trout is not long back from a hamstring injury. So we miss out on watching him at his best.
What we learned: Trout knows how to pick his spots.
The whole package
In the NBA and NFL, stars make highlight-reel plays every game. But in baseball, you have to be patient.
“To appreciate Mike, it’s not the sensational,” Scioscia says. “It’s what he does on a daily basis. He plays defense. The way he runs the bases. Combine that with what he does in the batter’s box, never taking a pitch or play off. That maturity has made Mike do what he’s done so far in his career. What you see every day is a guy who isn’t chasing numbers. He’s playing the game to win, [and] does whatever he needs to do on the field to help us win.”
Or to look at it another way: You’re not going to see everything Trout does on any given day. But he keeps you coming back for more.