Tools. We throw the word around in baseball like we are crowning the king of super handymen, a person who can fix anything we throw his way. Then we find out that this handyman has five of them. We wax poetically, we grant him the throne.
Having five tools means absolutely nothing if you do not know how to use them.
I had the pleasure of calling the Opening Day game March 31 between the Angels and the Mariners, and there was the definition of a five-tool player: Mike Trout.
Trout runs exceptionally fast, he can throw, he can hit for average, he can hit for power, he can field with a golden glove. Yawn. That is not what makes Mike Trout great, not by a long shot.
The fact is, Trout works hard, very hard. No matter how we want to slice it, tools are mostly what we already had within us before we picked up a bat. Sure, you can add a little speed with mechanics. You can make some adjustments to shorten your stroke. But in the end, having lightning-quick hands and running like the wind are the work of divine inspiration.
Having a work ethic is not just a cool concept. At its fundamental core is the idea that this person does not take what he has for granted. Sounds simple, but after years in this game, I saw a lot of people with a lot of tools, some better than others. But if a player does not wake up every day and appreciate his gifts and his opportunity, then you might as well give all of those baseball tools to a ferret.
There are a million players who can run like the wind but cannot steal a base or go first to third. There are a lot of players who can turn around a 100 mph fastball but cannot figure out that the pitcher throws a slider on 2-0 counts, or a curveball in the dirt whenever he is ahead. Dime a dozen.
Trout identifies patterns; he smells his opponent's next move. He is always a step ahead, and this is no accident. He has great eyes to know the strike zone, but what makes his eyes great is that he knows his strike zone, the one that actually matters. He swings at pitches he can handle and lays off what he cannot hit.
He applies those tools on his tool belt as well as anyone in the history of the game, and yet he is only 22. If someone gave me a tool kit to fix an airplane, I would have no idea what to do with it even if someone were to tell me that I was holding the greatest-made tool set in aviation history. It's useless unless I know how to apply them to the game in which I play.
Keep in mind that Trout has been saying since spring training that he is going to be more aggressive. For 99 percent of most young players in this game, revealing your next move is a career-shortening exercise. Trout calmly explained to the world that every time he gets on base, he is going to steal a base. Saying that you are going to be more aggressive at the plate and on the bases is a recipe for your major league opponent to make you eat your words with pitchouts and first-pitch splitters.
But with Trout, not a soul can do anything to counter him. He told them what he is going to do, and pitchers and managers who are paid to get him out just have to accept that even when they know what he is going to do in advance, they cannot stop him. In fact, they can't even slow him down. On Opening Day, his first hit was a home run off Felix Hernandez, and his second hit almost took the leg off Mariners reliever Charlie Furbush.
Trout has all of the tools that would make a scout fall out of his chair. What makes him a generational player is that he knows he has to work to be great. He knows he must continue to study his gifts. He knows he can and will adjust to his opponents' tactics.
Give me a player who has those key ingredients at a high level, and I will show you a Dustin Pedroia, a Miguel Cabrera, a Hall of Famer. Tools are identifiable, but sometimes the elements that make a player great are not visible to the naked eye. These tools probably do not show up on a highlight reel. They appear in the shadows of the batting cage, the film room, maybe in a prayer at the dinner table.
Tools fade, and what is required on any given day or year will change with the winds of the game's evolution. But Mike Trout keeps it simple. Just being on the field helps him polish those tools, sharpen his focus, and shred any opponent's plan to stop him.