In 2012, Mike Trout cranked out one of the greatest rookie seasons of all time. As a 20-year-old, Trout led the league in runs scored and stolen bases while hitting .326 with 30 homers and 83 RBIs. People noticed; it was in all the papers. He won AL Rookie of the Year. What followed was a winter with a good amount of wondering what Mike Trout would do next. Surely he'd come down a peg -- he had to, right? Nobody just does that and sustains it, because if he did, that would mean we were witnessing an all-time great.
So, what has Trout done as a sophomore? After a .326/.399/.564 season a rookie, he's hitting .322/.400/.571 -- a nearly perfectly identical encore. With 53 extra-base hits already and on pace to finish with 92, he might have to settle for tying Alex Rodriguez's single-season major league record for multibag clouts for someone aged 21 or younger.
We can call this the Fred Lynn problem, in honor of the man who won American League Rookie of Year and MVP in 1975 with a .331/.401/.566 season to help propel the Red Sox to the World Series, arguably the best World Series ever. How do you top something like that? How could anybody be expected to? It isn't fair. Though Lynn would have one better season statistically (1979) and would get back to the postseason as an Angel in 1982, as a fan, you can't help being greedy, you can't help but wish there was a lot more of '75 to Fred Lynn and you can't help being a little disappointed that there wasn't. And an experience like that can make a fan, any fan, loyal rooter or studied skeptic, say "show me" again.
That was Trout's challenge coming into this season. As manager Mike Scioscia observed when the Angels swung through Wrigley Field last week, “You're going to be drawn to that natural skepticism, skepticism of any player that has an incredible season their rookie year, asking what are they going to do that second year? It's only natural. That's baseball -- you have to prove yourself all over again every day. Opponents are going to scrutinize everything a player does, saying, 'OK, you did that one year, now show me you can do it again.' Even with all that, Mike's doing it again.”
Trout isn't just repeating the all-time greatness of his rookie season, he's reducing it to the norm, where everything he does threatens to be historic, one way or another, because everything he's doing is almost without precedent. If the game today did a better job of promoting its players, Trout would be Michael Jordan and Joe DiMaggio wrapped up in one, an all-time great who makes it look easy because, as good as he is, it really isn't fair.
In part, that's because Trout really is a natural, a triumph of gifts not distributed equally. Trout admits to being fairly unremarkable in terms of his preparation. “I watch video a little bit,” Trout said, “but nothing more than being one of those guys who watches some an hour or two before the game, to study the pitcher or check out the bullpen guys before a series.”
His approach is equally straightforward. “When I'm up, I think about putting pressure on that defense; that can help that average a little bit. If I get to two strikes, for me that's about just putting the ball in play. In general, my approach is not to try and do too much.”
Which is easy for him to say and easier for him to do than it would be for several billion other human beings, existing now or ever.
Scioscia muses, “He's so much more than a one-dimensional player. If you're talking about what's coming out of the batter's box, he has a short, compact, strong swing, as strong a swing as you're ever going to see. How it rates with other guys there are other techniques other great hitters have had, those really sweet swings, say, with a guy like Billy Williams or Ted Williams, or the approach of a Tony Gwynn.”
Except that those guys were left-handed, and that's another part of the reason why Trout is so remarkable: We generally don't talk about sweet-swinging right-handed batters. Pushed, Scioscia had to think about it. “That's tough; you've had some great guys from the right side, like Hank Aaron or Frank Robinson but Frank was more just hands. As short as Mike's swing is, as powerful and as quick as it is, it really lets him handle the strike zone, creates plate discipline -- he can lay off a pitch because he can see them longer. I think there are a lot of additional positives that spring from his natural ability.”
Hearing that, coming from his manager, makes it clear that we aren't just talking game-note trivia or enjoying a spin with Baseball-Reference.com. Before Trout has even played his 300th career game, what he does, what he's doing, is already putting him into conversations where nobody else but Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers come up.
Take Frank Robinson, who comes up second on Trout's list of like players via Similarity Scores on Baseball-Reference.com. Robinson is one of the very few right-handed sluggers in Scioscia's living memory who did anything like what Trout has done at such a young age, hitting .290/.379/.558 for the 1956 Reds as a 20-year-old. By OPS, that was the seventh-best season since integration from anybody aged 21 or younger; Trout's first two seasons rank fifth and sixth. Except that, as great as he was, Robinson didn't play a good center field and never lead his league in steals.
Since integration, just five men have hit .326 or better aged 21 or younger: Al Kaline (1955), Ken Griffey Jr. (1991), Alex Rodriguez (1997), Albert Pujols (2001) and, of course, Trout. If Trout does it again this year, he'll be the only guy to show up on the all-time list's top 20 twice, joining Ty Cobb, Mel Ott and Jimmie Foxx.
Playing compare and contrast with the stars on his own roster, hitters like Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, Scioscia observed, “We've got some high-end talent, some guys who've already done it. Albert's obviously put up Hall of Fame numbers, but there's something special about Mike. I think it's his all-around game; he has the ability to win a Triple Crown and lead the league in stolen bases. For me, that's what's exciting from the macro perspective, asking what's his career going to be in 20 years. I think we're all anxious to see what comes to fruition for Mike.”
Does this make Trout a face of the game, maybe even the face of the game? Where Trout must be modest, Scioscia had no reservations: “Yes, he's a reason to come to the ballpark every day. Out of the dozens of players in both leagues who are in that category, guys that fans are excited about, he might be at the head of the class.”
After becoming the youngest player in American League history to get to 50 extra-base hits and 50 steals in his career, Trout was asked about whether he reflects much on the history he seems to make every other week.
Without even thinking about it, Trout said, “Nah, I just go out and play, I don't worry about it too much. I'm not really a numbers guy, I just try to go out there to have some fun.”
Oh, come on, really? “I take pride in what I do; I prepared in the offseason," Trout said. "Ever since I was a little kid, I just did my best, 100 percent, just did whatever I could to help the team win, driving in the big run, making the big catch.”
Saying something like that might make Crash Davis blush, but from Trout, it's just another unassuming response to his own every-day greatness. You say, "show me," and he puts on a show -- on the field. Skip the numbers that already make it seem like you just stepped into Mr. Peabody's Wayback machine to talk to a star from baseball's so-called Golden Era, and it's exactly like talking to a star from baseball's Golden Era.
Surely this has to be too good to be true, right? But when you ask a player to "show me," and you're shown, what is left but belief? Can it really be so simple that we're going to be allowed to enjoy Mike Trout for what he is and what he does? Yes. Yes, and hallelujah. Lucky us.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.