THERE WAS ONE month in Mike Trout's life when anybody could get him out. It was last October, and he was playing in the Arizona Fall League, manning centerfield alongside leftfielder Bryce Harper for the Scottsdale Scorpions. In dry air, against inconsistent pitching, Harper hit like a future MVP. But Trout was exhausted. He chased pitches he would normally take, struck out in nearly a third ofhis at-bats and barely tried to steal bases. He hit .245 and looked as if he wanted to be anywhere but Arizona.
But scouts don't trek to the Fall League to gather batting averages, and one National League scout watched Trout that month in awe. He didn't see the strikeouts, the wild swings, the fatigue. Instead, he saw one of the fastest bats he'd ever scouted, a hitter who tracked pitches like a veteran, a kid who was tired but driven. "This guy's Mickey Mantle in a cape with an 'S' on his chest," the scout said.
MANTLE AND SUPERMAN: two impressive comparisons. Yet neither hero was invincible. Mantle was plagued by injuries, some chronic -- knee problems from age 19 on -- and some flukish. In one of his greatest seasons, he developed an abscess on his hip where a doctor had given him a flu shot; the abscess became infected, the pain of the infection constrained his swing and Mantle missed the end of the regular season and the start of the 1961 World Series. Mantle homered just once in his team's final 18 games, finishing six shy of Babe Ruth's old home run record and seven shy of Roger Maris' new one.
Now we leap forward to the greatest season (to date) of Mike Trout's career, which was disrupted by the lack of a flu shot. Trout arrived at spring training this season with a chance to make the Angels' Opening Day roster as a 20-year-old, as the youngest everyday player in Angels history and the youngest position player in the American League by more than 18 months. Trout weighed 225 pounds. By the end of spring training, he was at 202. He had the flu.
We mention this because when it comes to Mike Trout, we must note when his story parallels Mickey Mantle's in any way. Since at least 2010, his first full season in pro baseball, Trout has been compared to Mantle. It's a terrible, dangerous, lazy, vague, condescending, reductive, hacky, misleading, uncreative, juvenile and toxic comparison. Mostly, though, it turns a compliment into a curse. Baseball is a game of attrition, and its players almost always let us down: an elbow ligament that pops, a crash into a wall, a failure to develop, an early decline. A Mantle comparison does no more good now than it did two decades ago, when people applied it to a young Ruben Rivera.
But it's two years since Mantle talk started, and now we know this: Trout might have been the greatest 20-year-old in baseball history. By Wins Above Replacement (WAR), an all-encompassing stat from Baseball-Reference.com, 10 previous position players have reached at least 5.0 in an
By the end of July, his total in 81 games was better than the career highs of Hall of Famers Paul Molitor and Yogi Berra. He matched Mantle's age-20 total on Aug. 1, six days before his 21st birthday. On that day, he led the league in batting; was second in slugging percentage; had produced the most value on the basepaths, according to Baseball Prospectus; was one of the 10 best defensive outfielders, according to most advanced metrics; and in little more than half a year, he already had (by WAR) the seventh-best season in Angels history. All of which is shocking because of one very important fact about major league baseball: Almost all 20-year-olds are terrible. Yet Mike Trout was 20 when he became the best player alive.
"Everybody's writing about him and trying to find that good new angle," said one of the beat writers in the Angels' press box in early July. "Kid's 20. What sort of interesting story could he have at 20?" But there it is, on the field, every day -- the most interesting story in baseball. And so one year into his career, baseball reckons with how good Mike Trout really is, how good he will be and what could stop him. And that's when our resolve breaks down and we give. Mickey Mantle? Okay. We hate ourselves. But it's not the worst place to start.
WHEN THE ANGELS left spring training in March, there were no guarantees that Trout would be a star or that he would even be good, now or ever. It wasn't even clear whether a healthy Trout would have made the team. The Angels had a crowded roster even before they signed Albert Pujols in the offseason. Mark Trumbo was learning third base to try to save his job; Bobby Abreu asked to be traded somewhere with an opening; and Vernon Wells and Peter Bourjos were competing for playing time despite a tremendous salary (Wells) and a breakout 2011 season (Bourjos). Trout was the third-best
And Trout entered the 2012 season without much momentum. In two brief call-ups last summer, he was passive to a fault, taking the first pitch in 132 of his 135 plate appearances. He sometimes threw to the wrong base or hesitated when diving for balls. He was slow to get around on big league fastballs, especially inside. "I got out of my approach," he says now. "I was trying to do too much, trying to hit home runs when I shouldn't be." He hit homers -- five in 40 games, the fastest rate of his career to that point -- but not much else. Then came the dispiriting Arizona Fall League. So by the time spring training began this year, Trout was already resigned to starting the season in Salt Lake. Then the flu knocked him out. "I just told myself, in reality I was going to be sent to Triple-A anyway," he says.
In the end, the virus cost him parts of three weeks. Just as he was about to return, he was scratched again because of shoulder tendinitis -- a common problem for cold-climate East Coasters who don't throw as much in the offseason. So when manager Mike Scioscia called Trout into the office two days before camp ended and Trout saw general manager Jerry Dipoto, he wasn't surprised. "I'm going to be working hard every day and get back up here," he told them. Then he walked outside to call his mom.
THE CLUBHOUSE ATTENDANT for the Salt Lake Bees knows a guy who rents his mountain duplex to skiers in the winter and to ballplayers in the spring and summer. Trout and three younger players live in half of the duplex, four minor league veterans in the other. At 20, Trout can't go to clubs or bars, so almost every night he and his roommates barbecue at home -- about 25 miles from downtown Salt Lake. Trout's specialty is heavily salted bone-in steaks.
His parents visit and stock the place with detergent, paper towels, toiletries, bedsheets and food. Triple-A certainly isn't heaven: wake-up calls at 3:15 a.m., flying all day and playing a game that night, chasing fly balls through Salt Lake snow. But it isn't bad, and he expects to be there at least until July.
In an alternate universe, Trout would have been a junior in college, preparing to be drafted. Instead, he has been jumping minor league levels at the rate of two per year, from rookie ball in 2009 to Triple-A this past April. Spring in Salt Lake would be his last chance to be a kid, before the Angels call him up for good and he begins his career in earnest. Trout and the younger guys stay up late playing MLB 12: The Show into the early-morning hours. Trout screams at the screen and wakes up Paul McAnulty, the 31-year-old first baseman who lives on the other side of Trout's bedroom wall.
Every time Trout has moved up a level in baseball, he has identified one or two older guys to get close to. In part, he just wants help navigating the schedule of flights, bus trips, batting-practice sessions and promotional events a ballplayer must keep straight. "If I'm not 30 minutes early, I feel like I'm late," he says. But it's also a deliberate strategy to fit into clubhouses where he has always been, by two or three years, the youngest player.
In Salt Lake, that mentor is McAnulty -- a short, round slugger who has mixed a handful of major league at-bats into a long minor league career. Quietly, McAnulty is thinking seriously about retiring from the grind. He loves Trout, though, and for a few weeks it doesn't feel like a grind at all. "He plays like a veteran," McAnulty says, a cliche that rivals "next Mickey Mantle" for ubiquity when people talk about Trout. "A lot of guys, when they're young, you can tell when they're 0-for-4 or 4-for-4. When they're 4-for-4, they're talking all over the place. If they're 0-for-4, they're down in the clubhouse not saying a word. But if he doesn't get the job done, he's up on the rail, rooting the next guy on."
In the first series of the year, Trout goes 8-for-16. His parents fly to Reno for his second series, and on the second pitch of the first game he hits a ball to right-centerfield. (Everybody in Trout's life can tell you a favorite "wow" moment, but this one comes up multiple times.) It goes over the 424-foot sign, out of the stadium and into a park where kids are playing in the 70-degree weather. Some say 450 feet the other way, some say 470. "It was like, there's nothing he can't do," says catcher Hank Conger.
In a different game, Salt Lake manager Keith Johnson watches Trout jog casually to third base after a teammate's base hit. He tells Trout he should be running hard to third every time. The next time, Trout charges hard and scores all the way from first on a teammate's single. He crosses home plate and turns to his manager, smiling. "I knew I wasn't going to have to tell him again," Johnson says.
ON THE MORNING of April 27, McAnulty hears screams next door: 7:30 a.m., too early for video games. Happy shouts. Shouts McAnulty says he can't repeat. Then a knock; it's Trout, telling him he just got the call. McAnulty has received that call eight times in his life, eight trips to the majors and eight back down. He is realistic about his chances of making a ninth, especially on a roster as crowded as the Angels'. "It reminded me of why I still want to play," McAnulty says. "I'm 31 years old, I've been at the PCL since 2005. But it was like, dude, he made the game fun to play."
Shortly after Trout leaves, McAnulty approaches the Angels about taking on a greater role as a player-coach. Not giving up the grind quite yet. "He helped me out a lot more than I ever helped him," McAnulty says.
ON APRIL 28, after a long rain delay in Cleveland, Trout finally gets his first big league at-bat of the season. He stands close to the plate and bends farther forward at the waist, making it easier for him to shoot singles the other way but also making it easier for pitchers to jam him with fastballs. His knees are bent, his front shoulder tilted downward. It's a defensive posture, a bit like that of David Eckstein -- the body of a slugger, the swing of a singles hitter. He takes the first pitch, a sinker on the inside corner. He mutters to himself as he stares at the mound, fog coming from his mouth. He flails at a slider -- weak arms, no leverage -- and pops it up to rightfield. In his next at-bat, he strikes out swinging on three pitches. Then a popout to second. Then a grounder to third. Running to first base is the first time he has looked good all day.
Funny thing is, Trout doesn't remember these four bad at-bats. Asked later about his slow start in the majors this season, he's got it all mixed up: "First at-bat, I lined out to third. The second at-bat I lined one to rightfield, the rightfielder fell down and he still caught it. It was just one of them games. It's baseball." Those were actually his second and third at-bats of his second
TROUT KNOWS HOW to be the youngest. He was the youngest in a family of five, a competitive kid who always wanted to beat his older siblings at Monopoly, card games, pingpong and Scrabble. As a child, he stood on the sideline and sat in the locker room while his dad, Jeff, coached varsity football. He was the 8-year-old on the 10-year-old all-star team, and the 10-year-old on the 12-year-old all-stars. He played varsity baseball as a freshman. "If you're a 14-year-old freshman taking away an 18-year-old senior's spot, it's always going to create heartburn," Jeff says.
Baseball has always had a tense relationship with its young players, who are, after all, trying to take a veteran's job. The most beneficent expression of this tension is in rookie hazing -- like the time Trout had to dress up as Lady Gaga and sign autographs. On the opposite side is the team that turns on its young players. Lastings Milledge never lived up to his talent after his Mets teammates criticized him openly when he was a rookie. In between is something like Cole Hamels' intentional beaning of Bryce Harper this year. Older players test younger players. "You do have some guys, seriously, some kids who really get upset about it and hate the hazing," says Angels outfielder Torii Hunter. "But we're not picking on you; we're just trying to figure out how humble you are."
Trout is still a rookie, but in a lot of ways he's past the tests because he passed the tests. At spring training in 2011, as retribution for Trout's speaking out of turn during a team-building exercise, pitcher Jered Weaver arranged to have Trout's cell number displayed on the scoreboard throughout a Cactus League game. Privately, Trout was annoyed. Publicly, he "took it like a champ," says Hunter. "He told us some of the calls he had gotten: little girls, grown men saying crazy things to him. He took something
His acceptance by the team is a "Freudian thing" too, suggests pitcher C.J. Wilson. In just about every game, Trout does something well, something worthy of praise. He gets on base, scores a run, then runs back into the dugout and -- here's where it gets psychological -- he gives and receives a flurry of high-fives. All those high-fives create a physical effect, a connection, a passing of positive energy from one life to the other. They are like hugs or smiles or birthday gifts: They may start out automatic or obligatory, but they actually become the joy that they are meant to express. High-five a guy every day for four months, three or four times some days, and see if you don't like that guy a little bit more.
WHEN TROUT LEADS off the first game of a series against the Rockies in early June, he has moved farther from the plate, and he stands more upright. They're subtle changes, but they're massive changes. Trout used to cover four or five inches off the plate outside, but he had trouble identifying and getting on top of inside pitches. He was wasting a good portion of his swing on balls and leaving himself with a hole in the zone. The hole is gone.
Alex White throws his first pitch and … freeze the video. The fastball is less than halfway to the plate and Trout has already relaxed. He's dropping his hands and watching it sail just inside for a ball. This might be the series when we say that Mike Trout went from the latest rookie phenom to the best player in baseball. In three games, he has eight hits, draws a walk and is hit by a pitch. He steals four bases and isn't caught. He scores eight times.
Physically, Trout's success is simple: The home runs come from his natural strength; the batting average comes from his remarkable speed; and the overall performance comes from his ability to stay short with his swing and lay off pitches outside the strike zone. But Trout is also obsessive about
It's in Colorado where his teammates notice that everything -- the mechanics, the familiarity with big league pitching, Trout's confidence -- has come together. "Taking pitches right out of the pitcher's hand, that's a skill … that's very hard to coach," says Wilson. "If you're looking for a pitch, there's a path it has to go through to get where you want it. If it comes outside of that tunnel at some point, he's able to check it off and say 'nope' without losing aggressiveness at pitches that are in the tunnel."
In three days, he swings at perhaps one pitch that is clearly and unforgivably out of the strike zone -- a low curveball, which he fouls off. He hits the next pitch for a double.
IN THE FORUMS pages of SomethingAwful.com, a 24-year-old who calls himself Weed Mouse is getting tired of the Trout hype. So on June 27, he decides to change the conversation. "I made a remark that this season is only his floor if he is Mickey Mantle," says Mouse, a recent college graduate in St. Louis. It's too early to say, he argues, but still Mouse dubs Trout the Millville Meteor, a play on the Commerce Comet, Mantle's hometown-inspired nickname. "I am a bit of a fan of the old-timey baseball nicknames: Splendid Splinter, Georgia Peach, the Freshest Man on Earth, etc.," he says. "They are
SomethingAwful users update Trout's Wikipedia page with the nickname. For citation, they use legitimate-looking links that don't actually reference the nickname (which, after all, hadn't existed before that day). The links fool Wikipedia's editors and buy Weed Mouse some time. Within days, journalists and bloggers start picking up the name and using it in their articles. SomethingAwful users quickly update the Wikipedia citations with real examples that prove the Millville Meteor is in active circulation. Two weeks later, Baseball-Reference.com updates its Mike Trout page. SportsCenter uses it on July 18.
Trout hears the nickname. "I don't know where they got that," he says. But later in the summer, on eBay, a baseball is being sold that Trout has inscribed with it, in silver ink.
AT AN ANGELS game in early July, two scouts are sitting behind home plate, three seats between them, both working for American League teams.
"What's the best time you got Trout on?" one asks the other, referring to his sprint to first. "I had him at 4.1, but I think that's slow."
"3.91, 4.01, 4.09, 3.95. The fastest I got him at was 3.9. He's the first righthander I've ever clocked under 4. The first righthander ever. Twenty-four years."
"The game is so slow for him right now. That's what's amazing. He's 20, and the game is so slow for him. He's so steady. When he gets a breaking ball, even when he's ahead in the count, he's just on it. He sees it so well. His head doesn't move. He's been absolutely locked in since April 1."
This scout saw him in Salt Lake. He saw him in Arizona too, during the fall.
But won't Trout eventually have to adjust?
"No, yeah, he will. The game gets everybody. Nobody gets by like Ted Williams, start to finish."
But Ted Williams did.
"He's the last one."
The pitcher, a tough righthander, throws Trout a fastball. Trout hits it high and deep to right-center. Balls don't carry in Angel Stadium; batters have been losing home runs to the soggy marine layer since Brian Downing and Bobby Grich two decades ago. But Trout's fly ball carries out for a home run.
The scout who wanted to take the picture: "I never saw the Mick."
"But there's not a lot [Trout] can't do."
MILLVILLE, N.J., USED to be a glassmaking town, but it was hit by the same economic forces that have emptied manufacturing towns throughout the U.S. Now Millville is known as a Mike Trout–making town. So well-known, in fact, that Trout enters it under the cover of night and with as few conspirators as possible.
The day before the second half of the season begins, Trout arrives just after midnight. He has slept only one night in his own bedroom since the season
But he wakes up late on July 12 and he's not thinking about leaving. The first half of the season just ended with Trout at the center of a media crush in Kansas City, where he was an All-Star. There's Trout up front at the media event, the first player reporters see when they walk through the door. There's Trout, appearing in promos with Bryce Harper, sharing barbecue in the clubhouse with Derek Jeter, signing autographs for his All-Star teammates. There's Trout, hitting the second knuckleball he sees from R.A. Dickey -- the second knuckleball he has ever seen -- for a single. On July 12, there's Trout, hiding out in Millville, where he'll never just be Jeff and Debbie's kid again.
It used to be, he says, that when he was in Millville, "you'd look over and people would be staring at you. Now they want to talk to you … it's tough. You want to make everybody happy, but you gotta live your life too. If you're out with your parents and you don't see them but a couple of times during a season, you don't want to be bothered."
Trout sleeps in late, then calls a few teammates from high school to let them know he is home. They spend all day in his basement, a converted laundry room he has remodeled into a game room during the offseason. (Presumably this means he won't be moving out any time soon.) He hasn't bought much since he became a pro, just small stuff like Beats by Dr. Dre headphones and a high-end Killerspin pingpong paddle that makes him unbeatable. The basement was his biggest expense. He and his friends throw darts, play pingpong and video games and watch movies on a 65-inch TV. Crab for dinner. At 11 p.m., the house clears out. The next day, Trout will drive to New
TROUT STARTS THE first game of the second half the way he starts every game: He curls around the back of the batter's box, smiles and says hello to the umpire, gives the catcher a friendly tap with his bat and wishes both a good game. If Yankees catcher Russell Martin appreciates the gesture, he probably prefers not to see Trout's smiling face at all. Trout is the toughest batter to defend against in the league now, and perhaps ever. His batting average on balls in play -- that is, excluding strikeouts and home runs, which the defense can't chase down -- was .382 through Sept. 11. The highest career BABIP in baseball history belongs to Ty Cobb, at .383, and nobody else has topped .370 in a career. Anytime somebody is doing the best in history, some regression is a safe bet. But Trout's BABIP in the minors was .402, and the series against the Yankees is a good example of why.
In Saturday's game, at third base, Eric Chavez sets up at the lip of the grass, guarding against the bunt. Chavez's positioning makes it less likely that Trout will try; on the other hand, it makes it more likely that Chavez will need reconstructive dental work. As the pitch comes in, Chavez sometimes breaks backward, the drawn-in setup just a decoy. This is a plan. Trout ruins the plan when he gets jammed and chops one softly toward Chavez. From his deeper position, the third baseman has no chance, and Trout flies into first for a hit.
At shortstop, Derek Jeter plays about six feet in front of the outfield grass. Jeter plays back on the grass against Albert Pujols, whose slugging percentage is actually lower than Trout's, but if he tried that against Trout, he would be helpless on many routine ground balls. At second base, Robinson Cano plays about halfway between the infield grass and the outfield grass. He's perhaps 15 feet closer than he is against Pujols. Trout exposes the flaw in this alignment when he grounds one up the middle; neither Jeter nor Cano has any chance to flag it down from the drawn-in positions.
And in centerfield, Curtis Granderson plays Trout from the same spot he plays Maicer Izturis. At this point, Trout is slugging almost .575, with 12 home runs; Izturis is slugging .268, with no homers. But think back to the first time you saw Trout play. It may have been in the 2010 Futures Game, when he hit a routine single into centerfield, never slowed down and somehow reached second base with a double before his opponents could get the ball in. Defending Trout means cheating, somewhere. On Sunday, Trout nearly makes Granderson pay with a fly ball to the warning track, but Granderson makes an astounding running catch. He can't be everywhere, though. Trout later doubles over his head.
In the weekend series, Trout has seven hits in 14 at-bats. He doubles four times, steals four bases and walks. He tags from second on a fly ball to leftfield, nearly unheard of. He drives in a critical insurance run in the eighth inning of Sunday's game.
The last time a 20-year-old was this good at baseball, if ever, was 1996, when Alex Rodriguez hit .358 to win the batting title, scored 141 runs and finished second in MVP voting. But in this series, Rodriguez is a reminder that nobody is the best forever and that most aren't beloved forever either. Yankees fans boo Rodriguez after many of his at-bats. He has a chance to be the hero in the bottom of the ninth inning Sunday, but with the bases loaded and the Yankees trailing by two, he pops out. "A-Rod let us down," a fan groans on the D train heading from Yankee Stadium 30 minutes later.
"A-Rod always lets us down," another chips in.
Jason Simpkins, a Yankees fan from Millville, ponders it: "How long," he asks the rest of the train, "until we can sign Trout?"
IN THE MONTH of July, Trout goes just one game without reaching base. He hits .392, slugs 10 home runs and steals nine bases. When he leaves his hotel
He gets approximately one marriage proposal per hour on Twitter. "Mike Trout > Bryce Harper" tweets appear at about the same rate, at least until Harper falls into his second-half slump and the comparison begins to look, for now, ludicrous. One reporter polls major leaguers on which of the phenoms is better. The players choose Trout. (Trout chooses himself.) During a Sunday night game, ESPN compares his abilities with Dave Winfield's; Torii Hunter compares him to Rickey Henderson; a scout says Robin Yount; and everybody says Mickey Mantle. A fan celebrates his 18th birthday in Anaheim by rushing onto the field and asking for Trout's autograph. "Not right now, after the game," Trout tells him, and the man is hauled into custody. Trout takes over the major league lead in Wins Above Replacement. The Angels host division-rival Texas in Angel Stadium, and Trout hits .500 and slugs 1.000 in the three-game series.
Rangers manager Ron Washington is asked afterward what he learned about getting Trout out. "I don't know," he says. "I'm asking you the same question. Did we get him out?"
Once or twice.
"He's not Willie Mays. No, he's not Willie Mays."
Is he close?
"How long's he been in the big leagues? Okay. He's a pretty good player. I
IT'S NO COINCIDENCE that Trout's locker is two down from Hunter's. The veteran outfielder gives him advice on everything from women to money to pitcher matchups and teaches him how to deal with the media. It used to be that Hunter, winsome and quick with a quip, quote or candid assessment, would be the go-to interview for the media scrum after each game. But the scrum has shifted to Trout's space, the most interesting Angel on the field, if not in front of a microphone.
It's an uncomfortable burden being the voice of a team, especially for a 21-year-old, especially for Trout. "He's a man of very few words," his father says. "He gives those one-liners, those cliches. Don't take it personally. It's the same with us." It took Trout years to get used to the dance. When a reporter wanted to interview him two years ago in High-A Rancho Cucamonga, Trout agreed with a smile but asked if he could stretch first. He stretched for more than an hour, glancing toward the reporter occasionally, perhaps hoping the request would wander off.
Hunter won't let him do that this year. "We've sat down and talked about it," he explains. "Practice is what makes him better. If you're having a bad day, 20 errors in one game, or you hit five home runs in a game, talk to the media. Don't run from it. Don't get tired from it. That's anybody's least favorite part of the job. 'How does it feel to be fast?' That's the dumbest question in the world, and he gets that every day."
But after almost every game, before he showers, usually around the time reporters are wrapping up with the starting pitcher, Trout comes out in a dirty uniform and streaked eyeblack. He smiles broadly for each question, and in the moment between the question and his answer, his face tenses just long enough to consider the motive.
He says the drill is fine. Just five minutes, part of his job. But it's not nearly that easy, and his teammates know it. They're even weary of the attention. In late July, a reporter tries to ask Jered Weaver about Trout. Weaver says: "No, I'm not talking about Trout anymore. Ever. He's really good. You can quote me on that."
C.J. Wilson says later: "There's some hilarity to the regularity at which we get asked about him. It's like, there's been so many people who have asked the same questions and you give the same answer."
But for Trout, this is year one of perhaps 20 in the spotlight, and he has a choice. He could be surly, focus on his game and fight the media for two decades, like Barry Bonds. Or he can take Hunter's advice. He takes it. Big smile.
THEY SAY MICKEY MANTLE ran from home to first in 3.1 seconds. They say he hit a home run 660 feet. Neither of these seems possible. In every athletic pursuit, humans in 2012 crush humans from the 1950s. The world record for the 100-meter dash is more than half a second lower now than it was in 1951, having been broken well over a dozen times. The world record for the marathon is 17 minutes faster now. The bench-press record has more than doubled. And yet we're supposed to believe that 60 years ago, Mickey Mantle ran faster than any player alive today ever has. And that he hit the ball more than 100 feet farther than any player alive today ever has. Of course Mike Trout can't live up to the legend of Mickey Mantle. Mickey Mantle couldn't have lived up to the legend of Mickey Mantle.
AS AUGUST BEGINS Trout slows down, you could say. He hits just .296 in the first three weeks of the month, though he slugs better than .600, steals eight bases without being caught and robs two more home runs with leaping catches. By Aug. 19, with 99 games played, he was on pace to take over the
One is that Trout will get injured. A scout for an AL Central team dinged Trout for being an injury risk because he plays so aggressively. On July 20, for instance, the Angels were leading by five runs in the ninth inning. There were two outs and nobody on, and the Angels were certain to win. David Murphy slapped a ball into foul territory and Trout dived to try to catch it. His hand was still bloody when reporters interviewed him after the game. It is here that we note that Mantle's greatness was, most agree, cheated by knee injuries.
Another possibility is that Trout could succumb to the temptations of fame, money and adulthood. He won't, after all, live with his parents forever. "Obviously, baseball's full of peril," Wilson says. "There's a lot of temptation and mistakes to be made out there. We want to make sure that we, as a team, can nurture his positive influences."
It's certainly possible, and it's never a great policy to build statues of the living, but those who know Trout scoff at that possibility. They swear that Trout rarely goes out and always gets home early. "When I was 20, there wasn't no rest," Hunter says. "I'm telling you, he gets his rest at night. After dinner, he's going straight to his room. He's about winning."
So that leaves the possibility that he'll just get worse, or that the league will adjust. Most clubs still work a predictable pattern of fastballs up and in and breaking pitches away. That's pitching 101. "It's how pitchers try to pitch to hitters they don't know what else to do with," Hank Aaron once said, referring to how hurlers approached former Reds slugger Eric Davis (another "next Mickey Mantle") and also approached him.
An NL scout is baffled by the strategy. Trout's hands are too quick to beat
Any plan might work once, but don't count on it happening again. Trout has been far worse in his first at-bat of the game, batting .309 with four home runs in his first at-bats through Sept. 11. The second time he sees a starter in a game he's hitting .370 with seven home runs. Third time: .408, nine home runs.
He doesn't just adjust from game to game, or even from at-bat to at-bat. Against Cleveland's Justin Masterson on Aug. 13, Trout took a straight fastball for strike one, then swung at a nasty sinker that looked good before diving into the dirt. Trout had never faced Masterson. He stepped out of the box and looked to Hunter, 25 feet away in the on-deck circle. Right there, in front of everybody but unnoticed by all, Hunter spoke to him and mimed a quick lesson on hitting Masterson: See the ball up, and if it's not up, hold back. "My whole mindset just changed," Trout says. He laid off the next three fastballs and a sinker, drawing a leadoff walk. "People don't see that stuff on TV. The things we do in the dugout, people don't see," he explains. "But that's bigger than sitting in the cage and changing your stance or lowering your hands."
So sure, maybe the league will adjust. But everything about this season so far says that Trout is the one who adjusts.
THE ANGELS ARE playing the Royals in late July, a weekday afternoon game with lots of empty seats. A man in a black Catalina Wine Mixer T-shirt and an
This year may be as good as it gets for Trout. He still may improve as a player, but baseball fans abhor an unchangingly positive narrative and have a hard time dealing with middle age. Ultimately many will find reasons to dislike him: overhyped, overrated, overpaid, overexposed, overconfident. In the past 30 years, only two players were nearly as successful when they were as young as Trout. Both went on to Hall of Fame–level careers and both ultimately let fans down: Alex Rodriguez couldn't stay likeable, and Ken Griffey Jr. couldn't stay exciting. Trout's rookie year is historic, but his legacy is still many, many years from being safe.
"We try to stay away from talking about stuff like that," Jeff Trout says. "If you're a baseball family, you believe in superstition. It's like talking about a no-hitter. There's not a lot of talk in our house about Al Kaline and Mickey Mantle.
"If he keeps playing well and they keep winning, it'll be significant. The pundits and the writers and baseball analysts will make that decision. Right now we're just enjoying it, living and dying every at-bat like we did when he was 9."
In the outfield meadows, Trout is just a kid, and his future is just his next at-bat. Throughout the summer, he mimes his swing while he acknowledges call after call; the taunts, the cheers, the guy who yells, "Millville High represent." He spends so much time nodding to these fans that he misses his coaches' instructions on defensive positioning and has to wave to the dugout for them to repeat.
No. It probably can't get better than this.