Why you should care

Because if you have grandkids, you’ll tell them about Mike Trout. (Babe who?)

Part of OZY’s occasional Know This Name series, on prominent business, political and world leaders, as well as athletes.

There’s nothing a baseball fan loves more than a phenom. From Babe Ruth to Mickey Mantle to Mark Fidrych; from the larger-than-life legends to the epic flameouts, the stories of their transcendent performances embody the dreams of anyone who has ever donned a uniform.

So far, at just 23, Mike Trout is better than any of them. But he’s not some figment of your father’s imagination or a blurry image in a black-and-white film. Trout, the 6-foot-2, 235-pound outfielder for the Los Angeles Angels, is a legend in the making. One you can catch at the ballpark tonight, or follow on Twitter. And baseball’s best number crunchers will validate what your eyes tell you: Trout is the best all-around player in the game. The question is: Can he keep up his historic pace?

Trout’s effusive talent is most easily gauged in his regular appearances in the evening highlight reel, from the circus grabs over the outfield fence to a racing catch in the corner to a towering home run or a triple to left field. Trout, whose team declined an interview request, looks like a linebacker and runs like a receiver, yet he hits, throws and catches like a born ballplayer. But it’s the brawny Angel’s brain that is perhaps most impressive.

Indeed, the greatest baseball players, the ones who endure, are really well-oiled learning machines. They learn from their mistakes and close off their weaknesses while remembering those of others. Legendary Red Sox slugger Ted Williams could remember exactly how a particular opposing pitcher had pitched him, even from years before. Likewise with Trout, it sometimes feels as if he is adapting over the course of a single game or even at bat. A couple of years ago in Texas, veteran pitcher Ryan Dempster successfully induced the rookie Trout to swing and miss at a fastball away. Two pitches later, a different result. “I threw the same fastball that he swung and missed, in the exact same spot,” Dempster told ESPN. “And he hit it out. And I went, ‘Whoa.’ You don’t see that. That’s quick adjustments.”

Scouts doubted me. They doubted the East Coast.

 

Trout’s steep learning curve is one of the reasons that through his age-22 season last year, his career total of 29.5 wins above replacement (WAR) — the preferred metric for measuring a player’s value via his contribution to his team’s win total — is the highest in baseball history. Yes, that’s higher than Ty Cobb, Ted Williams or the player Trout is most often compared to, Mantle. In April, Trout, who was batting .307 with nine home runs going into Monday, became the youngest major leaguer ever to amass 100 home runs and 100 stolen bases, a testament to his rare combination of power and speed.

If Trout, who won the American League MVP Award last season, keeps up his torrid pace, ESPN analyst Dan Szymborski projects that Trout’s career totals could reach 468 home runs, 519 stolen bases, 1,893 runs scored and a WAR total of 130.4. Translation? That’s getting into Barry Bonds territory. But with Trout, such rarefied air is unlikely to be contaminated with rumors of performance-enhancing drugs or brought down by the self-destructiveness of a Mantle. Trout, it seems, is remarkably level-headed and about as down to earth as it gets — even if Southern California has tempted him with its beaches and sushi, not to mention a new $144.5 million contract. After all, No. 27 is still dating his high school sweetheart and still talks on the phone with his parents every day, and lives with them in the family’s two-story home in Millville, New Jersey, during the offseason.

Signs of the “Millville Meteor” are all around the blue-collar town, including 15-foot “Home of Angels Mike Trout” banners by each of the three highways leading in. Trout donated his entire $20,000 bonus for winning Rookie of the Year to the local high school, and for a town that has endured factory closings, unemployment and hard times, Trout’s success is a source of serious communal pride. When the Angels came to nearby Philadelphia to play the Phillies last season, around 8,000 of Millville’s 28,000 residents made the trip, with Trout receiving a standing ovation from the sport-crazed Philly crowd. “I love the support,” Trout said afterward. “Scouts doubted me. They doubted the East Coast. This is something special.”

A Northeastern baseball prospect like Trout is a rarity these days in a sport where the majority of ballplayers hail from the warmer climes of places like Latin America, California and Florida. Which is one big reason the undervalued Trout was not chosen until the 25th overall pick in the 2009 draft. No one underestimates him today, though there’s a good chance that those who once overlooked his talent may be looking past some of his shortcomings. His defensive numbers have declined since his breakout rookie season, as have his stolen base totals, from 49 to 16 last year, prompting some analysts to worry that Trout has peaked. Of more concern is the fact that Trout led the A.L. in strikeouts last year with 184, mostly on what is considered his Achilles heel: high fastballs.

Mat Gleason, a Los Angeles art critic and avid Angels fan who covers the team for the popular fan site Halos Heaven, is more optimistic. He tells OZY that Trout has been working hard on his strikeouts and the early returns this season are good. Plus, Trout still has time on his side, as most players physically peak between 27 and 29. “Developmentally this is where him being only 23 helps out,” says Gleason.

If that’s right, then barring injury, Trout is on pace to put up some dazzling numbers, perhaps the closest thing to a surefire Hall of Famer that baseball has seen in awhile. Of course, Trout prefers a different metric of success. “I don’t think it would be numbers,” he says. “It would be championships. Get to the playoffs. That’s all. It doesn’t matter what I hit.”

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