Quick-adjusting Trout reaches new heights
Despite lack of lineup protection, second-year Angels star proves sky's limit
Mike Trout, v. 2013, is even better than the 2012 model.
How is that even possible?
In a game that asks so much of its sophomores, in terms of the litany of adjustments that must be made the more the league gets to know you, how do you improve upon an age-20 season that was nothing short of historic?
And on a subpar Angels team that has given Trout only a shell of the lineup protection expected from Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols, how does he continue to put up numbers worthy of candidacy for the American League Most Valuable Player Award?
Trout can't answer these questions, of course. He can only shrug those broad shoulders, smile that carefree smile that comes with being 22 and at the peak of one's profession and try his best to put his growth as a big league ballplayer into words.
"The one thing that stands out to me," Trout said, "is Yu Darvish. When I faced him my first couple at-bats last year, it was really tough to pick up. But the last couple times we faced him, you start to figure out what a guy like that is trying to do against you."
This sounds like an instructive anecdote, until you go back and find that Trout struck out in his first-at-bat against Darvish last May, only to homer in his second. He doubled off Darvish in their second meeting, in June, and drove in a run with a single in the third, in July. Trout has a .308 average and a 1.112 on-base plus slugging percentage in his career against Darvish, offsetting his nine strikeouts with three homers.
Point is, whatever adjustments Trout has had to make against Darvish were usually made within the confines of particular games. And if Darvish has given Trout, like so many others, fits with his deceptive delivery, it certainly hasn't affected the bottom line of production on Trout's part.
That's the essence of what makes Trout so special. The tweaks in approach that can take weeks or months for others come to him in a mere matter of minutes.
"He's a guy that's so far ahead and above the rest of the talent level that I think the pitchers are the ones constantly adjusting to him," teammate Mark Trumbo said of Trout. "His approach and his natural ability are so solid and he's got such a sound foundation that I think guys are going to be adjusting to him for a long time to come."
Trout turned 22 just last week. Before that birthday (on which, naturally, he hit a home run), Trout had, according to FanGraphs.com, accumulated more weighted runs created (162) than any other player in history through his age-21 season. Trout's name topped that particular list ahead of Jimmie Foxx (161), Ted Williams (158), Rogers Hornsby (150), Ty Cobb (148), Mel Ott (146) and Mickey Mantle (143), among other luminaries.
Now, I don't cite a modern metric like weighted runs created -- a stat that seeks to synthesize all the elements of offensive production into a single number relative to that of the league average -- to make Trout the centerpiece of some old-school/new-school data debate. That was done countless times last fall by people much, much smarter than I.
I am, rather, merely attempting to provide statistical perspective on the growing assumption that we are witnessing a once-in-a-generation-type talent in Trout. Because while it's one thing to burst onto the scene with a rookie season for the ages, it's quite another to back it up the way Trout has here in 2013.
"Every player, no matter how talented you are, you're going to go through some rough spells, and Mike will," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "But right now, the league has made adjustments and he's still playing at an extraordinarily high level."
Trout in 2012: .326 average, .399 on-base percentage, .564 slugging percentage, 168 adjusted OPS, 49 stolen bases, 30 homers, 27 doubles, eight triples, 83 RBIs, 67 walks and 129 runs scored in 639 plate appearances.
Trout in 2013: .330 average, .425 OBP, .572 SLG, 180 adjusted OPS, 26 stolen bases, 20 homers, 32 doubles, eight triples, 73 RBIs, 71 walks and 82 runs scored in 530 plate appearances.
No, Trout isn't swiping bags at the same absurd rate, but he's still a burner on the basepaths. No, he hasn't had as many highlight-reel-worthy catches over the outfield wall, but the advanced numbers insist he remains a game-changing center fielder. And Trout's plate production, virtually across the board, has improved upon his 2012 totals, with runs scored a notable exception borne out of the struggles in the heart of the Angels' order.
With Pujols' recent placement on the disabled list and Hamilton's continued funk has arisen a new challenge for Trout: A test of patience that all the greats must endure at one time or another. There is, simply, little reason to give the kid anything to hit right now, and, as such, his already elite walk rate has spiked to new levels.
"I talked to [Pujols] about it," Trout said. "He just told me, 'You get that one pitch, sit on it. And if you don't get it, take your pitch.' To me, it's fine, because a walk is as good as a hit."
Or, as Scioscia reminds us, "When teams walk Mike, chances are it's a double."
With so little help surrounding him, Trout will find it more difficult than ever to put up the kind of counting stats that make Tigers star Miguel Cabrera, once again, the odds-on favorite for the AL MVP Award, closely followed by the Orioles' Chris Davis. Still, we're seeing an increasing amount of Internet chatter in recent days touting Trout.
The debate and discussion is fun and all, but realistically, Trout has no shot at the MVP. That's a fact even he acknowledges.
"It's kind of tough when we're  games out of first place," Trout said. "[Cabrera and Davis] definitely have the edge on that one."
And throughout the Angels' clubhouse are veteran players who have a distinct edge on Trout in salary. Trout's performance is even more valuable when measured against the fact that he's making just $20,000 above the Major League minimum, an important detail on a club so dangerously burdened by the weight of heavy contracts.
It was understandable when the Halos held off on an extension for Trout following his 2012 season. After all, why buy high when the kid might very well regress?
But Trout has not regressed in his sophomore season. He has only gotten better, as impossible as that might have seemed six months ago. The Angels still don't have to rush any monetary decisions with Trout, because he's theirs through at least 2017, though his arbitration tallies could become bountiful.
"I try not to think about that stuff," Trout said. "I can only do what I'm capable of doing. That's going out and playing every day and playing hard. People tell me my time [for a big contract] will come, and that's the way I look at it."
For the rest of us, there's only one way to look at Trout: He's a history-making player who just keeps getting better, as impossible as that sounds.