The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are an afterthought again, having never spent a day in first place after Opening Day for the second straight year. But let's not allow the Angels' woes to detract our appreciation of something amazing going on with that team: Mike Trout, who turned 22 last month, is the best young player in baseball since Ted Williams more than 70 years ago. Yes, that's right: better than Ken Griffey Jr., Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and anybody else at this age since Williams lit up the American League in 1939 and '40.
Trout's huge second half (.346/.496/.581) once again puts him in the MVP discussion, though the Angels were 10 games out as quickly as May 12 and never played a game of pennant race importance to them for just about all of the season. Such context will hurt Trout, not to mention the fact that fellow MVP contender Miguel Cabrera leads him in all slash categories, adjusted OPS and total bases and has done so on a first-place team. Trout does lead the league in runs, walks and times on base and is within range of leading in hits and triples, also. He has reached base in 141 of his 148 games.
We don't need the validation of an MVP Award, though, to treasure Trout. He recently became the second youngest player to hit 25 homers and steal 30 bases. The youngest? That was Trout last year. He is the first player with more than 60 homers and 60 steals in his first 327 games (61, 86). And he is only the fourth player with at least a .300/.400/.500 slash line through his age-21 season, joining a Hall of Fame trio from antiquity in Williams, Jimmie Foxx and Mel Ott.
Indeed, to find anybody who has been this good this young you pretty much have to stick with the names of the deceased. Through age-21 seasons, Trout ranks fourth all-time in OPS and slugging, fifth in on-base percentage and seventh in batting average -- and in every case the only men ahead of him are dead.
When it comes to adjusted OPS, which takes into account the era and ballparks for each player, Trout stands alone. How about this company: With an OPS+ of 167, Trout tops Williams (161), Foxx (157), Rogers Hornsby (155), Ty Cobb (153), Mel Ott (146), Eddie Mathews (145) and Mantle (144). The most recent player closest to Trout at this age is Frank Robinson (not all that close at 139), who played his age-21 season 56 years ago.
Albert Pujols was a slightly better slugger right out of the gate and Griffey was a better defender, but Trout's combination of power, speed and ability to get on base is what makes him the best young player in more than 70 years. For more perspective, here is how Trout compares to a select list of great young players since Williams at the same point Trout stands today: after 327 career games.
2. Schedule favors Indians in final stretch
This is why you have to like the Indians' chances to grab a wild card: Houston sent Jake Elmore to pinch run at second base with no outs in a tie game in the 10th inning on Thursday night, and all it took was one pitch for Elmore to get picked off. Yes, the potential winning run was picked off second base with no outs. The Indians won in 11 innings, 2-1. It was loss number 102 for Houston.
How bad are the Astros? They are 9-31 (.225) on the road against winning teams. Yeesh. Cleveland plays three more times against lowly Houston and twice against the White Sox at home, then finishes with four games in Minnesota. The Indians should do no worse than 7-2 in their remaining nine, which would leave them at 90-72.
That said, don't think of this wild card "race" as baseball played at the highest level. Today all six teams with a mathematical chance have alternated wins and losses the past two days. A two-game winning streak qualifies a team as hot at the rate this mild card race is going. Check this out: records for the wild card contenders after Aug. 21:
3. A-Rod's minimal impact
Alex Rodriguez, 38, has helped give depth to the look of the Yankees lineup and is an upgrade on what New York was running out there at third base and DH prior to his return on Aug. 5. But let's go easy on his impact. You're looking at an aging player who has trouble staying on the field and gets few big hits. The Yankees are 20-18 when he starts (15-12 when he starts at third base), which means they are about the same team as they were without him.
Rodriguez is hitting .182 with runners in scoring position, giving New York just six hits, five of them singles, in those situations. He has no RBIs in 30 plate appearances after the seventh inning. So goes his career pattern as a Yankee in which he has performed worse with runners in scoring position (.281) than otherwise (.296). That's a reversal from his years in Seattle and Texas, when he was better with runners in scoring position (.313) than otherwise (.308).
Since he came back, Rodriguez now can claim the majority of his career has been as a Yankee (1,288 games, compared to 1,275 for the Mariners and Rangers). He also is in danger of losing his lifetime .300 batting average -- which technically has already happened. Rodriguez began this year hitting .3002. His .261 average this season has dropped his career mark to .2997, though that rounds up to .300.
Rodriguez has one hit in his last 21 at-bats as he battles a calf injury. The more he plays, the more he breaks down, and the more he breaks down, the less he can play third base. The Yankees are getting a cold look into the future. If Rodriguez is indeed banned from baseball for 211 games for using PEDs repeatedly, or even if his suspension is reduced to a one-year ban in 2014, will the Yankees in 2015 welcome him back after a year thrown out of baseball and as he turns 40 years old? Or is it worth the $61 million left on his contract from 2015-17 to say "enough"? The look they are getting at him this month complicates that decision.