This has been a season of mysteries in major league baseball. How does the man with the game’s biggest strike zone, the 6’ 8” Aaron Judge, also have the league’s best on base percentage? Where is Mets G.M. Sandy Alderson hiding the ancient amulet he stole? What compelled Madison Bumgarner to mount that dirt bike? One mystery, though, stands above them all. How does a lineup lose the greatest offensive force of his generation, and immediately get better?
The Angels’ 2017 season, never particularly promising, appeared to end in the fifth inning on May 28. That was when Mike Trout dove headfirst into second base during a stolen base attempt and popped up waving and flexing his left hand, which contained a newly ruptured ligament in its thumb. NO MIKE TROUT, NO CHANCE FOR THE ANGELS, blared The Orange County Register the next day, atop a column that might have appeared in the obituaries section.
It was hardly a hot take. Despite the fact that Trout had gotten off to the best of his many excellent starts—he was batting .337 with a .461 OBP—the Angels sat a game below .500, at 26–27. That was largely because no one else appeared to be able to hit. The rest of the lineup was batting a cumulative .226 with an OBP of .298.
Wednesday marked one month since Trout went down, and without him the Angels offense isn’t just improved, but much improved. With Trout, it was scoring 4.02 runs per game, 26th in the league. Without him, it’s at 4.79, ranking 16th. That 20% boost has helped turn a losing club into a winning one, as the Angels are 16–13 sans Trout and a single game out of a Wild Card spot. They’ve done it in the midst of what ought to be the most punishing stretch of their schedule, one in which six of their nine series came against opponents who were at the time in first place—the Twins, Astros, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Yankees (twice). Eric Young, Trout’s well-traveled replacement, has been good—he’s hit .286 with three homers and 11 RBIs—but not that good. So how have they done it?
Part of the answer is boring: the rest of the Angels’ hitters aren’t as bad as they were for the season’s first two months, and now they’re progressing toward the mean. Since May 28, every one of the Angels’ regulars—with the notable exception of Albert Pujols, the only one of them besides Trout at whom astronomers have ever gawked—has boosted his OPS. If the development isn’t generally suspicious, the specific timing and extent of it certainly is.
OPS w/ Trout
OPS w/o Trout
Trout is liked and respected across baseball, but in his own dugout he is beloved and revered. He is the rare superstar who is deeply woven into the fabric of his club. But he is so individually brilliant that, through no fault of his own, he can cause his teammates to believe that he can win games by himself—which he often does—and, perhaps subconsciously, to cede that responsibility to him. That’s how Calhoun, the rightfielder who this season has an OPS of .618 when Trout has an intact thumb and .860 when he doesn’t, sees it.
“I think everybody kind of came together when Mike went down, and we started playing as a team,” says Calhoun. “Not that we didn’t when Mike was here. But when you’ve got a force like that—16 homers, I don’t know how many RBI’s—every night he was doing something to help the team win. You miss that bat, but it’s like, all right, now you’ve gotta take it upon yourself.”
The clearest tactical difference between the Angels with Trout and the Angels without him is on the base paths. In the 53 games before he went down, the Angels swiped 37 bags, 10 of them by Trout himself. In 29 games without him, they’ve also stolen 37 bases, led by Maybin’s 12, Andrelton Simmons’s 9 and Young’s 7, the most in the majors over that stretch.
There are very good strategic reasons to curtail your stolen base attempts with a force like Trout in the lineup. You don’t want to run into an out in front of a man who is more likely than anyone else in baseball to drive you in, had you just stayed where you were. However, psychologically (and culturally, too), consistently limiting one’s own natural aggressiveness can have a ripple effect that can extend into all aspects of performance, including at the plate. As Calhoun suggests, Trout’s injury appears to have been a shock to the Angels’ system. Without him there win games for them, the rest of the Angels instantly became empowered with the responsibility of doing it themselves, and not just once they reached first.
Baseball is not like basketball, in that even the most transcendent of stars cannot alone turn a bad team into a good one. If LeBron James would account for something like 40 extra wins over the course of 162 hoops games, Trout’s career-best Wins Above Replacement, set in 2013, is 10.5. There’s a reason why in none of his five seasons have the Angels won a single playoff game.
Trout, post-surgery, began hitting off of a tee over the weekend, and could return to full health in a couple of weeks. Calhoun has an idea of what the Angels should do with him when he does: “Mike’s still got options, so he might get optioned to Triple-A and let us do our thing.”
He’s joking; they can’t wait to get him back. When they do, they still might not contend, no matter what. A middling rotation, with a 4.34 ERA, could preclude that. To have any chance, though, they’ll have to pull off the trick of forcing themselves to play the same way—with the same heedless abandon, the same personal responsibility—as they did without him. That might result in a truly twist ending to 2017: an Angels playoff run.