- Mike Trout is the greatest contemporary baseball player ever. The Angels still can't win enough with him. It hasn't stopped Trout from getting better every year.
This story appears in the July 16, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
"Give me something on Mike Trout. Anything. Just one thing. . . . Please.”
Even legends have their vulnerabilities. Achilles had his heel, Superman his Kryptonite and Mickey Mantle had Dick Radatz, the reliever known as the Monster, who whiffed the Mick 12 times in 16 at bats. Scott Servais, the Mariners’ manager, had been watching Trout play for eight years, back to when the Angels’ centerfielder was a teenager, and still he knew of no Trout antidote, no Monster to tame him.
The first time Servais saw Trout play was November 2011, when Jerry Dipoto, then the Angels’ general manager, hired Servais as his assistant and sent him to watch the Arizona Fall League. The then 20-year-old Trout, weary and weak from 156 games that year, including his major league debut, hit .245 with one home run in Arizona. “Scott, don’t worry,” Dipoto said when Servais expressed doubt about Trout’s potential. “This guy is going to be the next big thing in our sport.”
Dipoto was underselling. The game almost never has seen anything like Mike Trout. He soon will pass Mantle for the third-highest Wins Above Replacement for any position player in his first eight seasons. Only Ted Williams (72.6) and Albert Pujols (64.1) accumulated a higher WAR through eight seasons than Trout (61.1). Each of his seasons seems better than the last, especially this one, when Trout is on pace for a WAR of 12.3, which would be the highest for any position player since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 (12.5).
After Dipoto resigned from the Angels in 2015 and was hired to run the Mariners, he brought on Servais as his manager. Entering a series in Seattle last month, Trout had played against Servais’s Mariners not as if he had been dipped in the River Styx but as if he had soaked luxuriously in it. Servais had watched Trout hit .317 with 13 homers and 31 RBI in the 37 games he’s managed against Los Angeles.
And so it was that Servais turned to his advance scout who prepared the scouting report for the series against the Angels for some wisdom, without bothering to veil his exasperation. “Well,” the scout replied to his request, “maybe there is this one thing. Trout slugs about .900 in almost every area of the strike zone. But there’s a little box, up and away, where he slugs only about .400.”
“That’s it!” Servais said. “That’s one thing we can go with.”
A short while later, the Mariners’ staff held their usual pre-series meeting with pitchers and catchers to review how they would pitch the Los Angeles hitters. When they got to Trout’s name, Servais took over.
“Up and away with velocity,” the manager said. “Everybody on board with that?”
The Seattle pitchers all nodded in agreement. They would attack Trout up and away. As with an arrow through the heel, with this precise plan they would pierce the legend.
Mike Trout taps his left foot when he talks—not in the manner of a metronome, keeping rhythm to some laid-back beat, but furiously, in the manner of someone who has to be somewhere. He has bases to steal, fly balls to snare and pitchers to terrorize, but for now, uncomfortably inert, he is tap-tap-tapping the floor of a corridor at Fenway Park outside the visitors’ clubhouse, seated for an interview, when he gives the most upside-down, inside-out remarkable view of how baseball works.
“The best part of hitting?” he asks. “You have control of what you’re doing. You’re in the box. It’s your box. I love hitting. You put in all the time and practice to go out there and put up good numbers, and it’s just so fun. I enjoy it so much. I don’t know ... Guys on base get me excited.”
“Hold on,” I tell him. “The pitcher is the one in control. He’s got the baseball. He’s the one who knows where it’s going, how fast it’s going, how it’s spinning ... You can only react to what he does.”
“I flip it,” he says, smiling in recognition of his own preposterousness. “Because you know your zone. I think if you give the pitcher anything it just gives them an advantage and an edge. So you have to just go in that box and own it. Think positive, and it’s yours.”
Trout owns the box like never before, which is a mouthful for someone who in his six full seasons has finished first in Most Valuable Player voting twice, second three times and fourth once. His on-base percentage (.455), OPS (1.082), walk rate (19%) and home run rate (on pace for 45) are all the best of his career. His defensive work in centerfield is better than ever. His stolen-base success rate is better than ever (93%). He has reached base 182 times and been thrown out advancing just once.
“It’s like every year he gets better and better,” says teammate Kole Calhoun. “I didn’t think there was anything he could improve on, and yet here he is putting up numbers like he never has. He’s just incredible. He’s a once in a lifetime talent who goes out and keeps doing more and more to impress you.”
The wonder of Trout is made all the more remarkable—necessary, even—because of the angst surrounding how baseball is being played. Halfway through the season, it is harder to get a hit today than in any of the 46 seasons since the adoption of the designated hitter rule. For the first time in the game’s history, there are more strikeouts than hits and the ball is not in play (via walks, strikeouts and home runs) more than one-third of all plate appearances. The game is slowed by a data-driven suppression of offense, such as finely calibrated defensive shifts and incessant use of hard-throwing relievers, who have become so adept at keeping the ball out of play that the average reliever, not just the closers, now strikes out batters at the rate Sandy Koufax once did.
Commissioner Rob Manfred in recent years has convened a competition committee, spoken repeatedly about the need for structural change and brainstormed ideas out loud (a pitch clock, a limit on shifts, etc.), only to run into resistance from the players’ association. The unintended effect of all the caterwauling is that baseball has branded itself as too slow. And now, after a decade of rock-steady support, attendance reflects the perception; it is down 6%, to its lowest per-game level in 15 years.
Trout is the best individual asset baseball has—for years its undisputed best player, a physical freak who slugs like Aaron Judge and runs like Dee Gordon, and a role model who signs autographs for kids before every game and is perpetually upbeat. When Trout was a rookie, the Angels were flying to their next city when one of the coaches, Dino Ebel, was so inspired by Trout’s sunny outlook that he walked to the back of the plane, sat down next to Trout and said, “I’ve got to tell you something.
“You know that guy who you liked growing up, that guy with the Yankees, the shortstop, Derek Jeter?”
“That’s you, dude—in an Angels uniform. You’re going to be him in our uniform all your career.”
Trout smiled. Ebel continued.
“You come to the ballpark every day and you smile. You love to be out there. You go 1-for-19 and everybody thinks, What’s wrong with Mike Trout?—and you’re the same guy. You never change. That’s what you bring to the park every day.”
That was seven years ago.
“A thousand games later, it hasn’t changed a bit,” Ebel says. “It’s even getting better. I’ve never seen this guy come in, look at somebody and be down. He says hi to everybody, smiles at everybody. ‘Whaddya got, dude?’ ‘How ya doin’?’ Every single day.
“A bad mood? Even on a bad day—we lose, he’s 0-for-4—and he’s the same guy. I’ve never seen this guy not being Mike Trout.”
But baseball’s top asset has an identity crisis. On the July day that the best player in basketball, LeBron James, created a frenzy by announcing he was going to play in the Los Angeles market, the best player in baseball, who has been in the Los Angeles market for eight years, lost a road game to the worst team in baseball, the Orioles, in front of just 18,351 fans—Camden Yards was more than half empty. It was the Angels’ 14th loss in 20 games. By the Fourth of July the Angels were 43–43, already had used 49 players and were given a less than 2% chance of making the playoffs.
Rarely, and not since the Cubs made Ernie Banks an icon of patience, has a team done less with a player this great than the Angels have done with Trout. One player can’t impact baseball the way someone like James can in basketball, but the truth is that baseball teams with a historically great player tend to be very good at some point. The Angels have been an exception. Twenty-four teams have won a playoff game since Trout broke into the big leagues. His Angels are not one of them. The only time they reached the playoffs with Trout, in 2014, the Royals swept them in the first round.
More than the catch-all complaint of “better marketing,” baseball players more than other athletes need postseason exposure, especially in the World Series, to be transcendent national stars. Trout, for instance, says he cannot remember ever being invited on to a late-night talk show. More viewers watched the Music City Bowl last December between Northwestern and Kentucky than have ever seen Trout play a single regular or postseason game in person. His kind of greatness never has been this obscure. Of the eight players with the highest WAR through their first eight seasons, Trout is the only one never to have won a postseason game. In fact, the Angels have been in first place for a total of 83 games in Trout’s career.
Still, he smiles. He makes it a point to sign autographs for kids on a daily basis because he’s still a kid himself, and because he remembers trips from home in Millville, N.J., to Philadelphia to watch the Phillies and get autographs from players such as Ryan Howard and Scott Rolen. “To put a smile on a kid’s face and make his day means a lot to me,” he says. He smiles, too, because of that batter’s box. In there nothing else matters, including the losing. He loves hitting so much that sometimes the love overwhelms him, when the joy of barreling up a baseball stirs over-eagerness in him.
“Nervous? No, no, no,” he says. “I would never say nervous. I would say anxious. Anxious just to hit. I love hitting. I love competing. I’m just anxious to get up there.”
What Trout is doing is the biggest story in baseball this year, both for its sweetness and its bitterness. The best player in baseball is better than he ever has been.
And the unfortunate greatness of Mike Trout never has been more profound.
When Trout came to bat against Mariners reliever Ryan Cook in the eighth inning on June 11, the night Servais hatched his plan to stop him, he already had a home run (off a changeup) and an intentional walk. Trout had faced Cook 12 times previously, but not since 2015, after which Cook suffered a cascade of injuries. Trout remembered that Cook likes to throw fastballs and sliders.
“I’m looking heater obviously,” Trout says. “My philosophy is ‘Keep it simple.’ I think too much information for me is bad, because then I’m up there thinking. Just knowing what the guy is featuring, what’s his secondary pitch and even his third pitch—just the percentages.
“Less is more for me. That’s why I call timeout a lot. If I’m in the box and I start thinking, I’ve got to clear my mind. Reset mode.”
Cook throws 95 mph, the perfect guy to implement Servais’s plan. His first pitch was exactly what the manager wanted: a fastball up and away at 95. Trout fouled it back.
Cook came back with another fastball, though this one leaked more to the middle of the plate. Trout swung and missed. The plan was working.
“When a guy throws hard,” Trout says, “and as a competitor your adrenaline is rushing, you think you need to swing harder and be that much quicker. For me, that hurts. If I try to hit the ball so hard or hit it so far that hurts me. I’m late.
“After a couple of pitches I told myself, ‘I just need to tone it down a little bit.’ Something like that, people don’t see or understand. It’s just one gear down.”
Cook threw another high fastball, slightly above the strike zone. Trout took it for a ball. Cook came back with another, and that, too, was high. Trout again did not bite.
For the fifth consecutive pitch Cook threw a fastball, this one up and away, exactly in that little area where the Mariners had mapped Trout’s fallibility.
“I have my zone,” Trout says, “and if it’s in that box and you throw it hard, it’s tough [for a pitcher]. I’m looking fastball and if I get it . . . I put a good swing on it and it went out.”
It didn’t just go out. It went out like no other ball hit this season. The ball left Trout’s bat with a launch angle of 19 degrees, well below the major league home run average of 28 degrees. It was a screamer of a line drive to centerfield that carried 459 feet. There have been 43,202 balls hit this year with a launch angle of less than 20 degrees. None carried as far as this Trout home run.
In the Seattle dugout, Servais shook his head in surrender. One word came to his mind: “Uncle.”
Despite Trout’s two home runs, the Angels lost the game, 5–3.
Sometime last winter, Trout read that he was a lousy centerfielder. According to the metric Defensive Runs Saved, Trout, with a mark of –6, ranked 11th out of 17 qualified centerfielders in 2017. Though Trout cares little about analytics, reading this chapped him. As soon as he arrived at spring training, he asked for a meeting with Ebel, who is the outfield coach; general manager Billy Eppler; and the statistical analysts in the front office.
“Take all the centerfielders in the game,” he told them, “put them in a chart, show me their first step and my first step, and I’ll just try to get better each and every day.”
Trout and Ebel would retreat to a back field in spring training to find a way to work his way up that chart. Trout would position himself in centerfield. Another coach would flip a baseball to Ebel, who would smash it with a fungo bat toward Trout. Together they changed how Trout prepared himself before the ball was hit.
Before this year, Trout would move into a ready -position—feet apart, knees flexed, hands in front—as the pitcher began to deliver the baseball. What he had not realized was that by getting ready so early he had to hold that position for a beat and then get re-started if the ball was hit his way. Ebel and Trout decided he would wait until the pitch approached the hitting zone to get into the ready position. That way he would be moving as the ball was hit—thus eliminating that start-stop-start sequence.
“It’s a timing thing,” Trout says, “so when the ball hits the bat, I go, as opposed to sitting and getting started all over again. That’s helped me out a lot.”
He made one other change. Instead of picking his spots for when to lay out for balls and when to field them on a hop, he decided, “Catch everything. Just catch everything. I got to a couple of balls this year that I thought I couldn’t even get to. I told myself, ‘Don’t give up on the ball too quick.’ It’s just try to catch everything and that’s what’s been helping me.”
Trout ranks fifth this year with a DRS of +7. He is the most improved centerfielder in baseball.
“I see his improvement on a daily basis,” Ebel says. “In centerfield he’s doing a great job. At the plate he’s laying off pitches that he used to swing at. He’s controlling the strike zone more. And when he gets his pitch, he hammers it.”
The confrontation between pitcher and batter is a border war. Pitchers throw the majority of their pitches out of the strike zone—51%. They do so because they know they are almost twice as likely to get hitters out by enticing them to swing at pitches out of the zone (.150 batting average) than by challenging them in the zone (.283).
At bats and games are decided in the territory around the margins of the strike zone. The average big league hitter takes the bait—swinging at pitches out of the zone—27% of the time. Trout chases pitches out of the zone only 17% of the time, making him one of the seven most disciplined hitters in baseball.
“Joey Votto last year was around 14%, which is like the best ever,” says Angels hitting coach Eric Hinske. “Chase rate is a good indicator of a guy putting himself in position to drive a baseball consistently. Because your head’s not moving, you’re down, you’re ready to fire, you’re recognizing the pitch early. So the higher the chase rate the more you’re doing something wrong where your eyes and head are moving and you’re not recognizing pitches.
“I think the most impressive thing about Mike and all of his numbers is his chase rate.”
When Trout forces pitchers into the strike zone, he is the best hitter in baseball—piling up an MLB-best 185 total bases on pitches in the zone, with a .365 batting average and .768 slugging percentage.
In the manner of Williams, Trout’s plate discipline has become so renowned that if he doesn’t swing, umpires are more likely to think the pitch is a ball. Umpires have called balls on 57 pitches to Trout that actually were in the zone—the most favorable blown calls for any hitter in baseball. By comparison, Bryce Harper, who is more of a free swinger, has benefited from only 23 such calls.
“Mike was great from Day One,” says Boston pitcher Rick Porcello, “but now I feel like he gives a pitcher so many fewer options. You can’t get him to chase. The places where you might get him in the strike zone are a lot fewer than they used to be. It used to be that you could go up with a fastball, but he’s really improved there. And if you keep showing him the same pitch, he’s going to get you.
“So here’s the problem: you can’t get him to chase, and the last thing you want to do is throw him soft down in the zone. He kills those pitches, even good ones. That doesn’t leave you much.”
This season Trout is slugging a ridiculous .968 against changeups, .667 against splitters and .526 against curveballs—all pitches designed to get a hitter off balance and slip under the barrel at the bottom of the zone or below. The tell-tale sign of an off-balance swing is when the hitter drifts forward and the top hand comes off the bat. Asked how many times Trout has been fooled in that manner, Hinske says, “I can’t remember one time, to tell you right now. You don’t see it from him.”
Said Red Sox manager Álex Cora, “He recognizes pitches out of the hand faster than anybody. He’s like [Barry] Bonds that way.”
The day after the Mariners’ plan against Trout blew up, Cook found himself facing Trout again. And again, Trout already had homered off that day’s starting pitcher.
What now? Cook started Trout with a slider for a called strike. (Trout rarely swings at the first pitch, a residue from his self-imposed rule in the minor leagues, when he took a strike every at bat, just to see more pitches and develop his superb plate discipline.) After Cook missed with a two-seam fastball, he stunned Trout by throwing changeup. Trout took it for a ball.
Cook had thrown 62 pitches in his career to Trout and none of them had ever been a changeup. He had not thrown a changeup to a righthanded batter all year. “I knew he had one,” Trout says, “but I didn’t think he would throw it.”
Cook threw it again, and this time Trout swung and missed. It was only the seventh time all year Trout missed a changeup.
“Once I saw it again, I told myself, ‘Calm down,’ ” Trout says. “If I’m on time with the heater, I’ll recognize the secondary pitches. Everything about my swing is about my front foot. If my front foot is down on time my swing is on time and everything else is intact and stays fluid. When I go through little skids it’s because I’m either trying to do too much and my leg kick is too high and my foot’s not coming down on time, or my stride is too long.”
Aiming for strike three, Cook threw his first four-seam fastball, down and in. Trout fouled it.
This was when Cook figured he could sneak another of those rare changeups past Trout. He threw it low, in the bottom of the zone—a good pitch otherwise, but right where Trout does the most damage. This time Trout was not surprised. He recognized it and, on perfect balance, met it squarely. As soon as the ball was hit, Cook dropped his head, bent at the waist, balled his fists and screamed at the ground in frustration. The baseball sailed 412 feet for another home run. As Trout circled the bases, Cook walked around the mound, bewildered. “The dude was just standing out there like, ‘What do I throw this guy?’ ” Hinske says.
Despite Trout’s two homers, the Angels lost, 6–3. Again. They became the first American League team to lose back-to-back multi-homer games by one of its players since the 1963 Red Sox and Gary Geiger.
Trout has not taken batting practice on the field all year. Before a game last month in Boston, he stretched with his teammates, signed autographs for kids, then ducked back into the indoor training facilities to stick to his routine. First he soaked in a hot tub to loosen his muscles, then he repaired to the indoor batting cage for his daily prep work. He hits about 10 balls off a tee, about 10 balls flipped to him by a coach, about 20 balls thrown to him by a batting practice pitcher, and then maybe 50 or so curveballs off a pitching machine. The prep work can range from 15 to 30 minutes.
“I did it occasionally at the end of last year, just to get off my feet a little bit,” he says. “I can take as many swings as I want. It’s not rushed. BP [on the field] is for you to get loose for the game and you’ve got five to seven swings [per round] and it’s kind of hard. . . . There are some things you can work on but you’ve got four or five other guys who need to hit, too. It’s like you don’t want to take their time away.
“This has given me an opportunity to fine-tune my swing in the cage. I do a little routine just to keep everything there and I can take as many swings as I want. Just getting off my feet has been huge for me—saving my legs a lot.”
That night in Boston, the Angels lost again, 9–6. Their starting pitcher, John Lamb, blew out his elbow. The next night, in a 9–1 loss, a relief pitcher, Jake Jewell, pitching in his third major league game, broke his leg in a gruesome injury while covering home plate. Lamb and Jewell became the sixth and seventh Los Angeles pitchers to suffer season-ending injuries, a list that does not include Shohei Ohtani, the two-way rookie sensation who tore a ligament in his pitching elbow, an injury that has confined him to DH and may require surgery that would put him out for the 2019 season as a pitcher. Ohtani and Trout hit in the same lineup only 38 times in the team’s first 91 games.
Trout is under contract to the Angels for two more seasons, with $66.6 million left on the six-year, $144.5 million extension he signed in 2014. He turns 27 next month, which puts him smack in the beginning of the traditional prime of a ballplayer’s career. Four of the five greatest WAR seasons of all time fell between the ages of 26 and 28 (Ruth twice, Carl Yastrzemski and Rogers Hornsby; Ruth, at age 32, is the only top five outlier). The best player in baseball at his physical and skillful best is a sight to behold.
Williams, the greatest player through his first eight seasons, and Trout were both born in August, 73 years apart. The gap in their arrivals approximates the gap between appearances by Halley’s Comet, the most famous of the thousands of comets that streak through our solar system. It is named after the English astronomer who never saw it, but figured out that reports of comet sightings in the 16th and 17th centuries actually referred to the same comet that came around once every 75 years or so.
Halley’s Comet last flew past Earth in 1986. Unlike its previous trip, in 1910, a spectacular pass that was particularly close and bright, this time Halley’s Comet passed at a distance three times farther. It was hardly visible with the naked eye, a reminder when once in a lifetime can be wistful.
Burning bright but barely seen.