As playoffs near, Trout not changing his game
They've called him the next Derek Jeter and the best since Mickey Mantle. But consider the acrobatic catches, the prolific power, the dynamic speed, the custom-made Nikes and that killer smile, and perhaps you'll stumble upon an even better comp for the early stages of Mike Trout's burgeoning career: Ken Griffey Jr.
"Oh, we don't discuss those things," Griffey said, smiling at the thought but dismissive of the notion. "He's growing into who he is, and I'll leave it at that. That's the one thing I learned at an early age -- just go out and have some fun."
Trout is having a blast this year, even as the scrutiny intensifies and the expectations escalate, because his exploits are now the fabric of a playoff-bound Angels team. A week from Thursday, the American League Division Series will begin in Anaheim, and baseball fans all over the country will finally get a glimpse of the game's best all-around player on its grandest stage.
Trout will do his best to block all of that out.
"You can't get out of your game, try to do too much," Trout said. "Ever since I got brought up, it's been a lot of pressure. But once the game starts, you just go out there and play."
Some would argue that this has been Trout's worst season, but few would say he isn't the AL MVP -- and that's about as indicative of his success as there is.
Trout's slash line was .324/.416/.560 from 2012-13, as he finished second to Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera in the AL MVP Award vote both times. This year, it's .290/.380/.563. He's hit 35 homers -- after notching 30 in 2012 and 27 in '13 -- and driven in a career-high 110 runs, after collecting 83 in '12 and 97 in '13. But his stolen-base numbers have fallen from 49 to 33 to 16. And he leads the AL with 181 in strikeouts after punching out no more than 139 times his previous two seasons.
Some would say it's a relatively down year, while others -- Angels manager Mike Scioscia chief among them -- would simply call it a different one. Few, however, would argue with the following point:
"I don't think there's much doubt, even talking with other managers, that Mike's not only the MVP of our league but also the best player of our league," Scioscia said. "I think he's certainly gone out and captured that award."
Trout leads the Majors in WAR for the third straight year, even though defensive metrics haven't been favorable to him this season. He leads the AL in runs scored (114) and RBIs, and he's tied for second with the Blue Jays' Jose Bautista in OPS (.943). Since 1900, only four players -- Mel Ott, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx and Ty Cobb -- have created more runs than Trout through their age-22 seasons.
"Media makes him out to a darn superhero, you know," Angels right fielder Kole Calhoun said. "And to still come out, and have the season that he's had and kind of live up to everything, it's pretty special."
But who is Trout, exactly?
The sample size is pretty substantial now, but his age is still so tender and the 2014 season has been so different. Are his rising strikeout totals and shrinking stolen-base numbers merely a part of baseball's cyclical nature, as Scioscia attests? Or are Trout's talents transitioning him into a middle-of-the order run producer who will consistently put up big power numbers but eventually won't be much of a threat to run?
Hitting coach Don Baylor still sees a 40-40 season in Trout's future, saying: "He's got that in his range if he wants to do it."
Griffey doesn't believe there's a trade-off.
"Mike's going to do a number of things," he said. "The power numbers just come because you're not swinging at those pitches that you can't drive. You just learn your swing."
Trout is swinging at a career-low 22.4 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone this year, but he's been susceptible to the rising fastball. He's batting .336 on anything around the middle of the plate or below it and only .083 on pitches in the upper third of the zone.
"You want to shrink them, but it's just the way it's been going this year," Trout said of the strikeouts, now three shy of the franchise record set by former Angel Mark Trumbo last season. "I'm chasing too much. But you can't be worrying about striking out. It's just the way the game is."
Angels bench coach Dino Ebel, one of Trout's closest confidants on the team, sees Trout's oft-scrutinized strikeout and stolen-base numbers as signs of an innate ability to mute the outside noise.
At the plate, Trout isn't changing his approach because he fears a rising strikeout total.
"You don't see him just swinging wildly and thinking, 'Oh, I've struck out three times; I better not strike out a fourth time and just put it in play,'" Ebel said. "He still has the same approach -- look for a pitch, drive it up the middle."
On the bases, Trout picks his spots and doesn't force the issue, a big reason why he's only been caught stealing 12 percent of the time throughout his career.
"There's times he could steal a bag and maybe the time wasn't on his side; he recognizes that," Ebel said. "Sometimes when a kid gets a green light, he's all anxious, he wants to go. Mike, that's the part he's really grasping and learning. That's what's good about Michael. He understands."
Ebel's perception points to a widely held belief in the Angels' clubhouse: If Trout doesn't go on a tear within the small sample size of a singular postseason series, it won't have anything to do with pressure.
Few disregard pomp and circumstance like the Angels' center fielder.
"In one ear, out the other," as shortstop Erick Aybar described it.
"People don't understand, just on a daily basis, what he goes through," catcher Hank Conger said. "Whether it's signing for fans, dealing with media or whatever, just the stuff that goes on day to day -- and for him to put that aside once the game starts, to really try to focus as a 23-year-old, it's unbelievable."