At 22, Trout finding ways to top rookie season
With Halos struggling, outfielder unlikely part of AL MVP debate
CLEVELAND -- Four of the regular season's six full months have passed, and Mike Trout leads Miguel Cabrera in Wins Above Replacement, 7.4 compared to 6.6.
"Here we go again," Trout said, smiling sheepishly at the thought of another heated American League MVP debate centering around him and the Tigers' slugging third baseman. "It's the same as last year, I guess. Wins Above Replacement -- whatever that means."
It means Trout, one day removed from his 22nd birthday, is once again considered the best player in baseball by the all-encompassing sabermetric statistic. It means -- in a big-picture sort of way -- that we may be witnessing the embryonic stages of one of the greatest players in history, while on pace to be the second since 1965 to rack up consecutive 10-plus WAR seasons.
It means Trout has done the unthinkable coming off a historic rookie season: He's found a way to be better.
The Angels (51-62, 7-13 in the second half) are having a rough go of it. Albert Pujols (partial tear of the left plantar fascia) may not play the rest of the year. Josh Hamilton (.667 OPS, 2-for-26 in August) still looks like a lost cause. Every aspect of their team is struggling, from starting pitchers not named Jered Weaver or C.J. Wilson, to a bullpen that has a 6.39 ERA since the All-Star break, to a defense that has committed an AL-leading 85 errors and allowed 13 stolen bases in two consecutive games.
Trout is a reason to keep watching.
His slash line heading into a seven-game road trip through Cleveland and New York is .333/.424/.580. Last year, in a season that was in many ways unparalleled, it was .326/.399/.564. Trout's hit 20 homers, stolen 24 bases, driven in 70 runs and is tied for the AL lead in hits (145), triples (eight) and runs scored (80).
All that said, though, his MVP chances are slim. Cabrera (.359 batting average, 33 homers, 102 RBIs) and Orioles first baseman Chris Davis (.302 batting average, 41 homers, 106 RBIs) have better power numbers while playing for teams in the thick of the playoff race.
The Angels -- 13 games back of first place in the AL West and of the second Wild Card spot -- need a miracle.
"That's always going to hurt you," Trout said. "You have to be playing for something. We're still trying to get back in this thing, but you look at Cabrera in Detroit, they're sitting in first place, and the Orioles are right in there competing. It definitely did its toll on me last year, as you can see, [Cabrera] being in the playoffs and on a first-place team. That definitely affects you in the long run."
But Trout shrugs off the MVP talk, as he does most things. He's innately levelheaded, and that's the trait his teammates have been most impressed by.
"He doesn't change, no matter how it's going," Pujols said. "He stays very humble. That's what I admire most about him."
That doesn't just show up in being cool in the clubhouse, or politely answering questions, or not over-celebrating home runs. It's tangible, easily identified by an unwavering plate discipline that points to the biggest reason Trout continues to trend upward.
In case fans hadn't noticed, few are pitching to him these days. With Pujols gone and Hamilton slumping, there's little need. No matter. Trout takes his walks, hardly expands his strike zone and often makes it a double with a stolen base. He doesn't get impatient and doesn't force anything that isn't there, that compact swing never wavering.
"I'm just up there looking for my pitch, and if I don't get it, I'm not swinging," Trout said of an approach that's logical in theory but difficult in practice -- and darn-near impossible at age 22.
"Seeing six, seven, eight pitches an at-bat is big for me. Especially seeing a starter -- knowing what he has and seeing the different pitches he's throwing me just gets me better for the next at-bat."
Trout has drawn 18 walks in his last 12 games, four of them being intentional, and leads the AL with 67 on the year.
Getting frustrated and expanding his zone, manager Mike Scioscia said, "is not in Mike's game."
Trout has seen 47.1 percent of pitches inside the strike zone this year, down from last year's 51.3 percent. But he's swung at 24.5 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, down from last year's 25 percent, and he ranks 18th in the AL while seeing 4.06 pitches per plate appearance.
Early in the year, perhaps while caught up in the hype of what seemed like unrealistic expectations, Trout was admittedly overanxious, uncharacteristically chasing pitches while posting a .261/.333/.432 line in April.
And like all great players, he adjusted.
"He looks calmer now," Angels hitting coach Jim Eppard said. "It's crazy to say it, but more confident, too. It's hard to imagine that he can be more confident or calmer than he was last year, but that's what I see on a day-to-day basis."
Trout's walk rate is up (from 10.5 percent in 2012 to 13 percent in 2013), his strikeout rate (21.8 to 16.7) is down.
He's getting better -- even while the team around him goes in the opposite direction.
"He's the face of baseball now," said Pujols, who has taken on a mentoring role with Trout, especially this season. "One thing I've told him is it doesn't matter what season you had last year. That passed. You have to concentrate each year and try to get better. And I feel like he can still get better in a lot of areas."