The Perfect Catch: Angels' Trout turning everybody into believers
Mike Trout leads the AL in batting average and the majors in stolen bases
Still just 20 years old, he has been one of the season's biggest stories
Trout fell to the 25th pick in the 2009 draft but didn't stay in the minors for long
Observe Mike Trout when he is standing still and it is not immediately evident that you are looking at a man who, at the age of 20, has become baseball's most dynamic player, inarguably, and baseball's best player, only somewhat arguably.
He looks athletic, certainly, though not in that extreme way of Usain Bolt or Alex Rodriguez. He is tall, though not, at 6'1", notably tall. He is broad and muscular, though not, at 210 pounds, extremely so. A casting director could find a place for him, though not as a leading man. In a movie set at a summer camp, Trout, with his build, his crew cut and his narrow eyes, might play the counselor of the cabin, its campers gifted in hand and in eye and in physical maturity, that our butterfly-collecting heroes must defeat in a color war.
It is when Trout is in motion that he sets himself apart, even on fields that he shares with talents like Albert Pujols, his decorated teammate with the Los Angeles Angels. It is not just that Trout is very fast, although he is. One scout says that while it is virtually unheard of for a righthanded hitter to reach first base from home plate in less than four seconds, he has regularly timed Trout at 3.89. On an early May bunt, the Angels timed him at 3.53.
He is so fast that, when he is playing in the outfield, it often seems as if the only fly ball he cannot reach is the one that sails over the wall. When that happens, Trout usually is already standing on the warning track as it lands, looking like a border collie whose owner has thrown a Frisbee a bit too ambitiously in a fenced-in backyard. Sometimes, of course, a fence proves no obstacle for Trout, such as on June 27 in Baltimore, when he propelled almost his entire body above the Camden Yards wall to turn a certain J.J. Hardy home run into the catch that launched a thousand highlights.
He is strong, too, as the 13 home runs he has already slugged from the Angels' leadoff spot begin to suggest. But what really sets Trout apart from almost anyone else currently playing baseball is his combination of strength and speed. It is a matter of physics, really. It is mass times velocity. It is momentum, and it is the relentless way in which he deploys it.
So yes, you can look at all the numbers Trout has produced in his two-and-a-half months in the major leagues this season, and see that he is a special player. You can look at his AL-best .355 batting average; at his MLB-leading 30 steals, on 33 attempts; at the Angels' 6-14 record before they called him up from Triple-A on April 27, and at their 44-27 record since. But all it takes is a few moments of watching him in motion, to realize: This is something different. This is something that will change a franchise.
The curious thing is that Trout was also strong, fast and relentless just three years ago, in 2009, when he was a senior at Millville (N.J.) High. It is not as if, between then and now, he experienced a magical growth spurt or shaved a half-second off his home-to-first time. Yet, in that June's draft, 21 different clubs had the opportunity to change their futures by drafting Trout, before the Angels finally picked him at No. 25, and 21 clubs phoned in some other name. Now, as Trout astounds every night, the question has become: How did so many of them fail to see in Trout what seems so obvious?
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The answer, according to Billy Beane, is simple. They didn't fail to see it. Not entirely.
As of March 2011, few could have predicted that the promise of Mike Trout would so quickly become the full-blown reality of Mike Trout. That's mainly because that is not how the developmental timeline of a prospect, especially a then 19-year-old one who had yet to play a game in Double-A, almost ever works. Back then, though, two things were clear: that Trout was a future star -- he was 1a to Bryce Harper's 1b, or vice versa, on every ranking of prospects -- and that he had just 21 months earlier been drafted much too low.
So it was that I broached the subject of Trout with Beane, who is the general manager of one of the 21 clubs who passed on him, as his A's used the 13th pick in '09 on a highly regarded USC shortstop named Grant Green. Beane's demeanor is almost always courtly, and our conversation in his spring training office in Phoenix had been breezy, until I mentioned Trout. Then I saw the first licks of the fire that burns beneath his calm exterior, which has been documented on both page and screen.
"He was one of our guys, actually," Beane said. "He was one of the three guys we were talking about drafting -- Trout, Green and Mike Leake." Leake, a pitcher from Arizona State, went eighth to the Reds, and is now 23-19 through 69 big league starts. "That's why I flew out to New Jersey to watch him. I'm not going to make a trip to a high school in New Jersey unless I thought he was the real deal."
Beane talked faster. "It's an inexact science," he said of the draft. "You have to think about all the guys picked ahead of him, all the things that go into it. It's not like college football, where they're all playing against each other. Such a wide range of ages, kids from Maine, kids from San Diego, kids from Seattle, kids from Miami... He could run, throw -- big, strong kid. Billy Owens, our director of player personnel, his first report said he's like Brian Urlacher on the baseball field, with strength and speed. I could show you the reports. We loved him."
Beane declined to share the reports. I inquired how it was, then, that they ended up with Green -- who is hitting .289 in Triple-A, and who has still not made his major league debut -- and not Trout. Beane's speech accelerated even more. "Grant was a shortstop at a major university, a high profile kid. He was predicted to go ahead of us. We'd seen him a lot more, California kid, seen him since high school. It was a position of need in the organization. We're happy with Grant. I would expect both of them to be the real deal. Just like Leake turned out to be the real deal."
Then, he addressed me directly. "The smarter guy is the guy who does this interview before the draft and says, 'Why aren't you guys going to take Mike Trout with the first pick?' The industry didn't miss this kid. He was in the first round, he was on everybody's list. The smart guy would be the reporter that came and said, 'How can you guys not take Trout if he drops to 13?' That'd be a guy who wouldn't be a reporter very long. That'd be a guy owning a baseball team, telling guys what to do --"
Beane, all at once, trailed off. His courtly manner returned. He leaned back in his chair. "The fact of the matter is, he's a great player, and he ended up being even greater than we thought he was," he said evenly. "But I think you'd be challenged to find any team that didn't like him."