On the day the Angels brass showed up in Millville, Trout went 0 for 2 with a walk against a pitcher throwing 75 mph. Malinoff immediately picked up on the awkward way Trout gripped the bat. He started to talk about his mechanics in concerned tones. Morhardt stopped him. "Jeff," the scout said, "he's a Hall of Famer. Leave him alone."
That night Bane went to dinner with Debbie, Jeff and Mike in Millville. Bane was blown away once more, this time from learning that the Trouter—a nickname conferred upon the prospect by Morhardt—wasn't just an elite player, but also came from a strong family. Says Bane, "I mean, it was all over after that."
While driving alone to the Philadelphia airport after dinner, Bane smiled and laughed out loud. It was all true, what Morhardt had been saying about the Trouter. Bane knew the Angels could never pass up the chance to draft Trout—if 21 teams would only let them.
A hitter gets only three strikes. They are especially precious because the task of getting a hit becomes progressively harder with each strike. This year major league batters have hit .338 with no strikes. Give them one and the average dips slightly, to .327. But give them a second strike and their average plummets to .178.
When Trout became a minor leaguer, he decided to give away one of those precious strikes. Nearly every time up, he would not swing until he had a strike. He essentially forfeited the biggest advantage available to hitters—to clobber pitches with the freedom of no strikes—and intentionally made the art of hitting even more difficult ... at age 17.
"I feel like if I go up there first-pitch hitting and roll over on it, that's a wasted at bat," he says. "If I see seven or eight pitches and then I roll over, it's still a good at bat. I just want to see pitches."
The average major league hitter puts the first pitch into play 11% of the time. This year Trout has done so 5% of the time. If he does swing at the first pitch, it most often is in his third at bat against a starting pitcher. "You have to switch it up once in a while," he says.
Everybody has a favorite skill in the Mike Trout catalog. His father loves to watch him run the bases, as does Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "Sometimes," Scioscia says, "it's like watching a Little League game—you know, when a 10-year-old hits the ball and all of a sudden he's on second? That's what it looks like with Mike, like the distance between bases isn't 90 feet for him but 60."
Hunter loves the way Trout regularly makes such pure contact that the ball will leave his bat on a line with no spin, causing it to knuckle. "It's hard to hit balls perfectly square," Hunter says. "He's doing it almost every other swing in batting practice."
But there is one skill that really sets Trout apart: his freakish ability to recognize pitches. As much as hitters work on strength-training and the mechanics of hitting, it is a hitter's processing and computational skills that define greatness. Trout may be the best in the major leagues since Barry Bonds at identifying pitches—spin, velocity and where it will cross the plate—as quickly as possible after it leaves a pitcher's fingertips.