He’s just 22 years old, but the Angels slugger has spent his life defying baseball’s expectations. Now he has experts wondering whether he could be the best ever.
Philadelphia is not the most welcoming town for visiting ballplayers, who typically get pelted with everything from insults to batteries. But something strange happens when the young outfielder takes the plate: a standing ovation. Even the oldest of season-ticket holders can’t recall a visiting player receiving a cheer—let alone a standing O—but then most visiting players aren’t Mike Trout.
Raised in southern New Jersey, about 40 miles from Philly, the Angels wunderkind used to be a die-hard Phillies fan. In fact, just six years ago, he was here at the ballpark to celebrate the home team’s first World Series title in decades. “OK, I wasn’t actually in the ballpark,” says Trout. “I was in the parking lot, tailgating with my friends. But it was awesome. I saw the fireworks.”
On this night, the spectacle is Trout himself. An estimated 8,000 fans from his hometown—roughly a quarter of Millville’s population—are here to watch the kid play. Not just any kid.
At 22 years old, Trout is the best young player in history. ESPN calls him “Magic Mike.” To Sports Illustrated, he’s “Supernatural.” Unsurprisingly, he’s the leading vote-getter in the AL for this month’s All-Star Game.
Still, you might not have guessed it back in 2008. Because Trout grew up playing in the Northeast, as opposed to the recruiting hotbeds of the South or the West Coast, he fell through the game’s cracks, ultimately dropping to the 25th spot in the 2009 draft. Perhaps that helps explain the chip on his shoulder (see: Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers) and why being the best, and winning, is all that matters to him.
And he is the best, already. Baseball junkies haven’t seen a combination of power and speed like Trout’s since Mickey Mantle, noting that he’s only the fourth player to log a .300/.400/.500 slash line through his first two seasons, joining Hall of Famers Ted Williams, Mel Ott, and Jimmie Foxx.
“It’s cool to see how I stack up against these incredible players,” says Trout. “But, honestly, I don’t get caught up in that stuff.”
So how does he stack up? Well, at 6'2"and 230 pounds, he’s about the size of a linebacker, but one with a LeBron-like leaping ability. An Instagram clip of him executing a five-foot-high box jump has gone viral. Among the game’s fastest players, Trout led the majors in stolen bases in his rookie year, and in runs scored in each of his first two seasons. And while he may be humble, that didn’t stop him from challenging Michael Vick to a foot race.
“The scary thing about Mike is that he’s still going to get better, if you can believe that,” says his manager, Mike Scioscia, who also grew up outside Philly. “I’ll go out on a limb and say he’s not going to drop off.” And it’s not just his skills. “Mike has much more ability and focus than I ever had,” says Scioscia, comparing Trout to a young Ken Griffey, Jr. “I remember what it was like when I came back to Philadelphia for the first time. This is a little different.”
And yet, some things never change.
“You suck!” yells a middle-aged Phillies supporter seated behind the Angels dugout.
“He rules!” counters an eight-year-old fan. “What do you know about baseball?”
With his family and friends filling the stands, Trout rises above the commotion, leading his team to victory while kicking off a hot streak in which he’ll hit .421, slug his first walk-off home run, and rise to second in the league in WAR.
And then there’s that focus. “Mike can’t say no,” says Angels announcer and former ace Mark Langston, noting that while Trout always takes time to sign autographs, the tunnel vision hits come game time. “That’s what’s so amazing: He can please the media and the fans, but he blocks it all out once the game starts.”
Fittingly for someone with Trout’s size and speed, Langston compares him to Bo Jackson, the finest athlete of his generation. “I played with Bo,” says Langston. “Trout may not quite have the world-class speed of Jackson [one of the fastest players in history], but he’s close.”
To the folks in the stands, this isn’t exactly a newsbreak. The Angels have clocked Trout at 3.52 seconds from the batter’s box to first, which, for a right-handed batter, should not be physically possible. “I never saw anything like it,” says Angels starter Garrett Richards, who first witnessed Trout’s speed in Class A. “I remember seeing him just fly. He had so many infield hits. All he had to do was hit a ground ball to short. If it bounced twice, he was safe."
But it’s Trout’s focus that observers return to time and again. Unlike fellow young phenoms Bryce Harper or Yasiel Puig, he doesn’t get caught up in distractions. “It doesn’t do me any good to dwell on what goes wrong,” Trout says. “You have to leave that behind.”
Does all this make him boring? Well, compared to Harper and Puig, yes, kind of. Growing up, Trout idolized Derek Jeter, and even modeled his swing on the Yankees shortstop’s. Like Jeter (and fellow hitting savants Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, and Ichiro Suzuki), Trout waits on the ball a split second longer than most batters. He may not rack up home-run titles, but sizing up the pitch the way he does can easily translate into walks and batting titles. It’s not an approach you’d expect from someone of Trout’s size, but it is in part what elevated him into the game’s elite. “It really wasn’t until I was a senior in high school that things clicked,” he concedes. “That’s when it all started to happen.”
Sure, that’s the year he set the New Jersey state record for homers, but truth be told, he was a star long before that. “He’s just being humble,” says former coach Mike Thompson. “When he was 15, he played on the 17-year-old team. He was the best player on the field, and the sound of the baseball coming off his bat was different from anyone ever at that level.”
So, if Trout is already the game’s best player, just how high is his ceiling?
“That’s a great question,” says Cincinnati Reds All-Star Brandon Phillips. “He may not have a ceiling. He’s a rarity. I remember playing against him last season, and no one found his weakness. It’s downright scary.”
In the meantime, the kid from small-town Jersey remains grounded. In the off-season he still sleeps in his childhood bedroom. He still hangs out with the boys from Millville, despite the $144.5 million contract extension he signed in March. After the game in Philly, he hits the parking lot, just like he did in the old days before heading home to his parents’ place in Millville.
“You can’t get too high or low,” he says of the fans’ expectations. “All I can do is make adjustments and try to get better.”
And with teammates like ex-MVPs Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, Trout and the Angels have a lot to look forward to. “He has it all,” says future Hall of Famer Pujols. “He’s as good as you’ll ever see. Who else has ever played the way he plays? It’s like he’s from another planet.”
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