Mike Trout hasn’t arrived yet.
When you consider everything he has accomplished, it seems like an absurd statement. Saying that Trout, the best player in baseball, is on a journey to something better is like saying that water can be wetter or the sun can be sunnier.
But on a particularly sun-kissed afternoon at Citi Field, Angels hitting coach Dave Hansen says just that.
As kids scream out to Trout to sign autographs — he spent part of batting practice being herded to three different media sessions, and at about 4:30 p.m., his cleats finally touched grass — Hansen preached his belief that what we’re all seeing is the tip of something greater.
“I don’t even think he’s close to being there yet,” said Hansen, who spent parts of 15 seasons in the big leagues. “There’s so much more wisdom and so much more knowledge that he’s going to gain by the end of his career. He’s just tapping into it now . . . The sky’s really the limit, and I really don’t think he’s really figured it all out yet.”
Hansen likes talking about Trout. He smiles while patiently trying to explain that his outfielder is more than the advanced statistics that tell us that we may have another Mickey Mantle in our midst.
When asked if he’s ever seen a ballplayer like this, the answer is “no” from the man who played in the same era as Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds and Alex Rod riguez. He amended: “I’ve heard about guys [like that]. I mean, I played against Griffey and he was similar in that regard — they just have it. Coming from a guy that had to work at it for 15 years, I’m amazed by it. That’s something special we’re watching.”
By all accounts, Trout is boring. This isn’t a criticism.
“I like to play the game the right way, respect it and play hard,” Trout said. “When you get compared to the all-time greats, it makes you feel good about yourself, but you can’t look into it too much.”
In an era in which there are so many different avenues for an athlete to get himself in trouble, Trout, 25, has a sterling reputation. His sound bites are purposefully bland. He has confidence but he’s not boastful. His big personality quirk is that he’s a weather nerd: At one point Friday, he was headed out of the clubhouse but stopped when someone mentioned that it was going to drop 30 degrees this weekend. He’s engaged to his high school sweetheart and proposed via a sky-written message.
All this has led to a two-time MVP (2014 and 2016) and a five-time All-Star who doesn’t garner attention in proportion with the accolades he’s given. Sure, he has endorsement deals, but his face isn’t plastered on every commercial. He grew up in New Jersey, but you’re unlikely to see any Page Six items about him whenever he heads back home.
“He’s always been like that,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “From the time he was 19 in the big leagues, he’s all about getting ready to play and playing the game. That really starts with his parents . . . His family is very well-grounded.”
Trout is the son of Jeff Trout, a teacher whose professional baseball dream died in the minor leagues. Debbie Trout swam and played softball; her Twitter account is an ode to her family, from pictures of her granddaughter’s gymnastics tournament to retweets of her son’s airplane emojis, courtesy of whatever road trip the Angels are on.
Humility “is part of his total gift,” Hansen said.
“I know just from my own experience of getting to the big leagues real young and my mentality and my talent level were not matching up,” he said. “Those guys, [confidence] comes from within and it comes out.”
Manipulating the matchups
So this is where we have to talk about the numbers. And it’s true. Trout appears to be getting better.
His batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage are up from last year. Entering Saturday night, his OPS was an absurd 1.199. He had 13 home runs, 30 RBIs and 28 runs, meaning he’s on pace to exceed last year’s totals of 29 homers and 100 RBIs. His slash line was .348/.458/.741.
Before Saturday, he was responsible for a league-high 2.94 Wins Above Replacement, according to ESPN. His career WAR is 51.4, 14th among active players, which becomes much more impressive when you consider he’s played only five full seasons.
Ask Trout about his improvement and he’s unsurprisingly vague.
“You go out there and you have one thing on your mind, and that’s the barrel to the baseball,” he said. “You’re just trying to hit balls hard, line drives, and go from there . . . I’m looking for a particular zone, and if I don’t get it, we’ll take the walk . . . I keep the same approach.”
Hansen said they’ve worked on pitch selection and swinging at more first pitches.
“That’s part of his evolution,” Hansen said. “What’s kind of separating him right now is his ability to understand what they’re doing and what he wants to do. He kind of manipulates that cat-and-mouse game that goes on within one particular baseball game.”
Trout appears to be pouncing on more mistake pitches, with a higher swing rate at pitches in the middle of the zone, compared with last year. He’s swinging at first pitches 25.3 percent of the time, about three times more than when he started. He’s also making better contact on balls lower in the zone.
“You’ve got to be secure in what you do and real consistent in order to make that work,” Hansen said. “He’s a pretty unique kid.”
‘Just playing the game to win’
When Hansen talks about coaching Trout, he takes on the air of a teacher mentoring a gifted student, one who exceeds any raw ability he ever had. When you come to terms with the fact that Trout isn’t done growing, it’s even more impressive.
“He’s still a young kid,” Hansen said. “You think he’s got it all, but he’s still learning . . . We’ve got to be available to him, but we also have to be mentors, too, and we don’t want to lose sight of that just because the kid is doing what he’s doing on the field. We still feel a responsibility to continue that growth. I guess that’s how I coach him. It’s a loose term. We are technically coaches, but it’s more than just coaching with him.”
They’re facilitators, they’re coaxers and sometimes they’re stand-back-and-watchers.
“I think the biggest lesson is not so much Mike Trout’s talent but the way he just plays the game,” Scioscia said. “What we see every day is a guy that isn’t chasing numbers, a guy that’s just playing the game to win, does whatever he needs to do on the field to help us win.”
And therein lies Trout’s impetus to improve. The Angels haven’t won a World Series since 2002. Trout has played in one playoff series in his career, and the Angels got swept. He wants that ring more than he wants endorsements or fame. When asked what advice he’d give to kids starting out, it was “work hard” and “a lot of people doubted me in the draft. Just try to prove people wrong.”
He added, “You never want to tell yourself that you’re good enough, because that’s when the baseball gods kick you in the butt, put you in your place. I just stay positive, stay humble and go from there.”
And there it is: Trout hasn’t arrived yet because he has so many other places to go.
Mike Trout’s 2017 numbers (through Friday):