The Angels’ season began on a brilliant April evening, with a shutout of Kansas City and rousing ovations for Albert Pujols at Angel Stadium. The same night, Mike Trout collected two hits for the Salt Lake Bees in an 8-7 loss in front of some 4,000 fans in Tacoma, Wash.
Trout spent nearly all of that month traveling to Pacific Coast League outposts like Reno and Tucson, while the Angels sank in the American League West and Pujols waited in agony for his first home run. Finally, mired in last place on April 28, the Angels summoned one of the most ballyhooed prospects in recent baseball history.
When Trout arrived in the clubhouse that day, some of the Angels veterans sarcastically called him “Jesus.” A 20-year-old was supposed to save their season.
Thursday was the two-month anniversary of Trout’s call-up. He has appeared in only 54 of the Angels’ 76 games. But that has been enough time for Trout to lay claim to a first-half award rarely associated with the Opening Day designated hitter of the Salt Lake Bees.
American League MVP.
“If he continues this, he’s going to be the MVP of the whole season,” teammate Torii Hunter said Thursday. “MVP, for me, is the person who comes in and helps that team win. MVP is not for a guy who’s in last place. That’s the outstanding player award.
“The MVP award is for a guy like Trout. He turned our season around.”
That’s not hyperbole. Since Trout made his season debut, the Angels are 37-19 — the best record in baseball. They are no longer the most disappointing team in the majors. Far from it. If the playoffs started today, the Angels would host the Baltimore Orioles in the AL play-in game.
Trout isn’t merely the clear favorite to win AL Rookie of the Year — with apologies to Yu Darvish, Will Middlebrooks and Tom Milone. And he’s more than an increasingly safe bet to make the All-Star team. Trout has reshaped the race in one of baseball’s most competitive divisions, in a style just as breathtaking as the last player to pull off the MVP/ROY combo: Ichiro Suzuki. “What he’s doing for us right now,” one Angels official said Thursday, “is stunning.”
Seriously, is there a better choice as AL MVP right now? Paul Konerko might have the next-best case, given his .958 OPS for the division-leading Chicago White Sox, but he can’t match Trout’s contributions on defense and the basepaths. Josh Hamilton, although a perpetual candidate, is having a poor June.
Meanwhile, Trout’s statistics — like Trout himself — are a historic blur. He leads the AL with a .345 batting average — something only two rookies (Ichiro in 2001, Tony Oliva in 1964) have done over a full season in the modern era, according to STATS LLC.
With 48 runs scored, Trout is averaging nearly one per game, which is almost unheard of. He could finish the year as the major league leader in runs, despite missing the season’s first month. The same goes for stolen bases; he already ranks third in that category, with 21.
Leadoff man … home run hitter … run scorer … menace on the bases … superb outfielder.
Yep, Hunter went right ahead with the comparison.
“Rickey Henderson in the making,” Hunter said.
Some may argue Henderson — the Hall of Famer and all-time stolen bases leader — set a standard that can’t be approached, let alone matched. But for these two months, Trout has impacted games the way Henderson often did during his 25 seasons.
Trout’s plate discipline has forced opposing starters to expend more pitches, leaving them vulnerable to the hitters behind him: Hunter, Albert Pujols, Kendrys Morales and Mark Trumbo. When Trout reaches base — as he’s doing at a .402 clip — his speed can distract the pitcher. And Pujols has a pretty good idea of how to handle distracted pitchers.
Before Trout joined the team, Pujols batted .225 with zero home runs in 20 games.
Since then: .286 with 12 home runs in 54 games, including a 4-for-5 night in Thursday’s 9-7 win over the Toronto Blue Jays.
“Right now, at the top of the lineup, there’s nobody like him,” Hunter said of Trout. “I refuse to say there’s somebody out there like him.”
Now, Trout has a moment to go along with his numbers. Wednesday in Baltimore, he sprinted back to the center-field wall and — without easing his throttle — leaped for an outright theft of J.J. Hardy’s would-be home run. Trumbo watched the play develop from left field and was about to yell, “Fence! Fence!” to warn Trout.
Before Trumbo could open his mouth, Trout’s spikes were in the air.
“Easily the best catch I’ve ever seen,” Trumbo said. “It looked like (the wall) was waist-high.”
Trout’s reaction was as indelible as the catch itself. He smiled wildly — youth, talent, exhilaration and limitless potential all over his face — and hollered back toward the stands, where four friends from his nearby hometown of Millville, N.J., were sitting: Wesley Adams, Eddie Adams, Kirsten Adams and Lauren DuBois.
“I looked at some of the pictures — some of my buddies were in the front row, in the picture,” Trout said Thursday. “Just to see their reaction, being there when I caught it, it was awesome.”
Most major leaguers toil through entire careers without pulling off a play like that — with friends in the photo, no less. That was Trout’s 93rd career game, the ultimate marriage of skill and serendipity in a major league stadium.
Trout has received on-field compliments from Derek Jeter and Matt Kemp over the past two months — further evidence of his permanent arrival to the baseball firmament. Jeter and Kemp are two of the game’s most respected players, and Trout, three years removed from his high school graduation, was excited to meet them.
The most surprising part of all: By this time next year, Trout might be able to tell them what it’s like to win an MVP award.