TEMPE, Ariz. -- Tempe Diablo Stadium, the spring home of the Angels, is one of the oldest in the Cactus League. At 7:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, one of its youngest occupants is working out on a scrap of Astroturf just outside the staff entrance, right by the parking lot. Mike Trout, the best all-around player in baseball, is exercising with a piece of equipment that resembles a stretchy ladder, while stadium workers pass to and fro, a few feet away.
It is part of his spring training routine, which now includes not only workouts and drills and batting practice, but also at least one interview each day with a major media outlet, often more than one. When Trout arrived in Phoenix for spring training, having offhandedly tweeted about his flight, 200 people showed up to greet him at the airport. President Obama used him as a simile for a farm bill, randomly enough. He was unanimous voted Rookie of the Year in 2012, and he finished second to Miguel Cabrera in MVP voting in 2012 and 2013, with a very strong case for the top spot both times. He's also Vegas's MVP favorite for 2014, currently going at 5 to 1.
Trout, just 22 years old, is talking with the Angels about a contract extension reportedly worth around $150 million -- an enormous amount of money that's nevertheless much less than he'd probably be worth on the open market -- yet he spent the offseason living at home with his parents in the small, economically depressed town of Millville, N.J.
The hype surrounding him is both well-founded and overwhelming. Though he's unflaggingly polite, you get the sense that even Trout is getting a little weary of talking about Mike Trout.
No one is tired of watching Trout play, though. "At this point," says pitcher C.J. Wilson, "I just keep trying to tell people, other than some sort of Kryptonian thing going on, look for it every day. Cause I don't know what he's gonna do -- I've seen him do so many things."
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Trout's old-timey nickname -- "The Millville Meteor" -- came about in the most modern way possible. It was coined by a user in the Something Awful forums who goes by Weed Mouse, then planted on Wikipedia by another forum user (Weed Mouse says he is not sure who), where it caught on with various media outlets and became legitimized. It was intended to both mock the ridiculously premature comparisons Trout was getting to the "Commerce Comet" (Mickey Mantle) while simultaneously serving as an homage to classic baseball nicknames, the kind that have lost ground recently to diminutives like "A-Rod" and "HanRam."
Millville is an unlikely home for a baseball star. It's a football town first and foremost, and the weather and limited schedule prevented many MLB scouts from seeing Trout as much as they might have in another part of the country, which probably is one reason why he was only the 25th pick in the 2009 draft. His father Jeff was drafted by the Twins in the fifth round of the 1983 draft, spent four years in the minors and then returned home, where he taught history at Millville Senior High School. Located in a lonely part of South Jersey, it's a factory town whose factories -- glass factories, in this iteration of the familiar story -- shut down years ago. It's not saying much to say that Trout is the best thing that's happened to Millville in a long time.
Trout is unfailingly humble -- the word almost inevitably comes up when teammates discuss him -- but even he can't think of too many things he needs to work on or improve this season. "I'm just trying to keep to the same routine," he says, "not trying to do to much. Nothing specific. Though, you know, there's always things you can work on -- defensively, getting more reads off the bat and getting your jumps, and on the bases, getting your first step."
The book on Trout used to be that his one weak spot was hitting the inside pitch, but unfortunately for opposing pitchers, that's no longer something he feels is much of an issue: "I feel comfortable now. I'm not worried about it too much," he says. "I'm just going to let myself react up there. I'm not going to think about it, it'll just happen."
Catcher Chris Ianetta says he's thought over the years about about how he would try to get Trout out, were he on the opposing team: "There's really not much you can do. I mean, he can do everything at the plate, there's no apparent holes. You've just got to hope he mis-hits it or chases a bad pitch."
What few, small holes there are tend to close quickly, too. "The thing that I'm really impressed with," says Wilson, "is if he does what a lot of hitters do, which is every once in a while swings a little too hard or maybe chases a pitch or something, he knows immediately, and then he makes a correction right away."
It's now nearly impossible to find a significant flaw in Trout's game. He hits for power: 30 home runs in 2012, 27 in 2013. He gets on base, with a .399 on base percentage in 2012 and a whopping .432 last season. He has good speed, particularly for a guy his size -- 6'-foot-2" and around 230 lbs. -- with 82 stolen bases over the last two years. With broad shoulders, a thick neck and short hair, he looks like a football player or perhaps a Marine, but he can motor and then some. He's hit .326 and .323 and put up a sky-high OPS+ of 168 and 179. And of course, as you'll recall from The Great MVP Battles, he has led the league in WAR two years running.
Trout says he really cares about just one thing, though: "I look at runs, the amount of runs. There's always talk about home runs, RBIs, that's always good stuff, but I like runs. Scoring runs. That's the big thing."
Runs literally are everything, of course, when it comes to winning games, but an individual player's "runs scored" are a very imprecise measure of his ability, since they're so dependent on his teammates, on context and on events beyond his control. Trout scored 129 times in 2012, when the Angels won 89 games, but only 109 times last season -- despite being on base significantly more often -- when the Angels won 78 games and didn't hit as well as a team overall.
As for advanced stats, "I looked into it a little bit," Trout says, but "nothing too crazy." He did a little research online about WAR, but didn't get very far. "What it means, Wins Above Replacement -- that's about all I got out of it." Of course, while Trout may not love WAR, WAR certainly loves him.
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It used to be received baseball wisdom that players are at their peak roughly from 28 to 32 years old, but more recent research has shown that for most, it's really more like 25 to 29. That harsh reality probably contributed to the frustration Albert Pujols' showed recently, when a reporter imprudently asked him if he's motivated to match Trout's numbers this season. You can see where Pujols is coming from. He's one of the greatest players of his generation -- a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame even if he retired tomorrow -- but still, he's 34, well past that peak range of years, which Trout hasn't even started yet.
In fact, precisely what gets people so excited about Mike Trout is not just that his first two seasons in the majors were so great, although they definitely were, but that they were even more remarkable considering his young age. As SI.com put it:
Using B-Ref's WAR model, Trout's 20.8 WAR through his age-21 season is the highest for any position player in history, outdoing Mel Ott's 17.9 and Ty Cobb's 15.7. His 10.9 was a record for a 20-year-old, while his 9.2 as a 21-year-old trailed only Rogers Hornsby's 9.9-WAR 1917 season among players of that age.
It is still too early to compare Trout to Ty Cobb or Mel Ott, let alone that other over-the-top connection that tends to shadow him, Mantle. As Wilson says, "You don't want to put a ceiling on guys when they're just 22, no matter how good they are." Nevertheless, there's no getting around the fact that Trout's first seasons have been downright historic. That also means he's under an awful lot of pressure for his age. But Trout is, by all appearances, handling it well.
"To be where he's at, at his age, there's not a lot that can prepare you for that," says Wilson. But Trout "has a good outlook and a good attitude … Every at-bat, you feel he's ready for that at-bat. He's not mad about his last at-bat, even if he got out. Even if he's 0-for-his-last-6, he's not upset about that, he's focused on what he's about to do. And that's a huge thing in baseball, because there's so many things that make it difficult to do that. As soon as you have a little hitting streak, people are trying to compare you to Joe DiMaggio, you know what I mean? You go 30-30, people are trying to say, 'Oh, 40-40.' It's crazy."
Or, as manager Mike Scioscia puts it: "Mike has perspective. He manages himself." And keeping perspective where Mike Trout is concerned is no small achievement. Even for Mike Trout.