Baseball is supposed to be complicated, but the normal rules don't apply to MIKE TROUT. Already the game's unquestioned top player at 22, he dominates with an ease and joy that defy the pull of fame and expectations. Which raises the question: If he's this good now, what will his prime look like?
AFTER THE worst day of his baseball life—he struck out all four times he came to the plate in a 5--2 loss in Detroit on April 19—centerfielder Mike Trout reacted the same way he might after a day of hunting deer or rabbits in South Jersey, or after scarfing down his usual six burgers (smothered in house sauce, of course) at Jim's Lunch on East Main Street in Millville, N.J., or after battling five-year-old Owen Kendrick in clubhouse Ping-Pong, or after his daily call home to Mom and Dad, or after pausing for a quiet moment to gape at all those digits before affixing his signature to a $144.5 million contract that made him the richest 22-year-old in the history of baseball. Trout met the worst day of his career as he does everything else in his blessedly uncomplicated life.
"You can put that golden sombrero in my locker," he told his Angels teammates after the game, using ballplayers' lingo for a four-strikeout game. "All hats everywhere go in my locker."
He looked at his phone. There was a text from Jon McMahon, aka J. Smiles, one of the dozen or so buddies from Millville who have been hanging together for years—a jeans-and-pickup-truck kind of rat pack from a working-class town of 29,000 about 40 miles south of Philadelphia.
"You had a day at the plate like me in junior college."
Another text followed:
"You're killing my fantasy team!"
Trout texted back, "LOL."
"It was a pretty crazy feeling," Trout says of the four whiffs. "The funny thing about it is the next day I punch out my first time at bat. I started laughing to myself. The next time up I told myself, Mike, just keep it simple. Get jammed. And I got jammed. I got a broken-bat [pop-up] to first base—and I was fist-pumping. All right! Contact! It's just how the game humbles you."
More often than not, Trout reverses the established laws of baseball, a fiendishly cruel game that otherwise delights in methodically crushing optimism, with the best teams losing more than 60 times and the best hitters making outs 400 times or more a year. It is Mike Trout who humbles baseball.
The greatest wonder of this wunderkind isn't that Trout, just five years out of Millville High and two months short of the third anniversary of his big league debut, already is overwhelmingly regarded as the best player in baseball. It's not that Trout, even after two runner-up American League MVP finishes and with opponents trying everything short of the NSA to find something to exploit about his game, keeps getting better. And it's not that Trout—traditionalists, sit down and hang on to your flannel-covered folklore for this one—is the greatest 22-year-old ever to play the game.
The greatest wonder is that Trout still plays with a simple, indefatigable joy that defies the gravitational pull of money, fame and expectations. It's as if Trout, whom his buddies still call Trouty or Mikey, were still running around as a freshman for the Millville High varsity. Of course, the Thunderbolts' field now bears his name, having been renovated when Trout donated his $10,000 bonus for winning the 2012 AL Rookie of the Year Award. "Like [Derek] Jeter, he's got positive energy all the time," says Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick. "He says hello to everybody—the workers in the stadium, the guys in the hallways.... My son, Owen, loves him. To him he's just Mikey. And Mike loves to play Ping-Pong with him. My wife tells me, 'I don't know much about what he does on the field, but I know I like him because of who he is and how he treats everybody.' "
Trout still is so young that he's closer in age to Kendrick's son than he is to Los Angeles's 41-year-old designated hitter, Raul Ibanez. And by nearly every measure he is still getting better. Each year of his young career, including through Sunday, he has seen more pitches per plate appearance and improved his rates of extra-base hits. His adjusted OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage adjusted for ballpark factors and league context) has also steadily climbed—a startling ascent considering that his adjusted OPS in 2012 was the greatest in history for an age-20 season.
This year Trout has shown more power (he hit six home runs in his first 23 games; last year it took him 36 to reach that total) and continued to steal bases at will. He was 4 for his first 4 in stolen base attempts this season and 90 for 102 in his career. (His 88.2% success rate is second only to Chase Utley's 88.4% among all players in history with at least 100 attempts.) The biggest knock on Trout had been that he did not throw exceptionally well, so when he arrived at spring training he told bench coach Dino Ebel he was determined to improve his arm strength. Thanks to a rigorous throwing program, Trout now has an above-average arm.
"This game will expose your holes," Angels catcher Chris Iannetta says, "but with Mike there are no holes. He has God-given ability, but at the same time you just don't see him ever make a mistake—like throwing to the wrong base or getting thrown out. The game seems to slow down for him.
"The most amazing thing is that his confidence is through the roof. And he has it all the time. It never wavers, whether he's 0 for 5 or 5 for 5."
Trout is still five years away from what sabermetrician Bill James estimated to be the peak of a typical player's career. And so far the Millville Meteor's career trajectory has been a straight shot up. Where Trout is headed may be even more amazing than where he is now.
LATE ON the evening of April 4, after an 11--1 win in Houston and a typical Trout night (home run, single, walk and two runs batted in), Trout knocked on the hotel suite of general manager Jerry Dipoto. L.A. had spent much of the winter negotiating a contract extension for Trout, who at one point asked to meet with team owner Arte Moreno and president John Carpino. Before spring training they dined at a restaurant in Newport Beach.
"I want to be here," Trout told them.
Says Moreno, "I'm pretty sure he's one of the most mature 22-year-olds I've ever met. I wanted more years, but that's part of the compromise you make to get a deal done."
The Angels wanted to buy up Trout's three arbitration years—he would have been eligible for the first time after this season—then as many free-agent years as they could. Trout wanted long-term security, no option years and a term that would still allow him to explore free agency in his prime. They agreed on six years. Trout will be 29 when the contract ends. News of the agreement got out just before Opening Day, and on that April night Trout reported to Dipoto's suite to make the deal official—but only after pausing to absorb the immensity of the value. "Yeah, I looked at it," he says. "Going through the process in the off-season, I would wake up in the morning and go, Is this really happening? At such a young age, and for the Angels to offer life-changing money.... It's a feeling I can't really explain."
The contract may be a bargain for the Angels. They bought out the three arbitration years for $44.8 million, or just $750,000 more than the value of the first three arbitration years of the deal slugger Ryan Howard signed with the Phillies six years ago. They bought out Trout's first three free-agent years—covering the peak ages of 26 through 28—for $99.8 million, or just $12.8 million more than what they will pay Albert Pujols at ages 39 to 41.
In today's market that's almost short money for a player whose best comps are men who are long dead. Trout is on track for a third season with an OPS greater than .950. Only two players had three such years through their age-22 season: Ted Williams (1939--41) and Jimmie Foxx (1928--30), neither of whom played defense or ran like Trout. Trout's career adjusted OPS of 167 is second only to Williams's (182) among all players through age 22, with Stan Musial, Ty Cobb and Foxx just behind. With another season of at least 20 homers and 20 steals, Trout will become the first player in history with three 20--20 seasons at such a young age.
Trout's continual improvement is not much different from the rest of his life: It's uncomplicated. He hits from an upright stance that conveys the calm readiness of a sentry. He prefers to let pitches travel deep enough to be hit with his hands inside the ball—an approach that allows him to see the pitch slightly longer and then to drive it to the opposite field.
"In high school I couldn't hit the ball to rightfield to save my life," he says. "I pulled the ball. One day my coach said, 'You know, that's impressive, but try to go to rightfield.' Finally, either my junior or senior year, I hit a ball over the second baseman's head into right center. As soon as I did it, something started clicking. I watched some videos of Jeter; the majority of his balls are hit to right center too.
"The biggest thing at the plate is if I tell myself to hit a home run, I get out 100% of the time. All my home runs come from just telling myself, Base hit up the middle."
In this Information Age, Trout eschews most of the data and video available to study details of his swing or the repertoire of the opposing pitcher. Before facing Gio Gonzalez in Washington last month, for example, Trout looked at a few old at bats to see "what he did to me," but was not interested in the lefthander's broader pitch tendencies.
"It's just natural," Trout said when asked to describe his approach. "See it, hit it during the game. I'm not going to change. If I start thinking 'fastball in,' that outside pitch is going to start looking five feet away from me."
WHEN THE Angels played at Yankee Stadium on April 26, Jeter's parents, Dot and Charles, sat in a suite, and Trout's parents, Debbie and Jeff, sat behind the third-base line. It felt like a Little League game writ large. Jeter, who announced in February he will retire after the season, was drafted in June 1992, just 10 months after Trout was born. Their New Jersey births, their strong parenting and their preference to hit a baseball from the inside out are just the beginning of their commonality.
"I'm always positive," Trout says. "That's the biggest thing that's helped me my whole career. No negatives. Guys that are throwing their helmet or disrespecting the game, that's not for me. I think that's where all my success comes from: always staying humble. If you do get four hits and two home runs or whatever, you're not in there bragging. You just come in and do your job."
The same words might well have been spoken by Jeter at any time over the past 20 seasons. Moreno, when asked if Trout could succeed Jeter as one of the game's most important ambassadors, says, "He's already there. The greatest thing about Derek has been his consistency, the way he represents the organization, his family and himself. Mike is the same. He's a gentleman."
It's all happened so fast. One day Mikey and the Millville crew are high school kids hanging out at Jim's Lunch, where the awning reminds everyone the joint has been around "since 1923," only cash is accepted and the locals line up every Columbus Day morning, when the place reopens after a four-month summer vacation. The sandwich-board sign on the sidewalk advertises the daily special, such as meatloaf or franks and beans, but the boys always go for the famous burgers.
Just two years later, Trout is in the big leagues. He is 19—so young, so fresh out of Millville, that there are times he has to step out of the batter's box. He can't feel his body. It doesn't seem real. "It's like you stepped into a video game," he recalls. "You wonder, Is this really me up here?"
Another three years on, Trout is the best player in baseball, with a $144.5 million contract and an arc to his young career that has few precedents. Last November, a New Jersey auction house posted for bid the glove Trout used when he played for Millville High. The company asked for a minimum bid of $1,000. The mitt sold for $15,810—more than a game-used glove worn by Mariano Rivera of the Yankees that went for $14,756 at the same sale.
"It's crazy to think I was in high school a few years ago," he says. "It's going so quick. I was at two All-Star Games! It's nuts."
At the same time not much has changed. In the off-season Trout still sleeps in the same bedroom in the same house where he grew up. He still hunts, fishes, golfs and plays video games with the Millville boys. He still eats six burgers at a time at Jim's. ("True," says Ron Tobolski, another member of the Millville rat pack. "He can eat.") Sometimes, during the season, Debbie freezes Jim's burgers and ships them to California when Mikey needs a taste of Millville. Trout is Millville and Millville is Trout. When the Angels play in Philadelphia this month—Trout's first games at Citizens Bank Park—"everybody will be there," Tobolski says. "The town will be empty."
There was a news story last month out of the neighboring town of Vineland, where Trout was born, that gave new context to Trout's impact on the community. It was around 9:50 on a Sunday night. A grocery store clerk, armed with a gun, chased after a suspect who had allegedly just robbed the store; the clerk fired about six shots. One of the bullets flew a half mile before it smashed through a living room window where, earlier in the evening, the homeowner had been sitting on a sofa. But when the bullet hit the window, she was sitting closer to the television. She told police she had moved from the sofa to sit next to her fiancé to watch Trout play against the Yankees. No one was hurt.
The love and admiration his hometown area feels for Trout flows both ways. And the keep-it-simple mantra that works so well for him on the field also applies to what he plans to do with his $144.5 million, though he does have one splurge in mind. "I'm looking for some land to build a house and will officially get out of my parents' place," he says.
There are a few requirements on his wish list. The property must have land on which to hunt and water in which to fish. And it must be within 30 minutes of Mom, Dad and the Millville boys.
The 21 Club
A wave of young studs can do anything in the big leagues—even if many can't toast their success
IN MAY 2009, Craig Shipley, then the Red Sox' international scouting director, received a video emailed by one of his scouts, Mike Lord, who was conducting open workouts in Aruba. The video featured a skinny 16-year-old kid who had been rousted out of bed with a 102° fever after Lord asked the players if there was anybody else on the island he should see. After watching the footage, Shipley was on the next flight to Aruba. "I've learned a lot from observing other scouts," says Shipley, now the assistant to Arizona GM Kevin Towers. "What you do is you understand what a big leaguer looks like, and then you try to see how close a 16-year-old is to the movements of a big leaguer."
Boston signed the kid who looked like a big leaguer for $410,000; within four years he was an actual big leaguer. Now 21, Xander Bogaerts (below) last month became the Red Sox' youngest Opening Day starting shortstop since Everett Scott in 1914—just six months after Bogaerts supplanted Babe Ruth as the franchise's youngest player to start a postseason game. Bogaerts has exhibited a patient approach at the plate that seems advanced beyond his years. His .387 on-base percentage in April was better than that of every AL player younger than 25 except Mike Trout.
Bogaerts is just the latest prodigy in the revival of an old trend: players 21 or younger making an impact in the majors. Over the previous five seasons, 21-and-under players qualified for the batting or ERA title 20 times—just about double the rate of the previous 20 years (47 times from 1988 through 2008). The 21 Club since '09 includes stars such as Justin Upton, Elvis Andrus, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Giancarlo Stanton, Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Jose Fernandez. More players are becoming regulars at a young age—though still not as often as in the 1960s (62 such players) or '70s (59). "I don't know if it's any one thing," says Nationals GM Mike Rizzo, "but I know the guys you're talking about—the Trouts, Harpers, Stantons, Machados—would be young stars in any era."
The growth of year-round travel baseball has allowed U.S. amateurs to play more than 100 games annually, perhaps shortening baseball's traditionally long learning curve. "More than 100?" Bogaerts said with a laugh. "I don't think I did that until last year. Growing up, I played Saturdays and Sundays. When I was 15 or 16 it became Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. But we practiced Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and at home you picked up a bat and you would swing, hit rocks, whatever."
A big league infielder for 11 seasons, Shipley noticed on scouting trips to Europe in recent years how the Internet, satellite TV and video games help players develop faster. When he was a kid in Australia, his only access to MLB had been World Series highlights once a year. "When I went to Europe," the 51-year-old Shipley says, "I saw players who had the actions of major leaguers. I asked them, 'Where did you learn this?' And some of them said, 'I watch a major league game every day.' That's when it dawned on me how powerful the visual element is when it comes to learning how to play baseball."
"With Mike there are no holes," says Iannetta. "He has God-given ability, but at the same time you just don't see him ever make a mistake."
Sometimes Trout has to step out of the batter's box because his sudden rise doesn't seem real. "It's like you stepped into a video game," he says.
SI's Albert Chen takes a look at baseball's young guns: Sonny Gray, Jose Fernandez and the best pitchers age 25 and under right now. Go to SI.com/mlb
Photograph by ANDREW HANCOCK for Sports Illustrated
JEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES
TOTAL PACKAGE Trout's bat, speed and glove were already enough to make him a two-time MVP runner-up, and steady work has turned his throwing arm—the closest thing he had to a weakness—into an above-average weapon.
ROBERT BECK/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
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JEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES
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G FIUME/GETTY IMAGES
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MATT BROWN/LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF ANAHEIM
SIGNING STAR Trout and Pujols will anchor the Angels' lineup through 2020 and '21, respectively—and the Millville Meteor will still be able to explore free agency in his career prime.
ANDREW HANCOCK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
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DAMIAN STROHMEYER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED