Trout's first year on pace to be among best ever
Angels star looking to become just third rookie in history to win batting title
ANAHEIM -- A livewire equipped with enough energy to illuminate his hometown of Millville, N.J., during the holiday season, Mike Trout looks, talks and acts his age. He also is wise well beyond his 21 years.
Trout, the Angels' breathtaking, groundbreaking center fielder, intuitively grasps how ornaments such as batting titles come not with planning and intent, but in the natural course of events, while pursuing larger team-related goals.
"I don't really follow baseball history much," said Trout, the American League's leading hitter with a .340 average entering Thursday's action. "I just go out there and play my game. The numbers are what they are. I really don't think much about that stuff. I'm just focused on being comfortable at the plate and in the field, staying positive, helping us win games.
"The stat that's most important to me is runs scored. That's my job -- to get on base and score runs."
Mission accomplished. Trout leads the Majors in runs scored with 93 (in 95 games) and in steals with 38 in 41 attempts, a remarkable 92.7 percent success rate. Imagine what these numbers would look like if he hadn't missed 22 games to open the season, recovering at Triple-A Salt Lake from a springtime bout with a respiratory infection.
The people who load computers with data at Baseball-Reference.com have Trout ranked as the Majors' most irreplaceable player by a wide margin with an 8.1 WAR (wins above replacement player). Next, at 5.9, is the Pirates' Andrew McCutchen.
With stunning physical gifts and the makeup of a young Pete Rose, Trout is in the midst of a historic rookie year in what statistically is his age-20 season. He turned 21 on Aug. 7, celebrating over dinner with his parents while the Angels were in Oakland.
While Trout tries to lift his club back into the AL West race with his multiple skills and youthful optimism, he is climbing statistical mountains.
Trout's 13-point lead over defending AL batting champion Miguel Cabrera has the young star positioned to become the third rookie in history to claim a batting crown, joining Tony Oliva and Ichiro Suzuki.
Trout also has higher on-base and slugging percentages than Cabrera, ranking third in the league in OBP (.402), second in slugging (.595) and second in OPS (.997). He is no slap hitter. Trout drives balls to both gaps and over walls (22 homers) with a compact stroke and exceptional plate discipline. He has used his power to deliver 66 runs batted in, uncommon production for a leadoff man in mid August.
"He's as advanced at his age as any player I've seen," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He's still a work in progress -- but what a work."
Oliva was 25 when he won a batting title as a Twins rookie in 1964, batting .323.
Ichiro was 27, an icon in his native Japan with nine years of professional experience, when he hit .350 as a Mariners rookie in 2001.
Al Kaline (.340 in 1955) and Alex Rodriguez (.358 in '96) weren't rookies when they seized batting titles in age-20 seasons, offering compelling comparisons with Trout.
In addition to being significantly younger than Oliva and Ichiro in their rookie seasons, Trout is going against another barrier that hasn't drawn much attention.
Trout is swimming upstream, against historical tides, Like Kaline and A-Rod, he is a right-handed hitter in a realm that decidedly favors those swinging from the left side.
Consider that 70 percent of the pitchers on AL rosters opposing Trout and the Angels -- 113 of 161 -- throw from the right side.
The preponderance of righties always has favored left-handed hitters. Of the 130 batting champions since the game became all-inclusive in 1947 with Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby integrating both leagues, 74 have swung from the left side, 44 from the right. Twelve have been switch-hitters.
If you include those 12, who batted left-handed roughly three-fourths of the time, the percentage of batting champions using a lefty's advantages is 66.1 percent.
What's more, eight of the top 10 batting averages in history were compiled by left-handed hitters.
Since 1941, when Ted Williams hit .406, the five players coming closest to the .400 barrier have been southpaw swingers: Tony Gwynn (.394 in '94); George Brett (.390 in '80); Williams (.388 in '57); Rod Carew (.388 in '77) and Larry Walker (.379 in '99).
The highest average by a right-handed batter since Williams hit .406 was Nomar Garciaparra's .372 for the Red Sox in 2000. Must be something about Fenway Park.
This brings us to another obstacle Trout is attempting to clear. Angel Stadium is not conducive to high averages. Over the past three seasons, only Oakland, Tampa Bay and Seattle have produced lower batting averages than Anaheim.
So, here is Trout, batting .348 on the road, .331 at home. Remarkably, he is hitting for a higher average against righties (.354) than lefties (.306).
Trout has cooled off in August, slipping to .268 for the month, but that seemed almost inevitable following a .372 June and .392 July.
Taking his leadoff role seriously, he doesn't often go after the first pitch -- just 20 times -- but he's lethal when he does, hitting .500 with two homers and 10 RBIs.
If you go to 3-1 in the count against him, ball four is advisable. He has Little League numbers in 3-1 counts: .684 batting average, 2.265 OPS, four homers and 11 RBIs in 19 swings.
First time he faces a starting pitcher, Trout has hit .276. The averages erupt to .407 and .438 the second and third trips, respectively, against the same pitcher, finishing at .320 in a rare fourth appearance. The Angels are 21-2 when he scores two or more runs.
"What's impressive about Trout, along with everything you see, is how he adjusts in-game," teammate and mentor Torii Hunter said. "He really studies the game.
"As gifted as he is, it's not all talent at this level. You have to put your work in, and he does that. He's an amazing player -- and it's all in front of him."
In this whirlwind season, Trout has inspired comparisons with charismatic legends such as Mickey Mantle and Rickey Henderson. There is some Mickey (powerful body type, blazing speed, developing power) and some Rickey (explosiveness, daring, peerless leadoff cataylst) in Trout. He has been particularly interested in hearing stories about Henderson. Mantle seems more remote, from a distant time.
"When people start comparing you to people, you definitely start looking him up and see what they're all about," Trout said. "I definitely remember all the stolen bases [Henderson] had that one year [130 in 1982] and that he hit for power. You really don't see a lot of people hitting home runs and stealing bases, as well. To be in that group with him is awesome."
A batting title in his rookie year would grant the Jersey kid membership in another exclusive club.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.