SoCal stars Trout, Puig put on a show like no others
LOS ANGELES -- After Mike Trout had ruined his night with a game-altering grand slam Saturday at Angel Stadium, powering an improbable Angels victory, White Sox ace Chris Sale expressed frustration mixed with disbelief and awe.
"That's why he's the best in the league," Sale said. "I can't really say too much about a guy like that hitting a home run off of you. The best."
Sale was amazed not just by Trout's crushing blow on a quality pitch but by the at-bat taken as a whole.
With heaters registering 95 and 96 on the radar gun, the lefty had Trout in an 0-2 hole. After the disciplined hitter worked the count full, fouling one off, Sale put a changeup in a good location: down and moving away, a borderline strike. Trout went down and lifted it over the wall. Greatness, personified.
A consensus appears to be forming about Trout and Yasiel Puig, who does his electric work a freeway drive away from Trout's house at Dodger Stadium. As total players, taking every aspect of the game into account, Southern California's dazzling young stars are in a class of their own.
Miguel Cabrera is the game's greatest hitter, beyond argument, but even Miggy will admit he can only dream of doing all the athletic things Trout and Puig do routinely.
This is Trout's age-22 season, and already he has two historical campaigns on his resume. There are those in the statistical community who maintain the Angels' center fielder is the best we've ever seen at his age.
Puig, not quite eight months older than Trout in his age-23 season, has been so astonishingly good this season he sent his critics underground -- no easy task given the widely held view of the Dodgers' right fielder as disrespectful and out of control emotionally.
Looking at Trout and Puig in a historical context, they are in the early stages of entering the elite class, the all-time greats.
A case can be made that Trout in 2013 bumped Ty Cobb out of center field on the mythical all-time age 21 All-Star team, joining Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio in the outfield. A rookie in 1936, DiMaggio played left and right as well as center, hitting .323 with 29 homers, 125 RBIs and 132 runs scored.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, Cobb had a 6.1 WAR (wins above replacement) in 1908, at 21. DiMaggio's 1936 WAR was 4.6. Trout in 2013 dwarfed both icons with his 8.9 WAR -- down from 10.8 in 2012 when he was arguably the greatest 20-year-old player ever. Mel Ott had a 7.4 WAR at 20 in 1929, Williams a 6.7 WAR 10 years later at 20.
It has its outspoken detractors among some baseball people, but WAR carries weight with historians.
The challenge for Trout to crack the all-time age 22 lineup in center field is stiffer this season. DiMaggio, in his sophomore year of '37, emerged as the game's greatest all-around player, hitting .346 with 46 homers, 167 RBIs and 151 runs scored. His WAR was 8.2.
Trout, with his walks, baserunning and defense, might challenge Joe D.'s overall WAR, but he won't be reaching DiMaggio's otherworldly offensive numbers. Not even Cabrera is going there.
Arriving in L.A. in June 2013, Puig played just two-thirds of his age 22 season, putting up impressive but hardly historic numbers. A late slump left him at .319/.391/.534. Critics, out in force, predicted he wouldn't approach that production level as a sophomore now that pitchers had found his holes and were sure to exploit them.
Always full of surprises, Puig is distinctly more disciplined, outstripping his rookie season across the board. While his .333/.430/.584 line with 11 homers and 40 RBIs in 58 games computes to the game's best OPS (on-base plus slugging) at sea level -- exceeded only by Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki -- Puig chances of making the all-time age 23 lineup are slim and dim.
The right fielder is Hank Aaron, who in 1957 had a line of .322/.378/.600, leading the National League in homers (44), RBIs (132) and runs (118). A smart, graceful defender, he rarely made a mental mistake in the field or on the bases.
Hank brought his A-game every day, something Puig is learning to do. Yasiel's main challenge is staying healthy while playing in a breakneck style associated more with Willie Mays than Aaron.
"He's shown immaturity at times," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said, "but Yasiel really wants to do whatever it takes to be great. He's a lot like Trout. They have powerful bodies and tremendous speed. And they love to play the game. I see a lot of similarities."
Trout, having learned the hard way, no longer is playing with reckless abandon, crashing into walls. On the bases, he dives head-first more often than purists would like but appears to have figured out how to reduce injury risk, starting his dive at the correct distance from the bag and keeping his hands out of harm's way.
Defensively, Trout's routes and arm strength have been questioned. Working diligently, he has upgraded his defense significantly.
The issue with Puig -- apart from an inherent showmanship that rubs some folks wrong -- has been fundamental breakdowns. He has taken care to correct his missteps, hitting cutoff men more regularly and not running into as many outs. Dodgers coach Davey Lopes says Puig has come farther in one year than any player he's seen in his 40-plus years in the game.
Puig's arm sets him apart. While his accuracy hasn't caught up with his strength, he's getting better. The only limits on his greatness are those Puig creates for himself.
Gifted young stars such as Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper are poised to muscle into the conversation, but at the moment, for their age class, Trout and Puig stand alone as players with historic possibilities and dimensions.
Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.