Mike Trout has done so many wondrous things in nearly 11 full big-league seasons – 319 home runs, nine All-Star appearances, three American League Most Valuable Player awards among them – that it is hard to believe that he has but one career postseason hit. One.
That lonely hit, a bases-empty home run, came in the top of the first inning of a game on 5 October 2014 that the then-Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim would lose to the Kansas City Royals, 8-3, to get swept out of the American League Division Series in three games.
That 1-for-12 performance at the plate was in Trout’s only postseason, so he has zero playoff victories. Since 2015 – a period when the other Los Angeles team, the Dodgers, have been to three World Series, winning one – the Angels have not had a winning season.
It is hard to feel too sorry for a big-league ballplayer who has a 12-year, $426.5m contract. But it must hurt Trout, widely considered the best baseball player on the planet and possibly one of the greatest of all time, that his teammates have been unable to complement his talent for so long.
That is, perhaps, until now. He is playing for a Los Angeles Angels team (they dropped the of Anaheim part six years back) who have established themselves as a contender in the first six weeks of the season, winning 10 of their first 15 games in May to become a contender in the AL West, where their main challengers are the Houston Astros.
“I’m just really happy for the guys,” Joe Maddon, their third-year manager, said in a news conference after an 11-3 victory over Tampa Bay earlier this month. “They come ready to play every day. They’re very tightly knit. We’re a lot of fun.”
Wait. Joe Maddon. Remember him? Just six years ago, Maddon led the Chicago Cubs to their first World Series title in 108 years. Before that, he’d taken the once-forlorn Tampa Bay Rays to their first World Series, which they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008.
Maddon, who grew up over his father’s plumbing shop in West Hazleton, Pennsylvania, spent virtually his entire minor-league career as a catcher in the Angels’ organization. He was later a scout, interim manager and coach. He was Mike Scioscia’s bench coach for the Angels team that won the World Series in 2002. But his triumphant return to the team got off to a slow start.
Maddon’s first year back with the Angels, 2020, was trimmed to 60 games because of the Covid pandemic. Trout’s 2021 season ended on May after he tore a calf muscle. He appears more than just OK this year, and the Angels appear to have an even better pitching staff than last season.
They will probably need to outlast the Astros to win their first AL West title since 2014, but the Angels appear to have put together a roster, and a good start, that could lead them to a spot in the MLB playoff field, which has been expanded this year to 12 teams.
Trout remains the linchpin. He grew up in Millville, New Jersey, where he was known as “Mikey,” the kid who took batting practice in his backyard by tossing up rocks and hitting them with an aluminum bat, the ping-ping-ping carrying through his neighborhood.
Although he grew up far from traditional baseball hotbeds, he became a prodigy, muscular, smart, stoic, pleasant – if not a quote machine. His main interest, famously, is not flashy cars or NFT schemes but the weather forecast. His career WAR, a metric that measures a player’s overall contribution to his team, is 78.8. For context, that is only 0.4 behind Joe DiMaggio – and Trout still has plenty of years to come. If he stays injury free he should retire in the top 10 of all time in career WAR.
After he was named as the AL Rookie of the Year in 2012, he said of a possible sophomore slump, “I don’t believe in that stuff. I just go out and play. You go into a slump, you just got to get out of it. That’s the way I look at it.” So, not that surprisingly, Trout, who turns 31 in August, has bounced back from last season strongly, logging an on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) average that is similar to the one he compiled in his three MVP seasons.
The difference, this time around, is that Trout has two other formidable everyday teammates: the amazing Shohei Ohtani, who is not just a designated hitter but a pitcher as well, and the leadoff man Taylor Ward, a career .254 hitter who is somehow topping the American League batting average table this season.
Last week was especially good for the Angels, for many reasons. Trout belted three home runs in a 12-0 victory over Tampa Bay but was practically an afterthought, because 22-year-old rookie lefthander Reid Detmers no-hit the Rays. Chase Silseth, a 23-year-old righthander, was called up from the Rocket City Trash Pandas (really) in Double A and threw six shutout innings and earned the win over Oakland in his big-league debut.
In the off-season, the Angels signed free-agent Noah Syndergaard, the 6ft 6in righthander named “Thor,” to a one-year, $21m contract. Thor appeared as if he’d pitch forever for the New York Mets but was often injured, undergoing Tommy John surgery, so there was some risk on the Angels’ part. But he won three of his first four decisions.
Yes, the Angels could tumble. Trout was hit in his left hand with a pitch in a 17 April game against Texas. X-rays were negative, but it was a scare: Trout missed six weeks with an injury to his left thumb in 2017, after he’d walloped 16 homers in the first two months. Trout also missed 18 games in 2018 because of inflammation in his right wrist and 19 games in 2019 after foot surgery. He injury his calf at this point of the season last year. He was originally expected to miss six to eight weeks but never did come back.
But he is back now, and he and his teammates quickly set a goal to play in the postseason. He gracefully handles being called the best player in baseball, but he acknowledges the best players in any sport still crave the trophies earned by their teams.
“I always try to think positive,” he said in a March interview with CBS Los Angeles. “I have a great organization behind me, a lot of support from my teammates, coaches, front office. It was probably the most frustrating and difficult year of my career so far, not being able to be with my guys.”
But he would add, “It’s still a baseball game. I’m still going out there and playing a game I love. A lot of stuff comes along with that. But for me, once the lights come on and I’m running out there, I just play baseball. That’s the mindset I’ve had since I was a little kid.”