When it comes to offense, the Angels are loaded. In Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, Los Angeles reeled in the biggest fish on the free agent market the past two years. But it’s one of their teammates who’s made the biggest splash since joining the team.
Last season, outfielder Mike Trout ran away with the AL’s Rookie of the Year award and finished second in MVP voting. Along the way, he became the first player in major league history to amass at least 30 home runs, 45 stolen bases, and 125 runs in a season. Those numbers are all the more remarkable because Trout was 20 years old, didn’t play the full season, and had hit a measly .220 in 40 games for the 2011 Angels.
Trout recalled that at this time last year, he was headed to the Angels’ Triple A club in Salt Lake City.
“You know, I looked at it as a chance to prove myself in Triple A and get to the big leagues,” Trout said. “I had a rough spring last year, didn’t really play in any games. A little shoulder problems, a little sickness, and I knew what to expect when I got a taste of what’s it like up there, and the one thing on my mind was to get back.”
With the Angels’ record at 6-14 after the first month of the 2012 season and the newly arrived Pujols slumping badly, Trout did get back. With Trout leading off, the Angels went 83-59 the rest of the way. Even his teammates – veteran outfielder Vernon Wells included – couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
“Every day, you thought that, ‘OK, he couldn’t go out there and do something more to impress you,’” Wells said. “And we go to Detroit, and he hits the ball probably 450 feet, 460 feet the other way. It just makes you say, ‘Wow.’”
Throw in Trout’s ability to run from home to first in almost 3.5 seconds and his home run-stealing leaps in the outfield, and he’s drawing comparisons to the young Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. Los Angeles Times sports reporter Kevin Baxter points to the intangibles that distinguish Trout.
“People just enjoy watching him play because he does have that sort of youthful energy and exuberance and energy,” Baxter said. “So many of our top athletes today seem jaded, and Mike is clearly at home on the ball field. You can tell that he just loves being there.”
Trout also values the relationship he has with his high-profile teammates, who have moved from his baseball cards to the lockers next to his.
“With the addition of Josh and Albert last year, it’s just pretty cool seeing them on TV and finally getting to meet them, and just seeing how nice a guy they are, just seeing the way they carry themselves and the way they play the game,” Trout said. “It’s something to look up to.”
Angels Manager Mike Scioscia expects the presence of Pujols and Hamilton to help Trout’s continuing development.
“I think he knows he’s not the guy who’s going to carry us,” Scioscia said. “I think he knows what his talent is. He’s very, very confident in what his ability is, but the fact that there are some veteran guys on our club who have been around for a while will have a settling effect on a player like that.”
Despite any difference in seniority, during batting practice Trout matches Hamilton home run for home run. There’s not a match when it comes to salary. Last winter, the Angels turned frugal, giving their second-year All Star — who’s not yet eligible for arbitration – a less than $30,000 raise, to $510,000 for the coming season. That move raised eyebrows around the league, and the hackles of Trout’s agent.
The sun-drenched stands in the Angels spring training stadium in Tempe, Ariz., are awash in Angel red jerseys, mostly bearing the names and numbers of Pujols and Hamilton. But there’s a veritable school of Trout jerseys, worn mainly by younger fans, who consider their money well spent.
“He’s such an incredible player,” one fan said. “The season he had last year, you have to wear his jersey. You look up to a guy like that.”
“He became my favorite Angel,” said a second fan. “He plays hard, he’s exciting. He’s young.”
“Hopefully this jersey will be relevant for a long time,” said another. “That’s why I got it.”
The Angels open the regular season on April 1 at the Cincinnati Reds. Mike Trout turns 22 on Aug. 7.