Hello, Sports Fans. Let Us Introduce You—Again—to Baseball’s Best Player.
No one looks like Mike Trout on a baseball field. No one hits like him, either. And he’s showing fans and teammates alike why at the World Baseball Classic.
PHOENIX — One thousand and fifty-three players have appeared in a major league postseason game over the past eight years. The best player in baseball is not among them.
Mike Trout is Olivier without a stage, Tiger without a major, Spielberg without an audience. Magnificence without an echo.
The World Baseball Classic does not reverberate with history quite like the floorboards of Carnegie Hall. It is not the World Series. But say this about the humble international soapbox that it is: It is elevating Trout’s status among his awed fellow stars on Team USA as an amazing talent, and it is giving Trout the rare opportunity to play meaningful baseball.
The three-run home run Trout hit Monday night in a 12–1 drubbing of Team Canada hardly rose to legendary status. He hit a 92.4 mph four-seamer off a pitcher who threw last year for the independent Lincoln Saltdogs. (Trout hit 40 homers last season, only one on a four-seamer that slow.) No matter. After seven straight losing seasons with the Angels, Trout is thriving among the crowds, the passion, the teammates and, yes, the chance to win in the WBC.
“I think the best part,” he says, “is seeing the atmosphere. There’s nothing better than hearing your name called and then they’re chanting ‘USA!’ That’s probably the coolest.”
Wearing a postgame short-sleeve hoodie and standing in a hallway outside the locker room, Trout stopped and rubbed his hands across his forearms. “Oh, man, I’ve got goosebumps right now thinking about it,” he says.
Trout’s three-run homer sparked Team USA’s 12–1 win against Canada on Monday night.
Godofredo A. Vásquez/AP
Trout, who has played 12 seasons, Cedric Mullins (five) and Bobby Witt Jr. (one) are the only position players on Team USA never to have known the feeling of shaking hands on the field after a MLB postseason win. Trout has played in the postseason once, in 2014, when the Angels were swept by Kansas City in the division series. It was so long ago that I had to ask Trout whether he even remembered well enough whether the WBC environment compares to the postseason.
“Oh, it’s similar,” he says. “It’s similar. Yeah, for sure. Obviously, [Sunday] night [against Mexico] was a little louder than tonight, but I think it’s so cool. You feel it. It’s so different when you’re on the field.
“You know, this is the most fun I’ve had on a baseball field in a while. This is—and you can ask anybody in there—it’s so fun. It’s awesome. This is awesome.”
A front office executive from a league rival tells a story about how dishearteningly odd it is that the Angels have fielded nothing but losing teams while Trout and Shohei Ohtani have been teammates for five years.
“We actually looked into the research,” the executive says, “and we could not come up with another case where a team had two players that good—I’m talking star of stars, Ruth and Gehrig, Mays and McCovey, those kinds of players—and were this bad for this long. Teams with those kinds of great players win, or at least almost always have winning seasons. It’s a shame for baseball that people haven’t seen their greatness in the postseason.”
The star-studded lineup of Team USA was made possible by Trout. Once he signed on just before the All-Star break last year as the first player on board for his first WBC, others followed, starting with Mookie Betts, who said he wanted to play with Trout. The two MVPs have been nearly inseparable at the ballpark.
Many baseball fans don’t have a true appreciation for Trout’s greatness, because it has not been amplified by postseason success and because people on the East Coast are asleep when most of his games on the West Coast are being decided. But even his U.S. teammates are learning about Trout.
Three days into their camp, Team USA manager Mark DeRosa was asked which player stood out most to him after seeing them up close.
“Mike Trout,” DeRosa says. “We have a lot of great players, but even among this group there’s nobody like him. Nobody looks like him. Nobody plays like them. When he hits the ball it’s like somebody hitting a 2-iron. It’s just different.”
Says shortstop Trea Turner, “Wow. He’s just different. The way he hits a baseball, it’s just different coming off his bat than anybody else’s.”
Says catcher J.T. Realmuto, “Watching him swing has been amazing. I love to watch him hit. He does what I try to do, which is staying so tight with his arms close to his body. But he does it every single time and way better than me.”
Trout and Team USA (2–1 in pool play) will likely advance to the quarterfinals in Miami with a win against Colombia on Wednesday. But in full disclosure, they have seen more mid-80s fastballs than a small college team. Other than Mexico starter Patrick Sandoval, Trout’s teammate with the Angels, and the occasional hard-throwing but raw reliever from the low minors, they have not seen much major-league quality pitching.
Canada manager Ernie Whitt started a kid two years out of high school against them. Mitch Bratt is only 19 and an A ball pitcher in the Rangers system. Whitt effectively wrote this game off, choosing to keep his better arms fresh for the other games on the premise that if you go 3–1 in pool play, you advance. Bratt surely is a tough-minded kid—he looks to Madison Bumgarner as a role model—but Whitt should not have started the youngster.
It wasn’t just that Bratt was so young. It’s also that he’s left-handed, has fringy stuff (a fastball between 89 mph and 91 mph and modest breaking ball and change) and he was facing some of the best right-handed hitters on the planet, a group that tore into All-Star lefty Tyler Anderson last week in an exhibition game. Bratt gave up six runs while throwing nine strikes and getting one out. (His other 25 pitches were balls.)
“I put him in a tough situation,” Whitt said in his postgame news conference. “I’ll take the heat for that.”
Following Bratt was former Saltdog R.J. Freure. Between Bratt and Freure, 50 of their first 71 pitches were balls, and everything was below major league–average velocity. Trout batted against both of them—in just the first inning. When Trout homered off Freure’s first-pitch fastball, the U.S. led 9–0 and had hit for the cycle just 11 batters into the game. Unofficially, it was the 27th ballpark in which Trout has homered, leaving only Busch Stadium, Citizens Bank Ballpark, PNC Park and Wrigley Field on his home run to-do list. The Angels visit St. Louis and Philadelphia this year.
With the help of Canada’s punting the game with its pitching strategy, the U.S. looked like a different team than the one that lost the night before against Mexico.
“Nobody said anything before the game,” Trout says. “I mean, we were just trying to be loose, I think. Over the first couple of games and in the exhibition games, we were trying to do too much. I wouldn’t say all of us were trying to be that guy, but you know what I mean.
“And then we tried to calm ourselves down and then just to be ourselves. Now it’s like we’re dominating. So, the mindset went from trying to do too much to slowing ourselves down a little bit. And then once we lost Mexico, we were like, ‘This is it.’ It showed, man. We haven’t been with each other long, so it’s kind of like learning ourselves. Part of being a team, it takes a little while. Like the mentality coming in today was a little different—like, ‘We gotta go.’”
As noted by infielder Tim Anderson, who smashed a triple and single, both by going the other way, “Being in this lineup with so many dudes, you know you don’t have to do so much.”
There is no doubt who is the alpha dude. This is Trout’s team. It was Trout who ran the hitters’ meeting before the team’s opening game against Great Britain. It was Trout, running on his own, who stole a base against Mexico with a headfirst slide in a losing effort, matching his total of all of last season when a bad back sent him to the IL. (Angels manager Phil Nevin placed a call to DeRosa after seeing that steal and slide, only half-kidding with disbelief.)
There is nobody who looks like Trout, not even on this team of stars. He is listed at 235 pounds, though he probably is closer to 250. His sprint speed is in the 95th percentile of all players with at least 100 timed runs—faster than Myles Straw and Harrison Bader, fellow center fielders who don’t have nearly the same size as Trout. Only one player heavier than Trout ever hit 350 home runs and stole 200 bases the way Trout already has: Jose Canseco, who was juiced to the gills.
Nobody hits the ball like Trout, not with that short-armed, ferociously connected stroke of his. And nobody is talked about on Team USA in more awe-inspired ways than Trout. That Trout is the best player in baseball is news that is a decade old. But there is something brand new about watching Trout be Trout while playing for a championship, albeit the WBC championship.
The fit between the player and the stage recalls a famous observation from the violinist Isaac Stern, who performed more than 250 times as a recitalist and soloist at Carnegie Hall.
“Everywhere in the world, music enhances a hall, with one exception: Carnegie Hall enhances the music.”