I started watching baseball in 1989. I still distinctly remember the Giants beating the Cubs in the NLCS before being swept by a far superior Bash Brother-powered Oakland A’s team in a World Series made memorable more by the earthquake than for anything else that happened on the field. The respective NL and AL Rookies of the Year that season were Chicago’s Jerome Walton and Baltimore’s Gregg Olson, who is not to be confused with 1920s Negro League star Greggg Olson. Walton would go on to have an exceptionally mediocre 10-year career (25 home runs, 132 RBI in 598 games), while Olson saved 217 games with a respectable 3.46 ERA. Winning the ROY does not always portend a stellar career; for every Mike Piazza there is a Ben Grieve, and for every Justin Verlander there is a Jason Jennings. In my lifetime, players like Nomar Garciaparra, Ichiro Suzuki, Ryan Braun, and Albert Pujols have produced incredible rookie seasons and gone on to become superstars.
Piazza’s rookie season remains, to me, the most impressive. Not because he was selected in the 62nd round by Tommy Lasorda as a Mafia-style favor to Mike’s father, but because he did it from the catcher position. Great hitter, but mobile as a microphone stand (17 career SB). In 2001 Ichiro became only the second rookie to win league MVP. He’s one of the great jackrabbits (452 career SB), but has averaged 55 RBI and 8.6 HR per season. Ryan Braun, who bravely succeeded where all others failed in resisting the nefarious overtures of deposed U of Miami strength coach, scumbag, and roid pusher Jimmy Goins, discovered each of the past two seasons that stealing 30 bags isn’t that hard. Garciaparra had little interest in running. Pujols has sneaky, opportunistic retard speed.
And then there’s Mike Trout, who as a rookie displayed a power/speed/average combination the likes of which had not been approached since before Barry Bonds became a hydrocephalic, baseball-murdering gargoyle. He steals bases (49 thefts in 54 attempts) at will and tracks pitches like a cyborg. WAR is a relatively new and convoluted metric that professes to quantify how many team wins a player supplied when compared to a replacement player of Triple-A or slightly higher caliber. In this case I am not referring to offensive WAR; defensive metrics are a part of the equation. A player with a WAR of (5) is considered a superstar. A (6) is MVP level. In 2012, Mike Trout, as the youngest player in the American League, produced a stratospheric 10.7 WAR. To help put that into perspective, that is the highest single-season WAR by a position player not named Barry Bonds since Cal Ripken rocked an 11.3 during his 1991 MVP season. Besides the aforementioned, Stan Musial (10.8, 1948), Mickey Mantle (11.1, 1957), Willie Mays (10.9, 1965), Carl Yastrzemski (12.0, 1967), and Joe Morgan (10.8, 1975) are the only position players to post higher single-season WARs in the last 84 years. Just to drive the point home, the only other players to ever post higher WARs are Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, and Babe Ruth, who six times posted a WAR of 11.1 or better and occupies each of the first three spots on the list. Short-listers to be dynamited onto baseball’s Mount Rushmore, all of them.
It would seem that Trout is too talented to fall prey to the most platitudinous malady in the American professional sports lexicon, i.e., the dreaded “sophomore slump.” Always it is preceded by “dreaded” and always it makes me cringe. However, coming off a season in which he became the first player ever to bat .320 or better with 30 home runs and 45 steals, a drop off has to be expected. If hitters are cops, then pitchers are robbers, and everyone knows that the bad guys usually keep one step ahead of the fuzz. It doesn’t take long for Major League pitchers and pitching coaches to write the book on a player, and authorship of the one on Trout began sometime last July. Through the end of that month, Trout was hitting .353. From August 1 on he hit only .287. He hit fewer line drives and fly balls and significantly more grounders. The decline in average coincided with a knee contusion, which is baseball injury report-speak for “bruise.” At the same time, his power numbers for the months of August through October (24.5% HR/FB) were better than in any one month, save for the 31.3% he managed in July. Pre-injury he struck out in exactly 1/5 of his at bats, while post-injury that number rose to a full 1/4. Trout was a much better player before getting hurt. It clearly didn’t rob him of much or any of his power, but his batting average suffered dearly. This information seems to conflict itself, so just how much the injury affected his play is not totally clear, but appears negligible.
All this complicates attempts to project what Trout will do in 2013. .287 is hardly a poor batting average, especially for a player with good power and exceptional base stealing ability. .326 is not an average that can be reasonably viewed as repeatable, since only 32 players in the history of baseball have posted career averages of .327 or better, and only Tony Gwynn (.338), Wade Boggs (.328), and Rod Carew (.328) have done it since Musial (.331) retired in 1963.
For two months, .287, with power, is what Mike Trout hit as a 21-year-old after the league “figured him out.” Most players at that age are languishing in A-ball, eating Crayons and crafting doo-doo paintings on the walls of their host family’s granny flat. It would be easy to expect his 2013 to somewhat mirror last season’s second-half as he contends with the learning curve. A season or two down the road though, when Trout counterpunches, perhaps the league will need to edit the book on him, or suffer the same bemused indignity that the poor pre-book pitchers did before them. Remember that last year he didn’t even play until April 28, and the Angels fortified an already powerful lineup with the signing of Josh Hamilton. Runs will be scored and pitches to hit will be seen. Maybe, just maybe, he disintermediates the learning curve altogether and shows them all what for in 2013.
Butler’s Projection: 110/27/90/45/.290