What's Next for Angels Super-Rookie Mike Trout After Historic Season?

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What's Next for Angels Super-Rookie Mike Trout After Historic Season?
Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

You know you've had a good rookie season when people are arguing not whether you deserve the Rookie of the Year award, but whether you deserve the Most Valuable Player award.

So pat yourself on the back, Mike Trout. You've done well.

Though he certainly should, Trout doesn't need to win the American League MVP award to validate everything he's done for the Los Angeles Angels in his first full major league season. He's had a remarkable year in every single aspect of the game. Along the way, Trout has earned himself a strong following of fans that he's going to have for a long time.

After all, Trout has already established himself as a superstar. And if his 2012 season is a sign of things to come, then we're looking at a player who could have a lasting impact similar to that of an Albert Pujols or a Derek Jeter. 

Indeed, Trout is often linked to names with more historical significance. Hall of Fame outfielder Al Kaline told the Detroit Free Press (via C. Trent Rosecrans CBSSports.com) that Trout reminds him of Mickey Mantle. Angels teammate Torii Hunter has compared Trout to all-time stolen base king Rickey Henderson. I've often said that he reminds me of Ken Griffey, Jr.

It's never fair to a young player to toss around names like these as comparisons. But in Trout's case, it's kind of hard not to. He's been good enough to warrant such comparisons.

This is a point that is proved rather easily. And while we're looking back on what has been, we may as well take a look forward to what may be.

It's time for an immediate discussion.

 

First, A Few Notes on the Historical Awesomeness of Trout's Rookie Season

At the moment, Trout is hitting .321/.395/.557 with 30 home runs, 48 stolen bases, 80 RBI and 127 runs scored.

Trout is the first rookie in MLB history to hit 30 home runs and steal 40 bases in a single season, but that's a fact that doesn't fully encapsulate how excellent his season has been.

Only twice before had baseball seen a player hit as many as 30 homers and steal as many as 48 bases in a single season: Eric Davis in 1987 and Barry Bonds in 1990. Though both of them posted OBPs over .395, neither of them hit over .320.

Even if Trout fails to hit .320 this season, he'll still end up having a season of historical significance. No player in history has hit at least 30 homers, stole at least 48 bases and scored as many as 127 runs in a single season. Trout has already achieved those numbers.

So for all this talk about Miguel Cabrera winning the triple crown, Trout has actually accomplished something much rarer. And while I would love to sit here and say that we may never see a season like his 2012 campaign ever again, he's still only 21 years old and his best years may be ahead of him. 

And if you want to get technical about it, this is Trout's 20-year-old season. To this end, he's already well ahead of the great players he's drawn comparisons to.

Observe:

  • Mickey Mantle's 20-year-old season in 1952: .311/.394/.530 with 23 homers, 87 RBI, 94 runs and four steals.
  • Rickey Henderson's 20-year-old season in 1979: .274/.338/.336 with one homer, 26 RBI, 49 runs and 33 steals.
  • Ken Griffey, Jr.'s 20-year-old season in 1990: .300/.366/.481 with 22 homers, 80 RBI, 91 runs and 16 steals.

Ken Levine/Getty Images
Griffey made his first All-Star team in 1990.

All of this is to say nothing of Trout's defense, which already places him among MLB's elite center fielders. FanGraphs has his UZR in center field at 11.7 and his DRS (defensive runs saved) at plus-23. He should win a Gold Glove for his efforts this season.

Not that Gold Gloves are a true measure of a player's defensive quality or anything, but it's worth noting that the only player listed above who won a Gold Glove in his 20-year-old season was Griffey, Jr. in 1990. 

Given all that Trout has done in his first full season, there's really no such thing as hyperbole where he's concerned. His rookie season really has been that good.

However, it hasn't been perfect. Many—including most who support Miguel Cabrera's MVP candidacy—have been quick to point out that Trout's season has come to a bit of a rough ending, and this is absolutely true.

It's how Trout's season has come to a rough ending that's worthy of discussion.

 

Can He Adjust to the Adjustments Pitchers Have Made to Him?

At the end of July, Trout was hitting .353/.411/.608 with a 1.019 OPS, 18 homers, 55 RBI, 80 runs scored and 31 stolen bases.

Ever since, he's hitting .272/.373/.479 with an .852 OPS, 12 homers, 25 RBI, 47 runs scored and 17 stolen bases.

While these are still really, really good numbers, they leave much to be desired compared to the numbers Trout put up in the first three-plus months of his 2012 season.

This begs the question: What's happened?

A couple things, really. By far the most concerning part of Trout's slide (for lack of a better word), though, is his increased strikeout rate. He was striking out 19.5 percent of the time he came to the plate through his first 81 games. In the 55 games he's played since the first of August, he's struck out 25.1 percent of the time.

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Trout's frustrated face has appeared more often in recent weeks.

Explanations for Trout's increased strikeout rate probably vary depending on who you ask. From what I've seen, it also looks like pitchers are pitching him a little differently. Breaking balls in fastball counts, fastballs in breaking ball counts, stuff like that. You see Trout take a lot of swings and misses these days that you just weren't seeing in May, June and July.

This was bound to happen. Nobody can be as hot as Trout was for very long, especially not a rookie. It always was a matter of time before he came back down to earth. The fact that he hasn't plummeted back down to earth goes to show how good he is.

Another explanation for Trout's slide is that he may be tired. This is a theory that is reflected not by his strikeouts, but by the kind of contact he's making when he does manage to put the bat on the ball.

If you head over to FanGraphs and dial up Trout's hit charts, you'll see that he's hitting fewer line drives and fewer fly balls these days, and a lot more ground balls. He has the speed to beat out ground balls, but the decrease in line drives and fly balls helps explain why his slugging percentage has dipped so much in the last few weeks.

The good news? Trout is still getting on base at a good clip, and he has an increased walk percentage to thank for that. After walking 10.4 percent of the time in August, he walked 16.5 percent of the time in September. He had some trouble with the adjustments pitchers were making, but he wasn't obliging them by going out of the zone as often as they wanted.

This tells you that Trout is not only a physical freak, but very smart as well. Because hitting is more brains than it is brawn, that's a good sign.

But the question going forward isn't so much whether Trout will hit. It's whether he will hit for power. 

 

Will He Keep the Power Coming?

Before the start of the season, ESPN's Keith Law wrote that Trout had the goods to "hit for above-average power down the road."

Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus put a couple numbers on his power projection for Trout, saying he would eventually hit 18 to 25 homers on an annual basis.

He's hit 30 home runs in 136 games this season, which equates to around 36 home runs over a full 162-game season.

So yeah, it's fair to say that Trout has overachieved in the power department this season. Of all the things he's done this season, his 30 home runs have easily been the most pleasant surprise.

As for whether the power will keep coming, that's something only the baseball gods know.

...But we can take a pretty good educated guess.

One of the more surprising subplots of Trout's slide over the last couple months is that his home run power has stayed intact. He was homering once every 18.3 at-bats through the end of July, and he's homering once every 18.1 at-bats since the first of August.

Rick Yeatts/Getty Images
Worth noting: The only hitter-friendly park in the AL West at present is Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

Bear in mind that the only reason Trout was homering every 18.3 at-bats through the end of July was because his power spike in July gave that number a boost. He hit 10 homers in just 97 at-bats in July, or one every 9.7 at-bats.

So if anything, Trout's home run power has actually become more consistent over the last two months. That can be taken as a sign that the pop in his bat is more legit than he was given credit for.

Another sign that his pop is legit is the fact that he's actually hit for more power at home at Angel Stadium of Anaheim, one of the least-friendly home run parks in MLB.

Per ESPN.com, Angel Stadium ranks 25th among MLB's 30 ballparks with a home run rate of 0.742. The fact that Trout has hit 16 of his 30 home runs at home in 24 fewer at-bats than he's logged on the road is therefore quite impressive.

Given the rate that Trout has hit home runs over the last two months and the venue in which he's hit the majority of his home runs, I'm willing to believe that 30 home runs is a reasonable expectation for him on an annual basis.

If so, the next question is whether Trout's future is as a leadoff man in the long run.

 

Will He Still Bat Leadoff if the Power Is Still Coming?

Conventional baseball wisdom says that all elite power hitters should be batting in the middle of one's order. Multi-run homers are, after all, much better than solo homers.

Case in point, Carl Crawford was done as the primary leadoff hitter for the Tampa Bay Rays by 2006. He took quite a liking to the No. 3 spot by 2010, driving in 32 runs in just 49 games when he hit out of the No. 3 hole.

Likewise, Alfonso Soriano found himself out of the leadoff spot after the first couple years of his tenure with the Chicago Cubs, and he's developed into a pretty solid RBI man. This season marks his first 100-RBI season since 2005, and he's done the bulk of his damage out of the cleanup spot.

If Trout continues to hit for power in the years to come, the Angels may just be tempted to move him out of the leadoff spot and into the middle of their batting order, with the hope being that he can be just as good an RBI man as he is a table-setter.

It's hard to imagine the Angels doing this now. They have Albert Pujols locked into the No. 3 spot, and the middle of their order would be a little too righty-heavy if Trout joined Pujols and Mark Trumbo in the middle of it. As it is, things are tough enough with three consecutive right-handed hitters starting things off most days in Trout, Torii Hunter and Pujols.

Layne Murdoch/Getty Images
These two guys are going to be partners for quite a while still.

But let's say the Angels acquire a left-handed power hitter down the road, one that could slide in behind Trout and/or Pujols in the middle of the lineup. If that comes to pass, it's conceivable that the middle of the Angels' batting order could feature Trout in the No. 3 hole, Pujols batting cleanup and the mystery lefty in the No. 5 hole.

In theory, that would be a formidable middle of the order, one that pitchers would fear to face. And all the Angels would have to do in order to make it a reality would be to give up on Trout as a leadoff hitter.

If they do, the question would then become whether Trout would still be given the green light to steal bases with Pujols and the mystery lefty due up. 

If not, Trout's stolen bases totals could take a serious dive. This is, of course, assuming that he's still hitting for a lot of power, meaning he won't necessarily be finding himself on first base all that often.

Trout would still be a dynamite offensive player in a scenario such as this, but the norm for him would be more like 30-30 or 30-25 rather than 30-50. He'd effectively be trading stolen base opportunities for RBI opportunities.

I'm not saying it will happen. I'm just saying it's a possibility. 

To illustrate the point, there's another key possibility for Trout's future that is more or less the exact opposite of what we've just discussed.

 

If the Power Stops Coming, How Many Bases Will He Steal?

When Trout went on his home run binge in July, one of the upshots was a decrease in stolen bases. He homered only three times in 113 at-bats in June but stole 14 bases. He homered 10 times in 97 at-bats in July and stole only nine bases.

With 12 homers and 17 stolen bases since the first of August, Trout has demonstrated that he can both hit for power and steal bases with regularity. A consistent pace such as that, for example, would produce a 36-51 season.

But let's pretend Trout's power comes back down to earth in 2013. Instead of hitting 30 homers, what if he falls back into the 18 to 25 range that Goldstein predicted?

If that happens, there's no chance that he'll be moved into the No. 3 hole. He'll stay put in the leadoff spot, and all the Angels will ask in return is an OBP close to .400 and a whole bunch of steals and runs scored.

Rick Yeatts/Getty Images
Trout has been caught stealing second base only three times.

If the home run power isn't there, a reasonable expectation for Trout involves a .395 OBP and a slugging percentage around .450 (29 points fewer than the slugging percentage he's posted since August 1). How many bases could he steal in a season like that?

Ballpark figure: Around 60 to 65.

I arrive at that number based on Rickey Henderson's 1984 season, in which he posted a .399 OBP, a .458 slugging percentage and stole 66 bases. Tim Raines had similar seasons in 1985 and 1986.

If Trout were to up his OBP to around the .420 mark—something he's very much capable of doing given his approach at the plate—a 70-steal season would be a legit possibility.

As long as Trout crosses the plate in the end, it's all the same to the Angels. Trout doesn't need to hit the ball over the fence in order to be a valuable player.

 

Final Thoughts

Some people out there are looking at Trout's slide in August and September and concluding that the first three-plus months of his 2012 season were a big tease.

Not so much. If you average Trout's numbers in the last two months over a full 162-game season, you'd get a .272/.373/.479 hitter with 36 home runs, 74 RBI, 139 runs scored and 51 stolen bases.

The scary part? We know from what he did in May, June and July that Trout has it in him to be better than that.

As such, I don't buy any notions that Trout is going to be a one-hit wonder. Albert Pujols arrived with an exclamation mark in his rookie season. Ditto Derek Jeter in 1996, Mark McGwire in 1987, Cal Ripken, Jr. in 1982 and so on and so forth. Occasionally, rookies come along and change the game, and then they keep changing the game for years after.

If anybody can be the next guy to do so, it's Mike Trout.

Though, I wouldn't rule out that guy in Washington D.C. either.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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