Emerging as a leading candidate to win the American League MVP is something Mike Trout went through in both 2012 and 2013. He was just never able to emerge as the leading candidate for the award in the end.
Right now, it's looking like that was because he was saving that trick for 2014.
The Los Angeles Angels took on the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on Tuesday night, and it was just the latest action-packed episode of the Mike Trout Show. Trout doubled and homered twice in five at-bats while driving in four runs to pace a 9-3 shellacking of the Tribe.
As ESPN Stats & Info noted, this was the 22-year-old center fielder's first two-homer game since 2011 (i.e. basically since before he was Mike Trout):
Trout's first homer was a three-run job that barely cleared the wall in the fifth inning. For his second homer, however, he took a low-and-inside offering and golfed it several rows up into the left-center-field bleachers.
According to Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times, the second dinger was the one that impressed teammate Hank Conger:
Hank Conger on Mike Trout: "He has the fastest hands west of the Mississippi. ... That 2nd HR 1 of most effortless things I've ever seen."— Mike DiGiovanna (@MikeDiGiovanna) June 18, 2014
So it goes for Trout these days. In 22 games since May 20, he's batting .410 with a 1.294 OPS, eight home runs and 26 RBI. He's as hot as he's ever been, if not hotter.
It has been a welcome sight considering how badly Trout was slumping in early May, when he hit just .161 with a .641 OPS in 17 games. Along the way, he struck out on 28.6 percent of his plate appearances.
That has all changed during Trout's hot stretch, as he's struck out in only 13.9 percent of his last 101 plate appearances. Aside from putting more balls in play, there's a chart at Brooks Baseball that shows how Trout has crushed everything in his wheelhouse—at or around the bottom of the strike zone—since May 20.
Where has it all gotten Trout?
Why, straight to the top of the AL MVP race, of course. Maybe you'll want to argue that point, but first you'll want to note how...
There's No Better Hitter in the American League
This is something Trout wasn't during either of his first two attempts at chasing the award, of course. Miguel Cabrera had that honor all to himself, winning the Triple Crown in 2012 and then getting even better in 2013.
But we've yet to see the mega-dominant version of Cabrera in 2014. And because of that, the door has opened for somebody else to arise as the AL's top hitter.
And it's Trout who's stepped through.
Trout's .311 batting average is good for seventh among qualified American League hitters. That's nice, but what's even better is that his .397 on-base percentage is good for second and his .610 slugging percentage and 1.008 OPS are both good for first.
Elsewhere, the more sabermetrically inclined will be glad to know that Trout came into Tuesday's action leading the AL in OPS+ at 175 and currently holds leads in wOBA at .427 and wRC+ at 179, per Baseball-Reference.
Trout was awfully good before, posting a .963 OPS in 2012 and a .988 OPS in 2013. But he's never been this good, and there's nobody else in the American League who's quite on his level.
But there's more, for with Trout's good hitting have come...
A Whole Bunch of RBI
The RBI may not rule the kingdom of baseball statistics like it used to, but it's still a major player in MVP discussions every year.
And that was one of the issues Trout faced in his previous two runs at the award: He only drove in 83 runs from his perch atop the Angels lineup in 2012, and he was only able to bump his RBI total to 97 last year.
But so far in 2014, Trout has already racked up 54 RBI from his spot in the No. 2 hole in the lineup. That ties him for third in the AL, and ESPN.com projects him to finish with what would certainly be an MVP-worthy RBI total of 125.
But while racking up RBI is something new for Trout, he's still awesome at doing...
Pretty Much Everything Else
Want runs scored? Trout is fifth in the AL with 47 of those.
Want awesome baserunning? Trout may only have nine stolen bases, but that's out of nine attempts, and he's once again in the top 10 in the AL in baserunning runs.
Want defense? Both his Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating metrics have Trout down as an above-average defender in center field.
As such, Trout's development into an even more dangerous hitter hasn't compromised his other skills. There are certainly players who are getting around the bases and playing defense better than he is, but nobody out there is combining good baserunning and defense with explosive hitting quite like Trout.
In other words: Yup, he's still the best all-around player in MLB.
Maybe he'd look like the man to beat for the AL MVP strictly based on those merits, but sweetening the deal is how...
The Angels Are Winning
This was one of the major sticking points in Trout's MVP candidacy in 2012, as the Angels' failure to make the playoffs meant Trout lacked a major narrative advantage to go along with his numbers. Then, in 2013, the Angels' sub-.500 showing overshadowed what was yet another excellent individual season for Trout.
But this year? Nah. Things are different.
At 38-32, the Angels are tied for the third-best record in the AL and are in line for one of the league's two wild-card spots. They also have one of the AL's top run differentials at plus-36, an indicator that things aren't doomed to come crashing down around them.
Granted, there's a lot of time for that picture to change. And heck, while we're granting things, we'll grant that Trout has a lot of games left to play; he's already endured one bad slump, so perhaps an even worse slump is awaiting him.
But for now, he can move forward knowing that he's never been a more perfect MVP candidate than the one he is right now. He is still demonstrating all of the skills that made him a major player for the award in the first place, and he's also added a whole lot more.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted/linked.
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