Mike Trout, already the best player in Major League Baseball, is now even better.
You probably already knew that. If you didn't, you probably expected as much.
He is Mike Trout, after all. He's in his sixth full season with the Los Angeles Angels. He finished either first (twice) or second (thrice) in the American League MVP voting in each of his first five. Each year, the eye test posited he was a phenomenal talent. And, each year, the numbers have said, "Yeah, that checks out."
So it goes in 2017.
Although it feels like Trout has been roaming center field for the Angels forever, he's only 25 and very much in the thick of his prime. He's still gifted with an unmatched blend of power and speed, plus a keen baseball intellect to help him evolve.
And, Trout's latest evolution is happening in the batter's box.
Although he's been sidelined for a few games with a bad hamstring, he's still working on career highs in batting average (.355), on-base percentage (.446) and slugging percentage (.700). As of Tuesday, his adjusted OPS+ of 222 made him the top hitter in the AL.
But this probably won't last. Trout is on track for more career WAR than any hitter in history despite only now evolving into his best offensive self. Continuing to make history should now be even easier for him.
Oh, sure. There's a counterpoint.
Baseball Savant has a metric that suggests Trout has been lucky this season. And in fairness, that does get at how he's been hitting the ball softer without getting under it better. These things are important.
But not everything.
Take Trout's reduced walk rate. That's a bad thing sans context, but it's actually a byproduct of an approach that's changed for the better now that he's following through on an old promise.
"Throughout my career, I've been taking," he said in 2015, according to Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times. "I like to see pitches, but I'm going to get locked and loaded on the first pitch. If it's in the zone, I'm going to take a hack at it."
Two years later, Trout is all-in on this idea. He's swung at 33 of 130 first pitches he's seen. That's 25 percent, by far the highest rate of his career. He's benefiting with a 1.417 OPS against first pitches.
This is just a part of a larger improvement. Whereas Trout's patience has at times bordered on passivity, he's now letting loose on pitches within the strike zone while still continuing to spit on pitches outside it:
Attacking strikes is the best way to get hits. Lo and behold, Trout is racking up more production than ever when he swings within the zone.
And while the angle and speed of the ball off the bat are important, so is the direction. Trout is hitting a career-high 32.1 percent of his batted balls to the opposite field. That has created some lucky hits (ahem), but using the whole field creates more avenues for hits.
Meanwhile, Trout's power and speed are doing fine. With eight home runs and five stolen bases in 30 games, he has a chance at a 30-30 season. It would be his first since his rookie year in 2012.
So here's the deal: In all likelihood, we're watching Trout's best season yet.
Well, when I say "we," I mean...Well, I know I'm not alone, but I know it's not crowded in here either.
Look, there's no shame in it if you haven't been paying attention to Trout's 2017 season.
Watching him play baseball isn't a civic duty, a la paying your taxes or cleaning up after your dog. And it is safe to assume he's doing just fine at any given moment. Trout is to baseball excellence as LeBron James is to basketball excellence or Tom Brady is to football excellence.
Switch the topic to fame, though, and that analogy crumbles faster than a politician at a town hall.
Heck, Trout often gets lost in the shuffle even within his own sport. He barely made it into the latest top 10 for MLB's best-selling jerseys. And while he's doing fine relative to most MLB search terms, check out how his Google searches this season stack up against those for, say, Aaron Judge and Bryce Harper:
Perhaps the only surprising thing about this is that it isn't the least bit surprising.
It takes actual news to attract interest. The Chicago Cubs owned MLB's corner of Google last year because they were a bunch of upstart stars on a name-brand team that was on a quest for the ultimate comeback. "Aaron Judge Is Here!" and "Bryce Harper Is Back!" operate on similar wavelengths.
"Mike Trout Is Good at Baseball," on the other hand, is two things:
- Old news.
- A lousy headline, to boot.
The best way to get a sense of this is to actually Google that phrase. It turns up a string of headlines that are similar to the one for this article: obligatory reminders of Trout's excellence that are tinged with frustration.
This is partially because reminders of Trout's greatness are really all anyone can offer anymore. Everyone's caught in a cycle of him being great and commentators shrugging and pointing out how great.
"Maybe the only thing more reliable than people lauding Trout as baseball's best is Trout's own production," wrote Rob Arthur at FiveThirtyEight. "He might be the most consistently great player in baseball history."
There would be more to say if Trout was ever humbled or underwent drastic changes to his playing style. But he's only ever been variations of himself.
Good for him. Bad for the news cycle.
Obscure stats were needed to pump up Trout's stardom in the first place. As illustrated above, now the only thing to do is remark on the different variations of his stardom with even more obscure stats.
It has to be done, but it amounts to little more than speaking into an echo chamber. The niche for this stuff has grown, but it's still a niche. That'll be the case at least until explaining WAR isn't like the underpants gnomes explaining profit.
So numbers have at once made Trout the superstar he is and probably done all they can for him. He'll need something extra to become a truly transcendent superstar.
Increased attention? Sure. But good luck with that.
Trout plays at times that aren't convenient for most of the country, and the nature of baseball is such that there's no guarantee of him doing something special at any given moment. And 2014 aside, waiting on such moments has required suffering painfully mediocre Angels teams.
A World Series ring? Sure. But as long as Trout is on the Angels, see above.
A marketable personality? Sure. But good luck with that, too.
Trout is most famous on social media, not for his character, but for his fondness for airplane emojis. He's also a tough interview. Not because he's a master of talking without saying anything, a la Derek Jeter. He's just short and to the point, and not in an outrageous way like Zack Greinke.
"I just want to be a guy people like," Trout told Michael Baumann of The Ringer. "Kids like me, and I just [want to] respect the game."
The advantage of Trout's demeanor is that there's never a "Yeah, but..." whenever his on-field excellence is brought up. The disadvantage is that there's never an "And also..."
This raises the possibility that Trout's fame will never be on the same level as his playing ability. That won't be a travesty in the grand scheme of things. But it could lead to a collective letdown once he walks away and everyone realizes that baseball suddenly has a huge hole in it.
But if nothing else, there's solace to take in how that's better than the alternative.
If the choice is between Trout tailing off and becoming the most tragic what-if in baseball history and him continuing to revel in frustratingly boring consistency, baseball fans should be willing to push through thickets of thorns and armies of creepy clowns to stand in front of door No. 2.
Maybe it'll be hard to claim having witnessed and enjoyed every minute of Trout's greatness. But having lived through it will be a cool enough claim in its own right.