On Sunday, Mike Trout went 0-for-3, failing to reach base via hit or walk for only the eighth time in a game he’s started this season. Even so, he helped his team win. With the Angels up 2-0 on Texas in the fifth, Delino DeShields drove a ball to the wall in left-center, 103 feet from where Trout was standing when the pitch left Tyler Skaggs’s hand. Based on the distance and direction of the wall and the ball, an average outfielder would have had only a 19 percent chance of corralling the probable extra-base hit, according to Statcast. But Trout made the grab, running a nearly direct route (104 feet) and reaching a top speed of 29 feet per second. It was the unlikeliest catch that Trout has recorded in the 2015-18 Statcast era, and the latest highlight of the multitime MVP’s consistently extraordinary season.
That play was a microcosm of Trout’s 2018: not the most eye-catching, but upon closer inspection, an exceptional effort in every respect. Later this year, Trout will almost certainly surpass Ty Cobb for the highest WAR total ever through a position player’s age-26 season, even though Cobb came up a year younger and played more games through that point. In less than seven full seasons, Trout has already amassed a Cooperstown-caliber career stat line. For all he’s accomplished since he rose to stardom in 2012, though, Trout’s best baseball isn’t behind him. As he approaches his 27th birthday, the Angels center fielder may be in the midst of the most valuable season ever. And if this unparalleled player does have an unparalleled year, it will have a lot to do with defense.
By going 3-for-5 on Saturday with a single, a triple, a home run, and a tag-evading stolen base so slick that it required a replay review to sort out, Trout propelled himself to 5.3 wins above replacement, 1.2 WAR ahead of anyone else on the Baseball-Reference leaderboard. That put him on pace for a 14.6-WAR season, which would surpass Babe Ruth’s 14.1 in 1923 as the best ever by a position player.
Ruth’s record-setting season, which came at age 28, wasn’t his most memorable or his most impressive on the surface. It wasn’t one of his two-way triumphs, like the year when he led the AL in games started, ERA, and hit rate while also posting a 123 wRC+ (1916), or the year when he led the majors in complete games while recording a 161 wRC+ (1917), or the year when he pitched to a 2.22 ERA while also leading the majors in homers (1918). It wasn’t the year he hit 60 bombs (1927), or the year he won his lone batting title (1924), or the year when he played the most games (1928), or the year when he managed his highest wRC+ (1920), or the year when he produced the most runs on offense (1921). It was, in fact, his worst baserunning season, the year when Ruth, a historically bad base stealer, stole 17 bags and was caught 21 times.
Naturally, Ruth was ridiculously great at the plate in 1923, but his defense set that season apart. Defensive ratings aren’t perfect today and are considerably less precise for seasons that took place almost a century ago, but based on the most accurate information we have, Ruth was never better in the field than he was at 28. That year, Ruth set personal highs in defensive innings and putouts and recorded his second-most outfield assists. According to Total Zone, which Baseball-Reference relies on for seasons prior to 2003, Ruth was 19 runs better than the average corner outfielder. Without that extra all-around value, his WAR wouldn’t have been as otherworldly.
Trout, who’s slashing .308/.443/.678 in a pitcher’s park, is having a career year at the plate: He’s played in every Angels game, and he’s leading the majors in home runs, total bases, walks, and on-base percentage. Increased selectivity has helped him record a career-low chase rate, career-high contact rate, and career-best strikeout rate relative to the league, and he’s also tied for second in the AL with 13 stolen bases. In stark contrast to Ruth in 1923, he has yet to be caught. Like Ruth, though, he’s having a standout season on defense. If Trout approaches or surpasses Ruth’s single-season WAR record, it will be because range in the field is the latest in a line of modest shortcomings that Trout has targeted for improvement and immediately managed to turn into strengths.
Trout has a track record of refusing to be less than exemplary at anything. In 2015, he fixed his former weakness against high fastballs; later, he learned to hit better with two strikes and became less passive at the plate. When he came up, he had a below-average arm, but he set his mind to being better, and soon enough he was: Through a combination of conditioning, long toss, and practice throwing to bases, Trout went from minus-11 throwing runs in his first four seasons to plus-2 runs in the four seasons since.
When Trout came up, he was a fantastic fielder: In roughly a full season’s worth of innings from 2011-12, defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating graded Trout’s defense in center as 22 runs above average and 10 runs above average, respectively, despite his subpar arm. (UZR run totals are regressed and tend to be more conservative.) Over the following five seasons, though, Trout’s cumulative ratings in center sank to minus-18 (DRS) and minus-2.2 (UZR), even as his arm improved. Most of that drop-off was attributable to decreased range.
When Trout’s once-lofty stolen-base totals slipped in 2014 and 2015, he resolved to run more often and bounced back to 30 steals in 2016. Something similar has happened this season to Trout’s eroding range. Last year, Trout had the sixth-worst DRS range rating among center fielders. As a result, right after reporting to spring training in February, Trout announced his intention to improve his defense and win his first Gold Glove, which would be difficult to do if he couldn’t impress DRS and UZR, both of which factor into Gold Glove voting. “There are a lot of defensive metrics out there that you want to get better on,” he said at the time. In light of his history, that statement alone came close to guaranteeing that at least some of his range would return; as one AL assistant general manager says, “If he’s been working on it, it’s probably gotten better, because he’s a freak.”
He has indeed been working on it, and lo and behold, it has gotten better. Trout’s DRS range rating has rebounded from minus-9 to plus-6, which puts him on pace to finish near where he was as a rookie. His UZR range trend has also reversed, climbing from minus-4.5 to plus-2.6. And after finishing at minus-2 in MLB Advanced Media’s Statcast-based outs above average in 2016 and minus-3 in 2017, Trout is sitting at plus-4 in 2018, which puts him in an 11th-place tie among all outfielders. Last year, according to Statcast, Trout converted only one of five potential four-star plays (those with a catch probability of 26-50 percent), four of 13 potential three-star plays (those with a catch probability of 51-75 percent), and 21 of 23 potential two-star plays (those with a catch probability of 76 to 90 percent). This year, he’s 1-for-2 on four-star plays and has a perfect record on three- and two-star plays. His defensive feat on Sunday was his first five-star catch on record.
All of this has happened in a fairly small sample of fewer than 500 innings, but it’s almost certainly not a fluke. This is just what it looks like when Trout’s plan plays out. “Mike’s been a guy that always comes to me every year and says, ‘What do you see, what do you want to work on, what do I need to get better on?’” Angels third-base and outfield coach Dino Ebel, who recently reassumed the latter responsibility after a two-year hiatus, says via phone. This spring, the Angels had answers to Trout’s annual inquiry. In spring training, Ebel says, “We got together with our people upstairs, our analytical department, and they said, ‘This is what we can improve on,’ and [Trout] took it to heart.” Getting good jumps and making the most of Trout’s elite speed were the orders of the day.
Not every superstar has Trout’s hunger to improve; some players are oblivious to their flaws until it’s too late to overcome them, and others might resent the suggestion that they’re coming up short. Not Trout: “He doesn’t have grudges or anything like that, doesn’t get mad,” Ebel says, adding, “He is on board, and he’s coachable, and he likes it. He wants it.” This year, Ebel says, Trout is doing drills to read the ball off the bat; in April, Trout told the Orange County Register that he’s “trying to be aggressive” and making sure that he’s not merely “going through the motions” when he shags flies in batting practice. According to Baseball Info Solutions, Trout dove for a ball only once last season, but the Angels’ goal this spring wasn’t to have him dive more; the benefit of occasionally catching an extra fly or liner isn’t worth the risk of an injury that would deprive the team of his bat. (In 2015, Trout missed time after hurting his wrist mid-dive, and his hitting subsequently slumped.) Rather, the hope was that Trout would get to more balls without needing to get dirty, as he demonstrated against DeShields.
In recent years, some outfielders have improved their performance by drastically repositioning themselves; Dexter Fowler, for one, posted a positive DRS total for the first time in a full season after playing much deeper in 2016. Trout, who prefers coming in to going back on balls, already played deep, and that hasn’t changed: Angels center fielders this season have stood 324 feet from home plate on average, the third-deepest mark in the majors but virtually unchanged from last year’s 323. Nor has the Angels’ batter-to-batter positioning strategy substantially changed, although Ebel, who’s newly returned to his role as an in-game outfield director, is particularly diligent about implementing the front office’s recommendations. (To cut through the noise of the crowd, Ebel blows a whistle to get outfielders’ attention when necessary, although he says he rarely, if ever, has to whistle at Trout.) Optimized positioning might explain some of the Angels’ overall outfield improvement—the unit as a whole has climbed from minus-11 DRS last year to plus-10 thus far in 2018—but as indicated by the positioning-independent Statcast-based numbers, Trout’s uptick goes deeper than that.
“The thing about Mike this year, when the ball’s hit, he’s moving, where even if it’s not hit to him, it’s the first step,” Ebel says. “If it’s hit to left field, he takes a hard step to the right. If it’s hit to right field, he takes that hard step to right field.” Ebel adds, “The most important thing that Mike is doing is in his mind he wants to catch every ball that’s hit to him and hit in the gaps, and he’s going for it.”
Although Trout’s sprint speed on the bases—29.3 feet per second, which ranks 24th among 400-plus qualifiers—is unchanged from last season, his sprint speed in the outfield is up. According to MLBAM senior data architect Tom Tango, Trout’s outfield sprint speed, which Tango calculates by taking the average of the top 5 percent of an outfielder’s runs, had increased from 27.4 ft/s in 2016 to 27.6 ft/s in 2017 to 28.6 ft/s this season even before that snag on Sunday. His rankings among center fielders with at least 60 runs, meanwhile, have climbed in that three-season span from 25th of 39 to 31st of 54 to eighth of 28 (also prior to Sunday). In other words, while Trout’s maximum speed probably hasn’t changed, he’s routinely coming closer to achieving that speed in center.
Outfield sprint speed measures only a player’s peak rate of travel; it doesn’t tell us anything about how quickly he reaches that top speed, or how quickly he reacts to the flight of the ball. Tango and his team are working on a metric called “burst,” which will account for those factors and will likely roll out later this season, but many teams have already developed such stats. According to one source in a non-Angels front office, Trout “is running way faster in the outfield and is getting to his top speed way faster,” yielding speed and acceleration figures that put his percentile ranks in the 80s or 90s, easily his highest on record. A source in another non-Angels front office confirms that Trout’s reaction time, peak speed, and acceleration are all improved from past seasons, and that his run value derived from fielding range, as assessed by that team’s in-house metric, is positive for the first time in the period covered by Statcast.
The GIF below shows a montage of Trout’s five best catches this season besides the one on Sunday, featuring catch probabilities ranging from 46 percent to 62 percent.
Although the broadcast views make it tough to tell how quickly Trout is mounting his horse, replays reveal his jumps and acceleration in all their quick-twitch glory. Here he is on April 13, ranging to his left and laying out to rob a gapper from Paulo Orlando.
Here he is on May 15, going back and to his right to take at least two bases from José Altuve.
And here he is on May 30, sprinting in to steal a single from Niko Goodrum, much to Shohei Ohtani’s delight.
No matter which way he’s called upon to move, Trout is wasting no time in 2018. Compare those plays with this montage of his five worst non-catches from 2017, which feature catch probabilities ranging from 99 percent to 65 percent.
No outfielder looks great when he’s at his worst, but thus far, Trout has all but eliminated lowlights like those, reflexively getting himself into high gear. “It’s not like he never thought that way,” Ebel says. “It’s just maybe, he is blessed with a lot of speed, so a lot of balls that hang in the air a lot longer, he can catch up to it [without going all-out]. But [now] he’s catching those ones that are in front of him that ... should be hits, and he’s taking away balls in right-center and left-center. It’s just making him self-aware where when that ball’s hit, [he’s] gonna take that step, if it’s in or back or sideways to his left or right.”
If baseball were more like the NBA, Trout would be taking his spotty supporting cast to the playoffs year after year. As it is, though, baseball’s closest LeBron equivalent may miss out on October for the fourth consecutive season. Even after their win on Sunday, the 32-28 Angels have less than a 30 percent chance of qualifying for the postseason. If the Haloes fall short, though, Trout won’t be to blame. He can’t do any more than be the best ever, and he’s already doing that.
Ebel, who has coached for the Angels for 14 seasons and spent the previous 17 as a minor league player, coach, and manager in the Dodgers organization, says that Trout is “probably the best [outfielder] I’ve seen in my 31 years of baseball.” He notes that experience has helped Trout read hitters and compartmentalize his performance such that whenever he’s wearing a glove, he’s always focused on fielding. But most of Trout’s improvement boils down to a process as simple as it is mind-boggling: He’s decided to be better, and baseball has bent to his will. As Angels GM Billy Eppler told me in April, “We’re just witnessing him reach another level that we really didn’t know was there.”
By restoring his defense to its rookie-level luster, Trout—who’s challenging Ruthian records in a league that’s much more competitive, talented, and outlier-averse than the one Ruth had his way with—has not only put the all-time top single-season WAR within view, but also brightened the already-rosy outlook for the rest of his career. The average outfielder’s range peaks early and shrinks steadily from there, but Trout is spitting on that pattern; as one of the front-office sources who relayed his stats asked, “Is he reverse-aging?” Perhaps that’s hyperbole, but if he hasn’t found the defensive fountain of youth, Trout has at least reset the clock on his aging curve. Whereas after last year it was easy to project a few years forward and envision Trout moving to a corner, where his hitting wouldn’t clear the typical player’s by as great a degree, it’s now possible to picture him providing passable defense in center at an advanced age, a la Willie Mays, which would help him age gracefully and aid his odds of becoming baseball’s best-ever player through any age. “I think he’s gonna play center field for a long time,” Ebel says.
Trout is like a Lost character: It’s best not to tell him what he can’t do. He’s currently leading all AL center fielders in DRS, so he may get that Gold Glove after all. “When he puts his mind [to] something that he’s gonna get better on, or somebody says that this he can’t do or he needs to improve on this, he will prove them wrong,” says Ebel. At the end of one answer, Ebel sputters, searching for something else to say. “So, he just, uh, you know, it’s—he’s Mike Trout!” he says. Yeah, that sort of sums it up.