For all his astounding consistency, for all of his abilities on a baseball field that, together, form the best ballplayer seen in the world in some time, perhaps one underrated feature about Mike Trout is this: He does not dwell on his failure. At times, the Angels center fielder does not even remember it.
In the first game of the Angels’ series in Houston last month, role-defying right-handed reliever Chris Devenski struck out Trout on three pitches in a high-leverage situation. The third pitch was a fastball that hurtled across the strike zone, and Trout could not catch up to it.
In the fourth game of that series, Trout again faced Devenski in a high-leverage situation, this time in the ninth inning as the Angels trailed by two. Trout again fell behind 0-and-2 on two high fastballs he fouled off, then saw Devenski’s changeup for the first time. Based on where the Astros’ catcher had set up, the pitch did not drop as low as Devenski intended, and Trout clobbered it for a home run.
Asked a half-hour later about how their first matchup informed his approach to the second, Trout could not recall the first.
“Did we face this guy the other day?” he asked.
He was told that they had.
“I don’t think I faced him,” Trout said. “I don’t think so.”
Told that story, Toronto reliever Joe Smith shook his head twice and then laughed.
Smith was Trout’s teammate for most of three seasons, during which they competed in a number of competitive physical activities — among them h-o-r-s-e, darts, ping-pong and video games. Eight years apart in age, their battles often took on a familial feel, with Trout the younger brother begging for another round.
“If he loses, it’s on to the next game,” Smith said. “He’s the most competitive person in the world.”
Before he became an Angel, Smith faced Trout four times, including during the center fielder’s first month in the majors, in July 2011. Trout had one hit, a single, in those four at-bats, and one deep fly ball that he remembered. The day the Blue Jays arrived in Anaheim this April, they talked incessant smack during pregame warmups.
Late that night, the side-arming Smith entered a tied game in the ninth inning to face Trout for the first time in four years. The count stretched to 3 and 2. Trout nearly homered on the final pitch, which he drove deep to right field for an out.
Three days later, Smith faced Trout again and threw a high fastball. Trout rarely swings at the first pitch, but he did then, and chopped one right back to Smith.
He was trading barbs with Trout before the out was official.
“When he beats you, he’ll never let you hear the end of it,” Smith said. “But when you beat him, he’s like, ‘No, that didn’t happen.’ And you’re like, ‘Mike, that happened. It happened.’
“That’s why I wanted to beat him so bad.”
“I guess I just saw a changeup up,” Trout said, “and put a good swing on it.”
He still practices his same routine. He still consults coaches about in-game adjustments he might need to make. He just doesn’t fret about failure.
He never has. For a 2012 profile in ESPN Magazine, Trout was asked about his first major league game that season, which did not go well. He instead recounted results from his second game, in which he hit the ball hard but received little to show for it. He could not recall the first game, in which he popped out twice and struck out on three pitches.
Trout’s success after 0-and-2 counts, like on the Houston homer, has proven particularly beguiling. Major league hitters are all but useless when that far down in a count, logging a .161 average, a .188 on-base percentage and a .248 slugging percentage this season after falling behind 0 and 2.
Trout has now faced exactly 700 of those counts in his career, and he has hit .231, with a .274 OBP and .413 slugging percentage — a .687 OPS, better than many hitters in normal counts. And those numbers are improving. In 2016, he had an .837 OPS in plate appearances that reached that count.
Albert Pujols, who hits one spot behind Trout in the Angels’ lineup, describes his 0-and-2 approach as essentially unchanged from his 0-and-0 approach.
“Speaking for myself, in that situation, the key is to relax and trust your hands,” he said. “All you need is one swing. Sometimes, in that situation, the first thing you do is panic and try not to strike out, start chasing some balls off the strike zone. The more relaxed that you are, the quicker you can trust your hands, the better it’ll be for you.”
Trout always says he tries “not to do too much” in such situations. Maybe what he means is not doing anything at all.