Mike Trout is having an extraordinary rookie season, one that has thrust the Angels center fielder into a two-man race with Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera for American League most valuable player.
But it’s not as if Trout, 21, is fast out of the gate in everything. In fact, in his first plate appearances of games, Trout has been rather ordinary.
The speedy leadoff hitter struck out looking to open Sunday’s win over the Chicago White Sox, and he has one single and two strikeouts among his opening at-bats in the first six games of the current homestand.
Trout enters Tuesday night’s game against Seattle with a .323 average, second in the AL behind Cabrera’s .331 mark. He also has 28 home runs, 78 runs batted in, a league-leading 122 runs scored and 46 stolen bases, a .394 on-base percentage and a .554 slugging percentage.
But in his first time up, Trout is hitting .292 (35 for 120) with 34 strikeouts, just six walks and four homers.
“That first at-bat, I’m up there to see pitches, to see what they’ve got,” Trout said. “I take some stuff in for the rest of the game.”
He’s a quick learner. His production jumps drastically the more he sees a starting pitcher.
In his second plate appearances, Trout is batting .361 (43 for 119) with 24 strikeouts, nine walks and seven homers.
His third time up, Trout is batting .394 (41 for 104) with 15 strikeouts, 16 walks and nine homers.
“Obviously, his approach is working because of what we’re seeing in his later at-bats,” Angels hitting coach Jim Eppard said. “I think it’s actually a common theme with guys, only the strikeouts are a little higher with Mike in his first at-bat than with other people.
“That probably stems from his experience level in this league. Next year, I fully anticipate those strikeout numbers will decrease.”
Trout has struck out 128 times, second to Mark Trumbo’s 145 on the Angels, and the majority of those have come in his first at-bats and his first time facing relievers, when he has 43 strikeouts in 139 at-bats.
The Angels don’t necessarily view that as a negative in light of the way Trout works pitchers and his overall production.
“Who knows if he’s going to be a leadoff hitter the rest of his career, but this is what we’re looking for, a guy who’s going to see pitches,” Eppard said. “Even if he strikes out, it might take seven or eight pitches to do it, and everyone else is watching those pitches.
“He might expose every pitch the guy has in that first at-bat, whereas if you have somebody who doesn’t do that, who maybe swings at the first pitch, then the next guy is going to have to do it, and so on.”
As Trout becomes more familiar with pitchers, “I think it’s going to allow him to maybe prey on that first pitch from time to time,” Eppard said. “He has the power to hit the ball out of the park, a la the Rickey Henderson mentality.
“But right now it’s something I think he’s going to stick with and keep trying to get better at.”
Trout has tailed off since his torrid July, when he hit .392 with 10 homers and 23 RBIs. He hit .284 with seven homers and 19 RBIs in August and is batting .256 with three homers and four RBIs in 21 games in September.
Fatigue could be a factor. Trout has played nearly every inning in 72 of 73 games since July 3, missing only a July 29 game against Tampa Bay because of a bruised left knee.
“Some days, at the beginning of the game, my legs feel heavy. But once I loosen up, I feel fine,” Trout said. “It’s nothing major. Besides my legs, everything else feels good.”
Trout’s somewhat sluggish September could cost him the MVP award to Cabrera, whose across-the-board consistency has positioned the Tigers third baseman to become baseball’s first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.
Cabrera has 42 homers, one behind Texas’ Josh Hamilton for the league lead. He leads the AL in RBIs (133) and slugging (.612), is second in runs (106) and third in on-base percentage (.395).
Trout is receiving strong support because of his speed, superb defense at a premium position and the impact he’s had on the Angels, who had a 6-14 record the day he was promoted from triple-A and are 78-55 since.
Trout also has a major league-leading 10.4 wins-above-replacement rating, which measures a player’s overall value. Cabrera’s 6.8 rating is second.
There is probably no wrong answer in the MVP debate. Both are worthy, and voting could come down to preference between the better all-around player (Trout) or the better hitter (Cabrera).
Whose team makes the playoffs could be a factor. The Angels are two games behind Oakland for the second AL wild-card spot with nine games left. The Tigers are one game behind Chicago in the AL Central.
“Personally, I think you have to put weight on how a guy’s team finishes unless a guy’s stats are so off the charts there’s nobody even near, and it’s just an incredible year,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said.
“Some guys put more weight on how a team finishes. Some put more weight on pure stats. Some will have a combination of those. They’re both putting up extraordinary numbers in some different areas. The guys who are voting, sometimes it’s in the eye of the beholder.”