From the day he arrived in the big leagues to stay as a 20-year-old on April 28, 2012, Mike Trout has oozed confidence and a sense that he belongs, traits that helped the Angels center fielder quickly emerge as one of the game’s best all-around players and to handle the spotlight that comes with such accolades.
But there is one part of his game that Trout, now 23, was a little unsure of in his first three seasons: his defensive positioning. Like most young outfielders, Trout had a fear of balls going over his head, so he always played a little deeper, even though he has the kind of closing speed to cover huge amounts of space.
Then about a month ago, Angels bench coach Dino Ebel, who oversees the outfielders, suggested that Trout begin playing a little more shallow. His message to the 2014 American League most valuable player: Trust yourself and your routes. Let your speed, instincts and athletic ability take over.
The results of that shift could be seen Monday night, when Trout made three superb defensive plays in the Angels’ 4-1 victory over the New York Yankees in Angel Stadium.
In the third inning, Trout sprinted straight back and made a leaping catch of Chris Young’s drive at the wall to rob the Yankees left fielder of extra bases. After hitting a solo homer, his 20th of the season, in the bottom of the third, Trout robbed Young again, making a lunging catch on the warning track after a long run.
In the sixth, with a runner on first, Trout made another long run, this time into the gap in right-center, to rob Chase Headley of a double.
“I just feel like I can get back on balls easier than coming in on balls,” Trout said. “I don’t want to get handcuffed. … When I was playing deep and balls fell in front of me, if I was a pitcher, I’d be pretty upset, to get a jam shot and it falls in.
“At least if they hit it over my head, they barreled it up. Dino puts us in the right position. We’re out there every day working hard.”
Trout has made several spectacular, home-run-robbing catches over the years, but he wasn’t always known for taking the cleanest routes.
In fact, according to Fangraphs, Trout went from 23 defensive runs saved in 2012 to a minus-nine defensive runs saved in both 2013 and 2014. He was a plus-one in that category this season before Monday night.
“There’s no doubt he’s a more effective center fielder with his routes and the unbelievable range he’s shown us,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “He’s getting more comfortable playing more shallow. He went back and made some big catches for us tonight.”
Scioscia also praised Ebel for his work with Trout.
“I don’t think he’s going to force anything with a player, but he’s going to challenge them to get as much range as he can going in and out,” Scioscia said. “Mike is feeling more comfortable pinching [in] at times. It will be contingent on situations in the game, but he’s as good as there is out there in center field.”
Trout’s defense, along with Kole Calhoun’s diving catch of John Ryan Murphy’s line drive in the fourth, helped pitcher C.J. Wilson stay out of trouble. Trout’s third-inning catch came with two on and one out, and his fifth-inning catch came with a runner on second.
“One of the benefits of being a pitcher on this team is you get a guy like that chasing balls down,” Wilson said. “It gives you a lot of hope that any ball hit to center field is going to be caught.”
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