One thing you don’t do: You don’t look at a 16-year-old boy — supremely talented as he is — and predict that in five years he’ll be the best all-around player in Major League Baseball, a potentially historic figure.
No, it happens much more slowly than that. The boy keeps getting better. The scouts start coming around, from colleges and the pros, and they start talking about his “ceiling” — he could be a big leaguer someday, or he could be an everyday big leaguer — and every time they set a new ceiling for the boy, he smashes through it.
The same thing happens in the minor leagues — he wins a batting title in Class AA at age 19 — until suddenly, Mike Trout arrives fully formed in the big leagues at 19, and a year or so later people will be asking whether he has produced the greatest rookie season in history, and he will be voted the American League’s rookie of the year and finish runner-up for the MVP, as well.
And now? Now, Trout is 21, and no less a phenom, even though he has more than 1,000 plate appearances under his belt for the Los Angeles Angels. Now, the question to ask is this:
What, exactly, is Mike Trout’s ceiling?
Begin with some WAR. Wins above replacement, or WAR, is the catch-all stat, popularized in the last decade, that aims to measure a player’s overall value, factoring in not only his batting skills but his defense and base running as well. It has been a useful tool for front-office types and media members — until Trout came along, with his almost unprecedented mix of power, hitting prowess, speed and defense, and nearly broke it.
Of all the men to play big league baseball, only one position player has posted a WAR above 10 (as measured at baseball-reference.com) at the age of 20 or younger: Mike Trout, 2012. There seemed to be no precedent for him — or if there was, it was only a rarefied group that includes Alex Rodriguez (9.3 in 1996), Al Kaline (8.3 in 1955), Mel Ott (7.4 in 1929), Ty Cobb (6.8 in 1907) and Ted Williams (6.7 in 1939).
“I thought he was special,” said Jeff Trout, who had been a minor league infielder in the 1980s, advancing to Class AA with the Minnesota Twins. “We’ve seen him do some amazing things. But to say it happened this sudden? Yeah, we’re all a little taken aback by that.”
In 2013, the sequel to that remarkable rookie season, Trout started slowly (a .261 batting average, .333 on-base percentage and .432 slugging percentage in April), but since May 1 he has posted numbers (.333/.412/.631, with 10 home runs and 27 RBI) that exceed even his gaudy 2012 totals.
And he is still only 21 years old. How much better can he still get? What’s his ceiling?
‘What could possibly be next?’
It is around this time each year that a South Jersey kid starts thinking about the beach. Millville, N.J., where Mike Trout grew up, sits alongside Route 55, which connects Philadelphia to the beach towns of the South Jersey shore.
Though he spends the bulk of his year on the West Coast, out by Disneyland, Trout is East Coast to his core. During his offseasons, this son of two schoolteachers still lives in the basement of his childhood home. No sooner did he get off the Angels’ team bus one recent Sunday night in Baltimore, having just arrived from Boston, than he was off in search of some blue crabs for dinner.
“Growing up as a kid, going crabbing every day and having them for dinner,” Trout said, “it’s pretty good having them every once in a while.”
Baseball phenoms don’t generally come out of New Jersey, or the northern East Coast in general, because kids don’t play the sport year-round. Trout played football in the fall and basketball in the winter, but baseball was what he did the best and loved the most.
He was the kind of kid who hit .500 every year, threw in the high-80s as a pitcher and ran a 6.5 time in the 60-yard dash. But because this was South Jersey — and not, say, South Florida or Southern California — it was understood the competition wasn’t so good. What did Roy Hallenbeck, baseball coach at Millville High, have on his hands in this Trout kid? Well, it was difficult to say.
“We just said, realistically, that if we can stay up and watch our guy play on TV every day [in the big leagues], that would be a huge success,” Hallenbeck said. “We had a lot of discussions with him and his family: ‘Let’s go one step at a time.’ I was the one pulling the reins back with everybody.”
But eventually, Trout’s talent couldn’t be contained within realistic expectations.
“All the way back to his freshman year, through high school, through Team USA [18-and-under squad] — he never hit that ceiling you expected him to hit,” Hallenbeck said. “You just shake your head and think, ‘What could possibly be next?’ ”
Before Trout’s senior year of high school, he signed a letter of intent to play at East Carolina, but as more and more pro scouts began to catch wind of the kid’s ability — the result of his playing in high-profile showcase events that summer — Billy Godwin, the East Carolina coach, started to feel the kid slipping away from him. One day, during Trout’s senior year, Godwin paid a visit to Millville to check on his prized recruit.
“Mike hits this sky-high popup to shallow center field that the center fielder misplays,” Hallenbeck said. “As the ball lands, Mike is rounding third, and he scores on an inside-the-park homer. The scouts all run to each other, because they couldn’t believe what they had seen, and they start pulling out their video cameras to time him around the bases.
“Billy walks by our dugout and says, ‘Man, that’s the best high school baseball player I’ve ever seen. He ain’t coming to me.’ ”
There was at least one scout who understood what he had on his hands in this strapping South Jersey teenager. Greg Morhardt, an area scout for the Angels, had a territory that encompassed most of the Northeast. The first time he saw Trout, as a 16-year-old, he almost couldn’t believe his eyes. In his report on Trout to his bosses, he wrote, “Will play in many all-star games, with a chance to be a Hall of Fame player.”
As a player many years earlier, Morhardt had played on a summer league team with Rafael Palmeiro, had been in a Team USA camp with Barry Larkin and Will Clark, and had played against Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire.
“I saw those players when they were 17 and 18,” Morhardt said. “Mikey took a back seat to none of them.”
The Angels rated Trout as the No. 2 talent on their 2009 draft board, just below Stephen Strasburg, but they had to sweat out 23 picks until their turn, consecutive picks at No. 24 and No. 25, came around.
After they took Trout 25th, and signed him a month later for a bonus of $1.215 million, Morhardt was talking to a friend of his, another scout, and said, “I think I just signed Mickey Mantle.”
And so, in a telephone conversation lasting maybe 15 minutes, Morhardt has invoked the names of Mickey Mantle, Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire in describing Mike Trout’s talent. When you call him on it, he doesn’t back down or apologize. And he adds another name.
“If he never gets injured seriously, and he plays out his career, he could be one of those Willie Mays-type guys,” Morhardt said. “People act crazy if you mention Mikey [in the same sentence] with the all-time greats. But he’s doing the same things, at the same age they did. He has that same beyond-his-years maturity. He just does.”
Morhardt hasn’t been wrong about Trout yet, and he more or less staked his career on the kid. So, again, what is Mike Trout’s ceiling? Is it Mays? Mantle? Bonds? At this point, it is perhaps best to forget about the ceiling altogether — to look beyond the ceiling, and out into the stars and the heavens.