ANAHEIM, Calif. — In his 11th professional summer, Mike Trout hit 45 more home runs, had 137 more hits, scored 110 more runs, turned 28, made $37 million, mourned a friend, endured foot surgery, earned handfuls of MVP votes … and prepared to go home.
In some ways, in how he conducted himself and played the game and dragged a franchise behind him, this summer was as nearly all the others. He’ll turn 29 next summer, his 10th as a major leaguer, and so the summer that qualifies him for future Hall of Fame ballots, having participated in three playoff games, in the same time frame having played for at least three general managers, two field managers and one owner.
The nine major league teams of which he’s been a part will have a .510 winning percentage, plus or minus the coming five games. He will have seen four winning teams. The finest player of his generation, give or take a beery argument, carries 12 postseason at-bats into the second half of a career that promises all of the personal momentum and little of the organizational kind.
On Wednesday evening, two-and-a-half weeks after his season ended, Trout rolled into a media conference on a scooter designed to keep his weight from his right foot. In the time away, he’d seemed to have come to terms with his season ending too soon. These things happen. He shrugged. And it’s not as though his Los Angeles Angels would play for much beyond parking fees and concession sales in the weeks that followed. Still, he said, sitting and healing and watching baseball and clattering around on crutches isn’t really his style.
“It was bothering me,” he said. “But looking at it, and seeing what came out of my foot, it was kinda nasty.”
The surgery — for Morton’s neuroma — removed thickened tissue from his foot, and the best player from the Angels’ lineup. It also potentially tightened the coming American League MVP vote, held likely to separate Trout from Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, or Bregman from Trout. The fourth-year player who has hit 40 home runs and posted a 1.009 OPS, Bregman finished three places behind runner-up Trout in last year’s vote (Mookie Betts won in a landslide). On Wednesday night in Seattle, Bregman played his 152nd game, 18 more than Trout, with still four games -- in Anaheim -- remaining. Bregman has used Trout’s absence to close the gap in WAR and other metrics that seem to weigh heavy on many ballots. And, of course, help the Astros clinch their third consecutive AL West title. In 14 games since Trout’s surgery, Bregman has batted .268 with a 1.186 OPS, a .455 on-base percentage and six home runs.
In his seven previous full seasons, Trout was twice voted the league’s MVP and four times finished second. In the other, he was fourth. He will be first or second again.
“I come in all the time, every year, to try to be the best player in the league, best player on the field at all times,” he said. “And obviously, if you’re finishing in the top three, you’re doing something. Obviously you want to be No. 1. But that’s my mindset coming into every year.”
Trout and Bregman have become friendly enough to belong to the same fantasy football league. If there is a hint to be gained from that, Bregman’s squad beat Trout’s last week.
“Barely,” Trout pointed out.
“You can ask any of my teammates — I follow baseball all the time,” he said. “I’m like a baseball nerd, I guess. I’m obviously following him. There’s a lot of guys that I follow. Bregman’s a great dude … I’m happy for him, he’s having an unbelievable season, and it’s always a battle when we go up against him.
“I feel like this is my best year yet. It obviously sucks I’m not playing the last few weeks. But I follow Bregman all the time, and I see what he’s doing, and I’m happy for him, he’s having a great year.”
That he’d choose 2019 as his best season from among plenty similar to it points, perhaps, to career highs in home runs and slugging, to the usual filling of box scores on most nights, and to what he called, “Just offensively, in the box, it’s the best I’ve felt. Just squaring up baseballs. Just making adjustments quicker and just barreling up a lot of my balls.”
But, also, to his production and the team’s resilience through the heartache of teammate Tyler Skaggs’ death on July 1. The season continued. Through tears and memories both painful and pleasant, through long hard farewells, the Angels, all of them, reported for work and did what they could to endure what was next. His uniform still hangs among theirs. His picture is on the outfield wall. At its worst, a couple dozen men looked to Trout and their soft-spoken teammate, unused to a vocal leadership role, stepped to the fore.
“It was obviously a tough year for the whole club, the whole team,” he said. “Losing ... Tyler was tough. Obviously all the guys know in there that if they have any questions or think of anything, they can come to me. I talk to everybody. Even the young guys ask me a bunch of questions, and I tell them what I think. When Tyler passed, it was a time for me to step up and take that role. I think in the past, I just kind of went out there and played, and let my game talk for itself. But I think when the team needed me, and the guys who came up and talked, I think that was big for us.
“I think Tyler would want that. And the team needed it. We were going through — I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, but we were going through some tough times, obviously you guys know, and I felt like the team needed it, and I felt like I had to get up there and talk.”
So closed his summer. His fall. Hopelessly behind in the AL West. On a scooter. Having done his best. Again. He did his best. And then the season ended.
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