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The more Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout continue their anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better show, the more this begins to look like 15 years ago. For one summer, the best 1-on-1 matchup in baseball wasn't between pitcher and hitter. Two batters captivated the sport.
One would hope, of course, that Cabrera-Trout 2.0 comes without the artificial enhancement of the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa Home Run Binge/Love-In/Farce of 1998. The similarities aren't as much in deed – Cabrera is a superior hitter to his predecessors and Trout a superior player – as they are in the compulsion every night to check box scores and marvel: OK, what'd he do tonight?
The pleasure of doing it as a modern-day baseball fan – with the Extra Innings package and MLB's At-Bat app and Twitter and all of the great conveniences that connect us – makes this second dose of Cabrera-Trout all the more appetizing. The American League MVP race last season was, despite the size of Cabrera's eventual win, a gift to anyone who loves baseball: two great players performing at what seemed the apex of their abilities.
To see Cabrera bettering his historic 2012 and Trout for the last month playing as well as he did at his peak last season only ups the ante on what to expect. And when Trout hits a 463-foot home run to dead center – "More like 480," Angels manager Mike Scioscia corrected – and Cabrera grows into such a remarkable hitter that he makes this animated GIF possible, it does what sports so infrequently do: make you stop and realize you're in the midst of something historic.
Trout, still just 21, gets it. Ever loath to toot his horn, he's happy to do so for Cabrera. One of the endearing things at the time about McGwire and Sosa was their perceived enjoyment and respect for one another. It was exaggerated because they were playing characters – supermen spinning baseball's globe in reverse to change history. The sport's strength today keeps such burdens away from Cabrera and Trout, so they are able to be who they are: introspective, not much for public hoorahs and, accordingly, honest in their assessments.
"He's an unbelievable hitter," Trout said. "His numbers are off the charts. He's on pace for some crazy RBIs. Just his approach: hitting fastballs the other way, turning on off-speed and especially his approach on two strikes. You make one bad pitch, and he is going to hit it.
"It's his consistency. He punishes mistakes. I'll get a pitch to hit and just pull off a little bit. He doesn't miss."
Now, now. He shouldn't spend too much time criticizing himself. Because these days …
1. Mike Trout is doing what we remember from last season: hitting for average, power, drawing walks, stealing bases and covering center field with unparalleled range.
And, scary to say, he's getting better.
Analyst Ari Kaplan of ariball.com looked at Trout's advanced metrics this season and found thus far – small-sample-size alert – he is closing holes in his swing, particularly one high in the strike zone. Of the first 68 pitches he saw above the zone, he swung at just seven. His peers on average hack away at 34 percent of such pitches.
Trout remains the best breaking-ball hitter in the game – swings on curveballs have dropped for hits 35 percent of the time, for example – and while low-and-away pitches still vex him, he's got, oh, 20 years to figure them out. In the meantime, he'll help the Angels, winners of eight straight, barrel toward relevance and play patron saint of number crunchers everywhere.
Actually, that's not a fair assessment. How Trout ended up in the stats corner of the MVP debate was simply happenstance, seeing as scouts also could not get enough of his play. Trout came out of it nonplussed. It's not like his teacher parents were feeding him equations. Dad taught history and mom preschool.
"I couldn't really tell you anything about [sabermetrics]," Trout said. "Just found out last year that WAR is Wins Above Replacement. Couldn't tell you how they figure it out."
For what it's worth, Trout ranks fifth among everyday players with 2.7 WAR this season, according to FanGraphs. The leader is …
2. Miguel Cabrera with 3.1. Guess the numbers don't discriminate after all.
Granted, it's impossible for computer, human, alien, android or Amanda Bynes to look at what Cabrera has done over the season's first two months and do anything but proffer a round of applause. It's the batting average (.385) and the home runs (14) and, sure, even the RBIs (57, almost a dozen more than anyone else, buttressed by his .516/.592/.903 triple-slash with runners in scoring position). It's how Cabrera has nearly halved his strikeout rate since his rookie season. Like Trout said, it's how tough an out he is.
Cabrera is good enough that he recognizes the adjustments pitchers have made and has reacted accordingly. He knows how frightened pitchers are to fall behind the count against him and the importance of first-pitch strikes. So often the best pitch he sees is the first one. This year, Kaplan reports, Cabrera has swung at 40 percent of the first pitches he has seen, 12 percent more than the average major leaguer.
So what's a pitcher to do? Risk falling behind by wasting the first pitch or give a cookie to the best hitter in the AL? And, yes, it probably would be fair to say best hitter in baseball, though …
3. Joey Votto would put up a good argument. He is Cabrera's mirror image: a hitter so good, so disciplined, so aware of who he is, what he likes and how he ticks that pitchers must approach with extreme caution, lest they become another crooked number on Votto's hit tally.
Before a weekend 1 for 7 dropped his batting average to .353, Votto had gone on a dozen-game tear that went like this: 24 for 47 (.511), with four home runs, 10 RBIs, 16 runs, a .589 OBP, .809 slugging percentage and nine walks (five intentional) against six strikeouts.
The early season worries about Votto not being aggressive enough? Once and for all, please bag them. Votto will go through spells in which he doesn't "produce," at least by the standard definition of production. Just know this: eight of Brandon Phillips' NL-leading 42 RBIs have come with Votto on base, and Votto's 41 runs are tied with Cabrera for second in baseball, one behind Carlos Gonzalez.
In the era of Cabrera, Votto may never get his due, and that's understandable. Let's just hope he doesn't go all …
4. Don Mattingly and completely flip his persona in reaction to it. What a week for Donnie Baseball. First he benches Andre Ethier. Then he spits hot lava during his pregame chats. And yanks his $160 million franchise player, Matt Kemp, in a double switch. Next thing you know, he's going to rip Vin Scully, talk about how Dodger Dogs taste like shoe leather and suggest we call Dodger Stadium a dump.
To call Mattingly embattled would be a slight to all things embattled. His $200 million-plus Dodgers are 20-28 after losing with Clayton Kershaw pitching Sunday. They're 1½ games ahead of the Cubs and Mets. They have the seventh-worst record in baseball. Unless Mattingly's team amends that, his employment status will be the thing changing soon. For now, he holds onto his job like …
5. Fernando Rodney as closer of the Tampa Bay Rays. After his near-perfect 2012 season – Rodney finished the season 48 of 50 in save opportunities with a record 0.60 ERA over 74 2/3 innings – Rodney has blown five of his 14 chances this season, sports a 6.05 ERA and, most frightening of all, has walked 18 in 19 1/3 innings. He walked 15 all of last year.
Rodney's workload in the World Baseball Classic – he saved all eight of the Dominican Republic's victories – left the Rays concerned, and the question, as is the case with so many WBC relievers gone bad, is causation or correlation. In late April, when signs of Rodney's struggles were apparent, I asked whether he regretted the stress the WBC put on his arm.
"I'd do it again," Rodney said. "I don't think that's gonna happen again. In every sport, something happens one time. What we did, not losing, all close games, I just don't see that happening again."
Another thing that may not happen again: Rodney finishing the season as closer. One more blown save and Rays manager Joe Maddon would seriously consider enlisting Joel Peralta or Jake McGee, as the Rays certainly don't need another impediment with New York, Boston and Baltimore all ahead of them in the AL East. Already a number of times this year the …
6. Umpires have screwed them over, though at this point any team can say that. It was another bad week for the men in blue on top of a season's worth.
There was Jeff Nelson botching a double play in classic fashion. And Angel Hernandez trolling Hawk Harrelson much to the delight of anyone with a working set of eardrums. And many, many more, because these are major league umpires, replay exists and the meeting of those two facts leads to irreversible chaos and incompetence.
So now you've got Terry Francona calling for a fifth umpire and level-headed Bruce Bochy blowing a fuse and good Lord, powers that be at MLB, would you please get the $3 million from every team and unleash the most comprehensive replay plan possible to mitigate me wasting a degree on how the people in whose hands you put the game can be so mind-numbingly bad with no safety net to protect them from themselves and the game from them.
Soon enough, like every other ballplayer …
7. Kevin Gausman will have reason to beef with the umps, and that's all well and good. Until then, let's enjoy the virginal moments of his career, particularly those set to Van Halen solos by 14-year-old prodigies.
Gausman inspires such paeans with a fastball that sat around 97 mph during his first start for the Baltimore Orioles. Complement that with a changeup and slider to match and the Orioles have a proto-Strasburg, their own power right-hander whose stuff resembles his Beltway neighbor.
Between Gausman and Manny Machado, the Orioles have two of the best young players in the game. They are proof that when you don't miss on early first-round picks, the rebuilding process can accelerate far beyond the regular timetable. Either that or don't miss on any picks and you'll have a situation similar to …
's in St. Louis, where the Cardinals have so much minor league depth they keep filling their rotation holes with major league-ready pitching. First was John Gast for Jake Westbrook, then Tyler Lyons for Jaime Garcia, and both of those were trying to delay the inevitable ascent of Wacha, their first-round pick last season and a rising star.
Gast is now on the DL, and the expectation is that Wacha will arrive this week to Wally Pipp him. Triple-A Memphis scratched Wacha from his Sunday start, and though he's listed as the starter Monday, it would be a surprise if he wasn't at Busch Stadium on Thursday against Kansas City. Should that make him a Super Two – a player with an extra year of arbitration – so be it. After Garcia's season-ending shoulder surgery, the Cardinals need someone alongside Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn and Westbrook, and Wacha is the right person.
He hasn't allowed more than two earned runs in any of his nine Triple-A starts, and while his strikeouts are down from last season's absurd 40 in 21 innings, scouts report Wacha looks ready as ever. In the battle for NL supremacy, the creativity to make moves when faced with strife could determine home-field advantage. It's why …
9. Evan Gattis is getting at-bats any way the Atlanta Braves can give them to him. Give B.J. Upton a day off and play Gattis in left field, Justin Upton in right and Jason Heyward in center? It's happening now, and if the elder Upton continues to struggle, it will happen more, $75 million contract be damned.
The Braves want to win today, and for Gattis' flaws – the glove and 33-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio – his power is so game-changing it demands his bat be more than a pinch-hit option. Such cleverness will help the Braves let their good problems – Gattis and Brandon Beachy's return – overcome their bad ones, notably the absence of a steady eighth-inning option with Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty's Tommy John surgeries, something Cory Gearrin showed Sunday night.
Beachy, by the way, is throwing harder than he did pre-surgery. He looks so good the Braves aren't going to baby him back into the rotation through some modified bullpen role. When he arrives within the next few weeks, it may force Julio Teheran (who was solid again Sunday and sports a 3.67 ERA) or Kris Medlen (whose ERA is down to 3.16) to the bullpen. Nice problem to have.
Gattis' story, meanwhile, keeps getting better. Now they're writing songs about him and he's up to 10 home runs and his janitor-to-major leaguer tale grows by the in-the-clutch, tape-measure shot. He might be baseball's best freak of nature if not for …
10. Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera, and they do deserve to go together, don't they? They don't have a ton in common other than what they do for a living and how well they do it. Cabrera is from Venezuela, Trout a Jersey boy. Cabrera is married with kids, Trout still solo on his tax return. Cabrera has a World Series ring and another appearance while Trout hasn't tasted the postseason.
They met a few times off the field and were cordial, both marveling at what their lives had become and how intertwined their careers were. Neither made the leap to McGwire and Sosa, perhaps because one of the parties was all of 6 years old during most of the '98 summer.
"I remember McGwire and Sosa a little bit," Trout said. "The homers and stuff. It was kind of a blur."
To all of the 6-year-olds with incredible reading ability: Do not allow this to be a blur. And to all parents of 6- and 7- and 10- and 15- and 21- and 35- and 58-year-olds, please remember: Tell your kid to pay attention to this.
Because if you like baseball, it doesn't matter what team you root for, who your favorite player is or if you have any idea what WAR is. Cabrera and Trout are here for everyone to savor and appreciate.
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