Mike Trout is the best player in baseball. This has been essentially true since the first day he stepped onto a big league field. From his unbelievable rookie campaign in 2012 to his two subsequent American League Most Valuable Player awards, Trout does not want for critical acclaim.
But in the court of public appeal, he doesn't move the needle as one expects. The reasoning for his relative obscurity is widely understood: the Los Angeles Angels are the only professional team he's ever known. They play on the West Coast in the shadow of Chavez Ravine, where the Dodgers attract Hollywood names and the mountains are the product of tectonic movement, not Disney magic. Since Trout exploded onto the scene, his Angels have made the playoffs just once, managing to stick around for a grand total of three games in 2014 after getting swept by the Kansas City Royals.
His team hasn't achieved its goals but Trout himself is playing at a level we've never seen before, though he's not even the most well-known player in his own sport. He's technically the highest-paid player in baseball, earning a shade under $34 million for the 2018 season. Yet his big payday wasn't a sticker-shock inducing free agent deal after a long courtship—which most certainly drove down the total dollars he received—with him instead signing an extension with the Angels before the start of the 2014 season in typically low-key fashion.
For baseball fans not regularly scrolling Fangraphs or watching the Angels, there's been little reason to pay much mind to Mike Trout. Another great player on another lousy team, playing in a secondary market dwarfed by the Dodgers current run of five consecutive division titles and the endless Yankees/Sox battle for galactic supremacy.
Somehow, after years of modest fame but Hall of Fame play, it's all starting to feel more... real? Trout's exploits feel like history happening in real time rather than a baseball hive mind fetish item. The idea that Mike Trout is a transcendent baseball talent, nurtured by baseball nerds and nebulous analytics, finally seems to have taken hold.
There have been two Trouts all this time. The best baseball player in 50 years (maybe ever) is less famous than his Baseball Reference page. It's the subject of great consternation among baseball watchers, the reluctant pitchman and anonymous star lost in any crowd versus the player with no equal on the field.
Trout is due partial credit for this feat. He didn't change who he is or take controversial stances on hot-button topics. He isn't the most exciting player in baseball. He doesn't make highlight-reel catches like Kevin Pillar, conjure evil spirits to defy gravity on the infield like Nolan Arenado, and he doesn't hit exclusively tape measure tank jobs like Giancarlo Stanton. He just continues his relentless attack on the record books, the sum of so many extraordinary baseball parts that even the most casual fans take notice. In 2018, he's doing it a little more than usual with more eyeballs trained on him than ever.
The nationally televised Fox Sports game on Saturday evening might not hold the cultural cache of a Monday Night Football, but it does attract a larger audience than your average Angels/Mariners tilt. Trout recently put on a show under that national spotlight, going 5-for-5 after pounding a home run to go with three doubles, plus an infield single where the refrigerator-shaped 26-year-old straight up outran a routine ground ball to the shortstop.
Feats of strength (and speed) against the Yankees are a great way to get people talking, but it takes more than a few clips on Sportscenter to make believers of the typically provincial baseball fans.
Trout's teammates have historically held him back, with the Angels front office unable to push the team into the playoffs beyond the 2014 appearance. Yet this spring, the Angels were the talk of baseball, as a hot start in Anaheim coincided with the arrival of Shohei Ohtani, the all-pitching, all-slugging Japanese phenom who took the baseball world by storm.
Ohtani's ever-present Japanese media horde and modern Babe Ruth act served as a sideshow that attracted more attention inside Trout's big tent. Add in Albert Pujols' laborious pursuit of his 3000th hit and the Angels' 15-5 start, and Trout was everywhere! Until, of course, a brutal month of May culminated in injuries to Ohtani and the team's all-universe shortstop wizard Andrelton Simmons, leaving the Angels looking again like an also-ran and Trout again looking like a guy who can only do so much. Now they're almost out of the playoff picture in the American League, thanks to the Yankees, Red Sox, and Astros looking like juggernauts, Cleveland backing into the Central Division title, and the Mariners riding a streak of good luck and a deep lineup to a surprising stranglehold on the final playoff position.
But the drops in the G.O.A.T. bucket add up, as Trout keeps hitting home runs and refusing to make outs, while playing a solid-to-great center field. Baseball-centric outlets keep spilling ink, imploring sports fans to LOOK AT THIS FUCKING GUY and they're starting to listen. Should he opt for free agency, the greatest feeding frenzy since LeBron's The Decision will only increase his profile and sphere of influence.
He's the best hitter in the game who also happens to do everything else well, too. He's "on pace" for one of the great seasons by Wins Above Replacement we've ever seen, hitting a staggering .335/.469/.689 with 23 home runs and 13 steals as he enters his 75th game of the season. He's riding a current stretch in which he's reached base safely 29 times out of 37 plate appearances, sporting an OPS over 1.300 in June, and is already 6-plus WAR before the All-Star break. His numbers, both this season and for his career, are flat-out staggering. After six straight years of playing at an unbelievable level, Trout has somehow stepped up his game and could very well put together his greatest season to date. The Angels, of course, have done little during his most recent unconscious stretch, and need the Mariners falter to have any hope of a postseason berth.
Until every team in baseball bows before the Greatest Free Agent Ever, Trout will do what he always does. Show up, get on base twice, put a good scare into the opposing fans, then (presumably) go home to watch the Eagles' Super Bowl parade or The Weather Channel. Every day, every night.
Can Trout's individual greatness alone make him a household name—even for non-MLB fans—like LeBron? Our "count the rings" culture won't make it easy and Trout's become sadly accustomed to going it alone.