Torii Hunter looked across a boisterous, post-victory Angels clubhouse in the direction of Mike Trout, and spoke loudly enough so that maybe a pair of 20-year-old ears could hear the comparison.
"He has the makings of a Rickey (Henderson)," Hunter said. "The kid is 20, but it seems like he's been around a long time. He has plate discipline, works counts, hits for average, hits with power, steals bases … you can't beat that.
"What's he gonna be doing when he turns 25, and (the cost of) his insurance goes down? He can't even rent a car for five more years. Unbelievable. Give him time, and he'll be Rickey."
That's fast company, literally. But among the factors that have led to the Angels' recent run into serious playoff contention — a run that reached four consecutive wins and 15 of 19 through Monday's victory over the Dodgers — Trout, appropriately enough as the team's leadoff hitter, is first on the list.
Of all the spectacular numbers Trout has posted since his April 28 recall, here's the most-important one: The Angels are 27-15 with him and were 6-14 before his arrival.
Trout was the American League rookie of the month in May, and followed that up by sharing last week's AL Player of the Week award with Hunter. It's rare that teammates share the honor, and even rarer for two who bat 1-2 in a recently reworked batting order.
Trout had 12 multi-hit games in May, and last week was 13 for 25 with back-to-back three-hit games, along with 10 runs scored and four stolen bases. (Although Hunter — benefiting from more fastballs with Trout on base directly in front of him — was 11 for 22 with four homers and 10 RBI, including a two-homer, six-RBI game in Coors Field.)
Trout's multiple-hit-games streak reached eight in the past 10 on Monday, when he increased his batting average to .354. That would place him second in the AL if he had enough at-bats to qualify — which will happen before the end of this month. And Trout's 15 steals (in 18 tries) through Monday were tied for the AL lead with Jason Kipnis.
"He has played about as well as anybody in the league since he was called up," Angels right-hander Dan Haren said about Trout. "He's a big reason why we've come back from eight (games) under (.500). There have been different guys carry us at different points — (Mark) Trumbo, Albert (Pujols). But Mike has been solid from day one.
"It's the little things besides the .350 average and the stolen bases. He works counts. You worry about him (when he's on base). You slide-step, you gotta be quicker (to the plate). Then you leave balls up in the (strike) zone. It's the intangibles you don't see, too."
You'd say that Trout is making it all look too easy, except Pujols keeps telling us that it isn't.
"It's not easy; nothing in this game is easy," Pujols said. "Mike obviously has brought a lot of energy to the lineup and the ballclub. It's pretty awesome. I was talking to Maicer (Izturis) the other day … it's been a long time since we've seen a player like that come into the league; the way he plays the game."
In fact, Trout possesses, "a significant run tool that few have," in the words of Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto. In scout's lingo, Trout is an 80 runner — the highest grade attainable. He has been timed at just more than 3.5 seconds to first base, which is in Ichiro territory — and Trout is a right-handed hitter.
And like Henderson, Trout has an NFL tailback's build at 6-1 and 210 pounds, and if his thick neck and muscular frame are any indication, will fill out in coming years. In fact, Trout passed up a football scholarship to East Carolina after the Angels selected him 25th overall in the 2009 draft — the one in which Stephen Strasburg and Dustin Ackley were the top two picks, and 15 others taken in front of Trout still haven't reached the big leagues.
How did Trout last so long, you ask? Good question. He's from Millville, N.J., which is midway between Philadelphia and Atlantic City in the southern part of the state — and where weather limited his opportunities, as well as those of scouts to get a great read on him, other than his obvious athleticism. Trout did hit a New Jersey-record 18 homers as a senior.
His lightning-quick rise got him to the big leagues last July, but he was a tad overmatched at times — .220/.281/.390 with five homers, 16 RBIs, 20 runs scored and four steals in 40 games. Trout then endured a disappointing Arizona Fall League showing, when he was bothered by shoulder tendinitis that lingered into this spring — which also was dramatically cut short by a virus, forcing him to start the season at Triple-A Salt Lake City.
But all that is behind him now. His season numbers through Monday in 40 games this season: .354/.412/.565, with six homers, 26 RBIs, 35 runs scored.
"We were all aware of how good he could be," Dipoto said. "The experiences of last year did him good. The fact that he's doing the things he's doing now is a testament to who he is, and how he's wired. Guys with Mike's makeup and ability force themselves into a position. When they're ready to run, you just let them run."
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
"Bryce is a middle-of-the-order power guy. He has a bigger frame, and as he fills out, he'll move to a corner (outfield spot). Mike is a middle-of the-field athlete with an overall finished offensive game. And both play really hard. They're there to beat you. Both will wind up being great players."
As for where Trout eventually ends up in the Angels' lineup, Dipoto happily deflects a decision.
"I'll take him wherever he wants to hit," Dipoto said. "But why not leadoff? If he can hit 25-30 homers as a leadoff hitter, that makes him even more valuable. A (great) leadoff hitter is one of the hardest things to find."
Trout sports a buzz cut and has an aw-shucks way about him that makes him seem a bit embarrassed by all the attention he's receiving, while at the same time confident that it's anything but a mirage.
He talks team-first, deflecting personal attention, and can slip into cliches on occasion. Remember, he is 20, after all. But he does know his role as a leadoff hitter, and relishes it.
"Nah, nah, this is far from easy," he said. "I'm just working hard, trying to put good swings on balls. Pitch selection is huge. I'm seeing the ball better lately. I'm laying off tough pitches. That's big for a leadoff hitter — seeing as many pitches as I can, especially to lead off the game. It's like being a guinea pig; I go back to the dugout and let the guys know what I saw."
What we're seeing is the emergence of one of the game's brightest new stars.
"You have to step back and realize that this is a 20-year-old kid doing these things," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "When you see a kid this advanced, producing in the big leagues, it gives you a lot of confidence that he can be an impact player for a long time. And, he's doing it right now."
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