Some of my fondest childhood memories involve nothing more than a glove, a ball and a wall. I would conjure up fun scenarios — two on, no out, bottom of the ninth! — find my favorite patch of grass and get to work. Sweat pouring down my face on those hot summer afternoons, I’d start attacking imaginary hitters with my vast repertoire. I did this frequently; as it turns out, I would wear out patches of dirt all over the place.
As a youngster, like 7 or 8, I convinced myself that if I put three fingers — index, middle and ring — on the ball I’d be throwing a curveball. And it was a good one. (Don’t fact check that.) It doesn’t have to make sense when you are a kid, it just has to keep up the dream.
As I grew up, I tried to simulate actual pitching motions and again found myself plucking baseballs off walls. I never had much interest in actually going out for the team — that wasn’t my crowd, plus I had a job and cash was nice — but I had plenty of fun spinning wiffle balls in the backyard. I tried to throw sinkers and sliders; the results were mixed.
What joyous memories. My love of baseball was cemented.
I say all this because, in many ways, Tyler Skaggs was living the dream of 18-year-old me. He wasn’t just throwing wiffleball curves in his backyard; he was twisting big league hitters into knots with the real thing. He was able to do things I can’t imagine. Skaggs had the talent to succeed and the drive to put it all together. He was doing it. He was pitching in the Major Leagues. How freaking cool. I hope he was living his dream; it isn’t an easy life, but it sure must be a memorable one.
As you probably know, Skaggs died last week in Texas. He leaves behind a wife; they were married last offseason. Not a single word I type here can do anything for Skaggs’ family, but what I can do is celebrate a young man — younger than me — who loved the game I also love.
Maybe in a different life we could have shared a coffee and talked about baseball. I would have liked that. (I also would have almost certainly annoyed him with incessant questions. Alas.)
Today, we are going to look at Skaggs’ final start, which came on Saturday, June 29 against the Oakland Athletics.
In early March, I sent a message to my wife at work. I had something important to say. After scouring the Reds calendar to see who’d be coming to town — an annual tradition for me — I stumbled upon a team that shook me.
The Los Angeles Angels.
But not at first. You see, it happened in a flash. I was originally thinking about contenders — oh, hey, the Houston Astros are coming, hmmm — and nearly skidded right past the Angels. But then, something hit me. Wait. The Angels.
That’s Mike Trout’s team.
I must admit with a degree of shame that as big of a baseball fan as I am, I’ve never seen the world’s greatest ballplayer in person. Just hasn’t happened. Some of that was being a poor college student; some of it was being a poor dude trying to plan a wedding. Don’t hold it against me.
So I grabbed the keyboard and pounded away a message of tremendous importance to my wife. Being the kind and reasonable angel she is, I did not receive a laugh at my insistence, but rather excitement. Sure! Let’s see Mike Trout!
Yes, this August, I will see Mike Trout, live and in person. My wife and I will head to Great American Ballpark, swipe our tickets, buy a brat and a beer and sit down to watch the world’s greatest ballplayer do his thing. (We even got centerfield bleacher seats.)
Trout continues to chart an unfathomable course
I wrote about Trout in the offseason. The premise was the looming asteroid that was his free agency and what he and the Angels might do about it. Ultimately, the Angels ponied up the biggest contract in baseball history; fitting, given that Trout is undeniably the best player alive and a serious candidate for the best player who ever lived. And so it was settled; Trout will play his entire career in an Angels uniform. He will have a statue or two outside the stadium, his uniform retired, etc.
Whether or not he retires as a World Series champion remains to be seen, but I must say, even as a fan of a team in his potential warpath, seeing Trout tear a hole through October is a fantasy of mine. I want this. The sport needs this. I want to see a postseason where Trout hits .360, bashes a handful of home runs and carries the Angels to a title. The sport makes its memories in October.
I appreciate Mike Trout, and so should you. His incredible run cannot be written about enough. Just for example, consider this. Do you know who leads MLB in walk rate? Mike Trout. 20.8 percent. Look at that number — 20.8! A fifth of his plate appearances end in a walk. That’s Barry Bonds territory, and yes some of that is the fear of pitching to Trout, but part of it is his incredible command of the plate.
(For all the potential Shohei Ohtani has shown, he’s not quite terrifying enough yet to warrant pitching to The Man. But he might! Ohtani is fascinating.)
Cody Bellinger is having the best half-season of his life. He’s carried the Dodgers to a healthy lead in the NL West and set himself up for a hell of an NL MVP battle with Christian Yelich later in the summer. (I actually saw Bellinger wallop a home run against the Reds in May; it was an early Father’s Day gift for my Dad.)
Cody Bellinger is riding a surge of batting average that is almost certainly unsustainable. His batting average on balls in play is .355; his career average is .317. (Trout’s 2019 number is actually fifty points below his career average. Could … he actually get hot in the second half? Yikes. There’s a scary thought.)
Bellinger has been hot as fire and has emerged as a superstar. And yet, despite battering the baseball world, Bellinger still doesn’t have an on-base percentage above Trout (CB: .451; MT: .461) and is only barely ahead of him by wRC+ (CB: 193; MT: 187).
Think about the absurdity in this. Bellinger could very well be riding one of the best streaks of his career and is well on his way to perhaps claiming an NL MVP, and he’s basically only eye-to-eye with Mike Trout. That, my friends, is dominance. Last year it was Mookie Betts; before that, Josh Donaldson and Miguel Cabrera. Some people can swim in the deep water with Trout — no pun intended — for a bit, but no one sustains excellence like the Angels center fielder.
On the all-time Wins Above Replacement leaderboard, Trout just passed Hall of Famers Ivan Rodriguez and Eddie Murray, and has drawn equal to Robinson Cano. Current or future Cooperstown enshrinees Tony Gwynn, Tim Raines and Miguel Cabrera are on the dinner menu next. Derek Jeter might become the second unanimous inductee to the Baseball Hall of Fame next winter; Trout could pass him this year or early next. That’s a lot of greatness that Trout is gobbling up like Pac-Man.
Through age 27, Trout is tied for the most Wins Above Replacement ever with Ty Cobb. Ty. Freaking. Cobb. We’re talking about the highest point of the ceiling here, kiddos. Air doesn’t get more rarefied than this. This brings to mind how other sports tend to do a better job in the moment of recognizing their greats. Basketball realized quickly that LeBron James was special; it’s all ESPN has talked about since 2004. Football is still under the boot of Tom Brady. Hockey played up the rivalry between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.
Baseball, though, doesn’t always do that. Oh, we obsess, but usually only over Yankees or Red Sox, Cubs or Dodgers; or, mmm, a nice tasty scandal. We don’t necessarily focus on greatness the same way. Some of that is the very nature of the sport; baseball tends to generate less national conversation. So while I understand that Trout plays for non-contender on the wrong coast and barely ever creates any stir on social media or in interviews, it’s well past time that we start to obsess over what he’s doing.
This is ‘tell your grandkids about it’ stuff, right here and now. Greatness, smack dab in front of us, of a kind rarely seen. That’s why a couple Yankee fans will go to Great American Ballpark to see the Angels.