Mike Trout's manager, teammates enjoying his return to MVP form along with MLB fans: 'He's just going out there and being Mike'

Mike Trout is playing like an MVP again. If you’re surprised, that’s on you.

“Anything that he’s doing, I know you guys have seen it before,” Angels manager Ron Washington said last week before the series opener in Cincinnati. “It’s not a surprise when he hits a ball 450 feet.”

That was seemingly referring to Trout’s titanic blast earlier this month in Miami, his 13th home run of 450-plus feet in the Statcast Era (since 2015). So far this season, Trout is leading the American League with nine homers and is on pace to set a career high for homers in a season.

But no matter the stop-and-start nature of his recent injury-marred seasons, Trout has never ceased hitting the ball hard with regularity. Even in 2023, comfortably his worst season as a big leaguer, he ranked in the 95th percentile in xwOBA, barrel rate and hard-hit rate. To Washington’s point, anyone taken aback by the right-handed slugger’s ability to smash baseballs to previously undiscovered areas of big-league ballparks has simply not been paying attention.

Washington’s next assertion, though, was a bit more curious. Because while Trout hitting like an MVP again is hardly a stunner, based on his track record, another part of his game has stood out through the first month of the 2024 MLB season.

“It’s not a surprise when he’s stealing two bags,” Washington said, referencing Trout’s two-steal game Thursday against Tampa Bay. “He’s done that before.”

Technically, yes, we have seen that from Trout — but not for quite some time. That was Trout’s first multi-steal game since July 23, 2018. In other words: It was a surprise.

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While the pure speed has never abandoned him — Trout has ranked in the top 10% of MLB in average sprint speed every season since Statcast began tracking it in 2015 — Trout’s ambition on the basepaths has lessened to a borderline stunning degree as he has aged. When he stole two bases in that game in Tampa — second and then third during the same at-bat — he matched his total through 82 games last season in just 19 contests. And with his next steal, Trout’s 2024 total of six will equal what he amassed in the previous four seasons combined.

Whether the lack of stealing in recent years has been a matter of self-preservation — Trout sprained his thumb stealing second and missed nearly two months back in 2017 — or simply a loss of interest in pushing the envelope on the bases when he can make a massive impact at the plate, the numbers speak for themselves. It once appeared that the Trout who stole 49 bases as the AL Rookie of the Year in 2012 or even 24 bases in 2018 was long gone, never to return, and it’s within that context that Trout’s early-season surge in the stolen base column stands out.

With that in mind, it’s easy to hear Angels players talk about the collective mindset under new manager Ron Washington and connect it to Trout’s newfound aggressiveness on the bases.

“It’s not just stealing bases, you know. It’s going first to third, taking the extra base,” outfielder Mickey Moniak said. “And that’s something that Wash talked about from the first day of camp. [He] conveyed the message to us that that’s going to be our identity, and it’s something that definitely sits well with the whole team.”

But Washington is quick to reject any insinuation that his presence has pushed Trout to rediscover his all-around game. “What you see Mike Trout doing is what Mike Trout wants to do, what Mike Trout is capable of doing and what I want to see Mike Trout keep doing,” he insisted. “So it doesn’t have anything to do with me.”

Added Moniak: “I think everybody here — and, I’m sure, a lot of people out there — still know that that’s Mike Trout, you know, one of the best baseball players of all time. So I think what he’s doing right now, it’s no surprise to us. He’s just going out there and being Mike.”

It’s fitting that Washington has the opportunity to manage this version of Trout, considering how the baseball lifer was introduced to the star outfielder.

“When I was in Texas and he was a youngster that came up, I remember him mashing baseballs all over the place,” he said.

Indeed, Washington’s final four years managing the Texas Rangers coincided with Trout’s first four years in the big leagues. In 64 games against the AL West-rival Rangers in those seasons, Trout hit .316/.441/.570 — a triple-slash firmly in line with Wash’s recollection of baseballs being mashed. In fact, of the 98 homers and 102 steals Trout tallied by the end of his age-22 season in 2014, 13 homers and 12 stolen bases came at Texas’ expense.

“I remember we couldn’t stop him on the basepaths, and he came with a lot of energy,” Washington said.

Now that Washington has Trout in his dugout, he’s more than happy to reap the benefits of such a gifted player. “And that’s what I’m seeing now: I’m seeing him mash the baseball, and I see him playing with a lot of energy.”

To that point: Only Reds sensation Elly De La Cruz (7 HR, 12 SB) has a higher combined total of homers and steals than Trout’s 14 (9 HR, 5 SB) so far this season.

Beyond the elite on-field production, Washington has been similarly appreciative of how Trout is impacting the group of young players around him. Because as spectacular as Trout can be, so much about this Angels season hinges on the development of the young offensive core and its ability to not only survive but also produce at the highest level. So far, Trout is consistently playing a supporting role in that process.

“I never was in the dugout to hear what he’s saying,” Washington said of his earlier experience managing against Trout. “But when he’s not in an at-bat, he’s studying the pitcher. He’s giving information to the players. That’s a leader. And that’s what I wanted to see.”

For 24-year-old Logan O’Hoppe — off to an excellent start in his own right, with an .875 OPS as the Angels’ every-day catcher — witnessing Trout’s on-field excellence up close was hardly a shock, but how welcoming the veteran has been off the field has made O’Hoppe’s transition to a new organization that much easier.

“I mean, I expected him to be a good dude,” O’Hoppe said. “But he’s like a big brother of mine now.”

Anthony Rendon, who led off in 19 of the Angels’ first 21 games, recently hit the injured list due to a hamstring strain, leaving the top of the Angels lineup in flux. With the team mired in a five-game skid — in which Trout had gone 1-for-18, including a game-ending strikeout with the bases loaded and his team down by two on Monday — Washington decided to “shake things up” ahead of Tuesday’s game against Baltimore. He inserted Trout into the leadoff spot, a place he hadn’t batted since 2020 and had filled just four other times in the past decade.

On its face, it seemed like a drastic change, considering the lack of recent precedent. But with Trout’s play so far this season reminiscent of a younger version of himself — he was the primary leadoff hitter during his historic rookie season, after all — batting him first felt wholly appropriate.

Naturally, Trout responded immediately. He smoked a 98 mph heater from Grayson Rodriguez to right-center field to give his team an early lead, and the Angels went on to win 7-4 and snap their losing streak.

It was Trout’s first leadoff home run since Sept. 28, 2012 — in Texas, with Rangers manager Ron Washington in the opposing dugout. Washington had, in fact, seen it before.

Whether Trout will stay in the leadoff spot is an open question, but the overall picture here is unquestionably encouraging. Trout has started all 24 games for the Angels thus far, 21 of them in center. He is healthy. He is striking out at a lower rate than he has in years. He is stealing bases again. He is mashing baseballs all over the place.

“He’s just playing baseball the way he wants to play baseball — free,” Washington said. “And I’m so happy to be able to watch.”

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