Mike Trout #27 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during batting practice for the fame with the Seattle Mariners at Angel Stadium of Anaheim in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
The Angels used to shun young players. But by changing their ways, they've received the greatest single-season performance in organizational history.
If you look down the list of single-season stolen-base leaders for the Los Angeles/California/Anaheim/New Freedonia Angels, you will see the usual, familiar names: Mickey Rivers, Chone Figgins, Gary Pettis, Louis Polonia, Chad Curtis (accursed be his name). That list includes a great deal of speed, led by Rivers' 70 steals in 1975 -- a season that got him traded directly to the Yankees for Bobby Bonds. This is the perfect irony, because what the list is missing is Bobby Bonds-type seasons, those special campaigns that combine power and speed into one all-around threat.
In fact, the Angels have had only one such season of any note, that which they received from Bonds in 1977, when he hit .264/.342/.520 with 37 home runs and 41 stolen bases. It was the second-to-last 30-30 season in a career which featured five of them. Add up all the home runs hit by Rivers, Figgins, et al in those top stolen-base seasons and you get 35, or two less than Bonds hit on his own. Parenthetically, the Angels traded Bonds to the White Sox that December.
The Angels had a couple of other players you might reasonably describe as having had the power-speed magic working for them: in his first three seasons under a halo, Don Baylor averaged 32 home runs and 23 stolen bases a year (along with 11 caught stealing), and Devon White was helped by the juiced ball of his 1987 rookie year to hit 24 home runs while stealing 32 bases. He never came closer than half that home-run total during his remaining years with the Angels.
There is one other player to reckon with, an outfielder with the greatest fluke season in Angels history ... but first let's add one other wrinkle to the power-speed combination, that of hitting .300. Entering this season, the Angels have had 42 player-seasons of .300 or better in a season of 400 or more plate appearances. When it came to speed and power, almost all of them were of the either-or variety. Rod Carew hit .331 with 23 steals in 1980, but knocked only three balls out of the park. Kendry Morales popped 34 home runs in 2009, but stole only three bases.
The great exception was Darin Erstad in the year 2000. Erstad, who never hit .300 in any other season, set the Angels' single-season record for batting average that year by hitting .355. He also hit 25 home runs despite never hitting 20 in any other season, and threw in 28 stolen bases as the cherry atop the sundae.
Erstad was 26 at the moment his career peaked and died all at once; he would play another nine years and hit .267/.319/.367 overall. A significant factor: the all-around skills he displayed in that season belong to the young. Speed ebbs, robbing a player not only of the ability to steal bases in large numbers but also of the ability to leg out the handful of infield hits that might make the difference between .299 and .300.
The Angels spent most of their first decades of existence under owner Gene Autry dealing youth for veterans in the desperate pursuit of a championship before the rapidly-aging "Cowboy" went to the Melody Ranch in the sky.
Part of Autry's "Cowboy Code" was that a cowboy must "be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals." The Autry Angels didn't think much of children, and they left the animals to Charlie Finley and the A's. But boy, did they embrace the elderly. Sure, this was the organization that traded Jim Fregosi for Nolan Ryan, but after that it was all Carney Lansford for Rick Burleson and Dickie Thon for Ken Forsch. Thon and Lansford were, in a lower-key way, power-speed guys themselves. (Thon, of course, never got where he seemed to be headed due to a devastating eye injury suffered when he was hit by a pitch in 1984.)
All of this is a long way of saying that, to date, Mike Trout is the greatest single-season Angels hitter ever. That might seem evident from the quality of his season: .343/.405/.608 with 24 home runs and 39 steals, a Tris Speaker kind of season. But the more important point is that the Angels made room for Trout at a very young age. The Cowboy has been gone a long time (even The Mouse seems a long time ago now), but even at the outset of this season, the Angels let Trout be blocked by the expensive likes of Vernon Wells and Bobby Abreu. Trout's season is an accomplishment, but so is the franchise's eventual willingness to value winning over financial commitments.
No doubt the willingness to change course was in this case aided by the fact that the bad contracts did not belong to general manager Jerry DiPoto; it wasn't him who had to take responsibility to ownership for misspent millions. Whatever the cause, the credit for Trout's season goes not just to Trout himself, but to the organization that provided the soil in which it could flourish, a kind of soil that went against longstanding organizational practice and traditional baseball thinking.