“I can tell you I wasn’t nearly as good as my son,” Jeff Trout says when I ask him for a self-scouting report. After giving countless interviews in talking-about-Mike mode since his son became the best player in baseball, Jeff redirects reflexively. In addition to being the best at baseball, Mike is also the best at bland answers, so if you want to know more about the reigning MVP, his father might be the best person to talk to. But Jeff, 54, is more than a Mike Trout interpreter: He is, literally, the evolutionary link that leads to a legend, the bridge in the fossil record between normal humans and a pure baseball being. Jeff defaults to self-deprecation when asked about himself, but he was better at baseball than he would have most believe.
We like to tell two stories about our sports stars. First are the stories about the preternatural talents who were always the biggest and best, the ones who might as well have been born with “Wonderboy” etched on their umbilical cords. Those are the stories that make us marvel at how far removed we mortals are from the physical outliers, too outclassed to be envious. Second are the stories about late bloomers — the athletes who were once undersized or awkward, who played JV because they couldn’t crack varsity, who always had doubters before they broke through. Those stories inspire and motivate us, make us reexamine our assumptions, often offer false hope.
Mike Trout’s origin story combines both narratives. There’s plenty of preternatural talent: Mike, who’s hitting a typically brilliant .289/.396/.562 this season, was always large and strong and unfairly fast for someone his size. “As soon as he stepped on the field at a T-ball game, it was evident who the best athlete on the field was,” his father says. Mike batted .356 with patience and power in rookie ball before he turned 18, and .341 in Class A in his age-18 season. He was one of the two best prospects in baseball at 19, and the best player, period, at 20. But there’s an underdog element, also: He was only the 25th player picked in the 2009 amateur draft.
Had the draft order been different, Mike’s success might have seemed more preordained. The Angels and the Yankees both appraised him as the no. 2 talent available, after Stephen Strasburg. But they didn’t pick until the 20s, and the teams that picked ahead of them had their eyes on other players. On the day of the draft, Mike — the only potential draftee to appear in person — sat in an MLB Network studio, posing for pitying reaction shots on the live broadcast as commissioner Bud Selig emerged over and over from backstage like a broken Bud-in-a-box, pausing at the podium to call the names of players who still haven’t made the majors: Donavan Tate and Matt Hobgood, Matt Purke and Bobby Borchering, Chad James and Jiovanni Mier and Jared Mitchell.
We know why other teams were wary of Mike. It wasn’t because of big bonus demands: His $1,215,000 price was the 32nd-highest, behind those of 22 of the 24 players picked ahead of him. Nor was it because of makeup concerns. The answer lies in a recent draft study done by Daniel Meyer1 that shows that high school hitters from “regular” states — those aside from warm-weather powerhouses California, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and Arizona — are the least likely selections to make the majors.
Mike’s late selection was the punch line to a New Jersey joke. He came from Millville, where it was too cold to play baseball year-round, the competition was too inferior to allow analysts to trust his stats, and scouting directors had been burned before. Teams underestimated him because he had a humble beginning, demographically speaking. He fit the profile of a risky pick.
That sort of story, about why someone was underestimated or slipped through the cracks, is usually easy to explain. The other sort of story, about why someone is incomprehensibly skilled, is more mysterious. Science has yet to sequence the genes responsible for producing the best player in baseball, and we know that world-class talent sometimes touches down in unlikely locations. But good baseball bloodlines make the complicated clear. Ken Griffey Jr. flows from Ken Griffey Sr.; Bobby Bonds begets Barry. The sons had three times the career WAR, but at least the fathers were close to the same extreme end of the athletic spectrum.
Mike’s father is a small-town teacher, which makes his current occupation as akin to his son’s as Jonathan Kent’s is to Kal-El’s. (Superman has an inch on Mike, but they’re both listed at 235.) But before he went back to the books, Mike’s father played baseball. That much is well known: Many accounts of Mike’s early career mention that Jeff “made it to Double-A as an infielder with the Twins in the mid-1980s,” or that he “topped out at Double-A.” But while that’s true in the broad strokes, it leaves a lot unsaid. Jeff was much more talented than the typical hitter who plays professionally for a few years and then walks away, defeated. Upon closer inspection, his career makes Mike seem less like a black swan than a natural outgrowth of the Trout family tree.
Jeff, a switch-hitting second baseman, played four seasons at the University of Delaware, a Division I school, where he hit .398/.482/.602 in 175 games. “Jeff was really an outstanding college player,” says his college coach, Bob Hannah. “I would describe him as a very instinctive baseball player. He had a great feel for the game and had exceptional hitting skills.”2 Hannah was head coach at Delaware from 1965 to 2000, leading his teams to a lifetime 1,053-463-6 record. Forty-five players were drafted out of Delaware during those years, and several made the majors, but Hannah remembers that Jeff “ranked right there in terms of the best hitters that we’ve had in this program.”
“I was kind of a Pete Rose–type hitter, a grinder,” Jeff says. He had a compact body: Listed at 5-foot-9, 175, he now confesses to being 5-foot-8. He allows that he was “fairly fast” — 6.8 or 6.9, perhaps, in the 60 — but is quicker to offer shortcomings: “I wasn’t a speed demon, I didn’t have a good arm, and I wasn’t the smoothest defensive player,” he says. Nonetheless, Jeff’s senior year was one of the best college seasons of all time. Admittedly, many promising players don’t have college-senior seasons: Like Mike, they turn pro as soon as possible.3 Still, it’s no exaggeration to say Jeff was the best college player in the country in the spring of 1983. “Between my junior and senior year I worked a lot harder,” he says, citing hours in the gym at a time when weightlifting wasn’t standard practice in baseball. “And it paid off. You could see the results.” Hannah noticed the new Jeff before the season started, when the team was still hitting indoors to escape the winter weather. “What I remember about him hitting in the cage his senior year is everything he hit was a hard-hit line drive, ground ball–type thing,” Hannah says. “He just seemed to square up the ball better than he had in previous seasons.”
Jeff hit .519/.611/.899 in 189 at-bats as a senior, with 20 doubles, 14 homers, and 17 steals in 19 attempts. He struck out only 16 times and drew 45 walks. According to the official NCAA record book, which goes back to 1957, Jeff’s .519 batting average that season as the fourth best of all time for a hitter with at least 150 at-bats:
|Keith Hagman||1980||New Mexico||227||.551|
|Marteese Robinson||1987||Seton Hall||238||.529|
Delaware’s stadium was a hitter’s park, and the ’80s were an offensive era in the NCAA. “It was 330 down the lines, about 370 in the gaps and 400 to dead-center field,” Hannah says of the stadium, which now bears his name. “It was a pretty good hitting ballpark. It had a good hitting backdrop. I think at that time, too, we were using those aluminum bats that were really alive. … But it really didn’t make any difference with a guy like Jeff. He had played in summer leagues with a wooden bat, and he hit the ball just as well with wood as he did with aluminum.”
To put Jeff’s season in context, I asked Chris Long, the former senior quantitative analyst for the San Diego Padres and an expert in amateur draft analytics, to put the all-time leaders in college batting average on a level field. After applying some rough adjustments for home parks, road parks, opposing defenses, and seasonal run-scoring rates to the historical stats, he came up with the same four finalists, slightly rearranged.
|Name||Year||Team||AB||Home Park||Road Parks||Defense||R/G||Adj. BA|
|Keith Hagman||1980||New Mexico||238||1.336||1.090||0.958||6.22||.539|
|Marteese Robinson||1987||Seton Hall||238||0.898||0.980||1.008||6.72||.512|
Jeff ranks fourth regardless, with the adjustments robbing him of 26 points.4 Magadan, who beat Jeff for the unadjusted 1983 batting title by six points before going on to have a 16-year career in the big leagues as an above-average hitter, vaults to the top of the list. “We missed by one game getting into the College World Series,” Hannah says. “I thought if we had gotten to the College World Series, which Magadan did in that year, that it would’ve been a very interesting race to the wire to see who finished on top. Magadan got a few more at-bats in that College World Series than Jeff was able to get. That turned the tide there at the end.”
Of course, when you’re hitting above .500, additional at-bats are more likely to lower your average than they are to raise it. But there’s an important distinction between Jeff and the top three: He was a middle infielder, while the three hitters ahead of him played most of their games at the corners. In that sense, Jeff’s season was the most impressive.
“[Jeff’s] entire 1983 season was absolutely remarkable,” Long says. “Based on what he did in college, you’d have expected him to have been a solid prospect to actually be a major leaguer.”
Jeff’s senior season generated some interest from scouts, though nothing like the stream of admirers Mike attracted in his senior year of high school despite playing in remote Millville. “No general managers came to see me play,” the elder Trout says. “Some cross-checkers, from what I can recall. Scouting directors, probably a few. No one really came out and talked to me a whole lot. I filled out some information for probably a dozen or so teams.”
The Minnesota Twins liked him the most, taking Jeff with the first pick in the fifth round. After signing, Jeff, still at second base, hit .341/.399/.511 with eight home runs in 64 games in the Midwest League, besting the league-average OPS by more than 200 points. Only two other players hit .320 or higher in that league: Javier Ortiz, who posted a career .841 OPS in Triple-A and hit well in his brief big league time, and Wally Joyner, who went on to hit even better than Magadan in a career that spanned the same major league seasons. Jeff was slightly older than the average Midwest Leaguer, but nothing about his professional debut suggested that he wouldn’t be a big leaguer.
In 1984, Minnesota promoted Jeff to Double-A Orlando, where he was young for his league but remained an above-average hitter. He began to play some third base, which he’d do more often in subsequent seasons. In 1985, he returned to Orlando and raised his OPS by 54 points. In 1986, he spent a third season in Double-A, adding another 74 points via a .321/.406/.451 line. According to ESPN analyst Dan Szymborski’s statistical translations, that Double-A line was the equivalent of a .248/.310/.345 line in the majors — and the Twins’ starting second baseman in the big leagues that season, Steve Lombardozzi, hit .227/.308/.347 (with progressively worse performances in the next two seasons). For Jeff, though, that was it: After the ’86 season, he quit baseball at age 25 despite having hit wherever he played.5
As always, there’s more to the story. At Delaware, Jeff had been durable. “The one thing about Jeff was his body never broke down,” Hannah says. “He was always ready to play and available to play physically. So I thought from that standpoint that he probably was going to hold up physically, and that would give him a pretty good shot as long as he continued to hit the ball well.”
But in pro ball, he began to break down. Jeff recalls tearing his plantar fascia landing on the first-base bag in his first pro season. “Then I tore, I think the same thing that [Bryce] Harper did to his thumb one of the years in Double-A,” he says, probably referring to ’85, when he played only 95 games. A football player in high school, he was also bothered by bad knees that eventually led to four surgeries (two on each knee), with the first coming a few years after retirement. He produced despite the pain, but the missed time may have held him back, and the prospect of not playing while battling ongoing injuries didn’t make Orlando’s routine eight-to-12-hour bus trips pass any more quickly.
The final straw came in the spring of ’87. “After the spring training my third year, I got sent to Portland for Triple-A,” he says. “A couple of days through camp I got word that I was going to head back to Orlando, and I just walked away.” A combination of factors made up his mind. He’d gotten married, and he was ready to start making money instead of subjecting his family to the minor league lifestyle. He was banged up and tired of the bus rides, and he didn’t know how else he could prove himself to the Twins.
“I didn’t see myself battling through it, being a minor leaguer for another two or three more years before I got a shot at the big leagues,” he says. “I thought I could hit big league pitching for sure, but it just didn’t work out that way.” And while he acknowledges that he “may have jumped out a little too early,” he says he hasn’t regretted his timing.
In Jeff’s three Double-A seasons, he was teammates with Greg Morhardt, who later became the Angels’ area scout assigned to Mike’s region.6 Morhardt wasn’t tipped off to Mike early through his acquaintance with Jeff — he’d scouted him before he found Jeff’s phone number — so those Double-A seasons probably didn’t help determine Mike’s destination decades down the line, although it always helps scouts to have insight into a player’s parents. Scouting is a strange business: Five years after Mike’s signing (which should enable Morhardt to dine out for free in Anaheim indefinitely), and five months after Mike signed a six-year extension, the team let Morhardt go. (He now scouts for the Braves.) But given the years he spent scouting Mike and playing alongside Jeff, he’s probably the world’s best-qualified person to talk about Trouts.
“Jeff could really hit,” Morhardt says. “He hit the good pitchers. I think sometimes you come around in a different time and you get a different opportunity. … He couldn’t have done any more to get to Triple-A. He earned it multiple seasons and he didn’t get it.”
In retrospect, the Twins probably could have used Jeff, whether they knew it or not. Between Tim Teufel and Chuck Knoblauch, Minnesota went through an extended second-base dry spell. From 1986 to 1990, Twins second basemen — mostly Al Newman, Lombardozzi, and an assortment of forgettable infielders who got more opportunities than Jeff but never amounted to much — produced 3.2 WAR, tied for the second-lowest total among 26 teams. Morhardt suspects that the Twins were trying to put defense first, but if so, they weren’t succeeding.
“I always felt maybe the Twins missed the boat,” Hannah says. “I thought [Jeff Trout] probably could be a very good utility infielder on that artificial turf that they had, but it never quite happened.”
That’s the extended origin story of a superstar, as potent as a spider bite or the light from a foreign sun. Mike’s baseball skills come from Jeff’s side of the family: Jeff’s father was a fine high school player, and his grandfather was good enough for a nickname. “His nickname was ‘Bat’ Trout,” Jeff says. “They called him that because he was the best left-handed hitter in South Jersey.”7 The size comes from Mike’s mother’s side: Debbie, a swimmer and softball player, has five football-playing brothers who are all over 6 feet. “Mike’s a little bit more fluid than Jeff, but the same type of core athleticism was in both of them,” Morhardt says.
It’s probably callous to talk about the elder Trout as if he were the product of a faulty design that was perfected in the next iteration. It would be, anyway, if that weren’t exactly how Jeff talks about himself — with considerable parental pride. Whatever existential angst or inferiority complex a father feels the first time his son stuffs him in a pickup game, Jeff has experienced far more acutely. If he feels any bitterness about the fact that the magic genes just missed him, though, no one would know. Instead, he’s grateful to have gotten the wish any father has for his son: to inherit all of dad’s best attributes and none of his worst. Jeff is the base model, and Mike is the fully tricked-out ride.
“I stressed,” Jeff says. “I would go 0-for-4 and I couldn’t sleep. I battled those demons. It was hard for me to shake off a bad at-bat or an error in the infield. I really, really overthought the game at times, was very introspective about the game. Some of the things I struggled with I tried to give to [Mike] and teach him that’s not the way it should be done. He’s not real introspective. He can shake a bad game off.” That difference leads Jeff to conclude, “[Mike] didn’t get his makeup from me.” But if Mike’s quick stroke and muscular build come from Jeff’s genes, amplified and enhanced by Debbie’s, then maybe perfect makeup is the superpower he owes to nurture, not nature. And if so, then Jeff’s failure to become a big leaguer, despite his MLB-caliber skills, may have helped him mold Mike’s raw materials into their most refined form.
“For any player that you’re watching, you hope that your vision for him is something that he has also, and that he works at it and applies himself and doesn’t get overwhelmed with the failures of the game,” Morhardt says. “You’ve got to sense how hard it is. … In a roundabout, funny way, maybe it worked out better because of how [Jeff] described the game to his son. Because Mike handles those things beautifully.”
Thanks to Alysha Tsuji for transcription assistance.