From his rookie season through 2017, Trout has made six All-Star teams in a row, won two Most Valuable Player Awards and three times finished as the runner-up. He broke his thumb last year and finished fourth, but still led the majors in on-base plus slugging percentage, with a career-best 1.071.
To watch Trout play, with grace and abandon, is a joy for any fan. He delights statisticians, too — just 26, Trout has already compiled more career wins above replacement than the Hall of Famers Tony Perez, Kirby Puckett and Sandy Koufax, among many others.
“The way Mike readies himself for competition and the amount of enjoyment he gets from playing this game, it rolls off of him, and it’s noticeable to teammates,” General Manager Billy Eppler said last season. “This guy has more fun doing it than anyone. It’s very refreshing to see a guy enjoying the game like a high school student would enjoy the game.”
With a successful recruiting pitch to Ohtani, Eppler has made it even more enjoyable for his franchise center fielder. As the Yankees’ former assistant general manager, Eppler tracked Ohtani closely, and has traveled often to Japan. Other teams pushed hard, including two of the Angels’ rivals in the American League West, the Seattle Mariners and the Texas Rangers, who also met with Ohtani. But Eppler prevailed — and he really needed the win.
The Angels scrambled last season just to finish 80-82. They used 31 pitchers, and the only one who worked 150 innings, Ricky Nolasco, went 6-15. While Albert Pujols drove in 101 runs, his career-low .672 O.P.S. ranked 137th out of the 144 major league hitters who qualified for the batting title.
For that, the Angels paid Pujols $26 million. His salaries for the next four seasons climb by $1 million each year, to $30 million in 2021, when he will be 41 years old. Pujols made 142 starts as designated hitter last year (and just six at first base), so if the Angels want to use Ohtani as D.H. when he does not pitch, it will force Pujols from that spot.
The Angels have not addressed that issue yet. Their statement said they felt a “unique connectivity” with Ohtani, without specifying his role. Whatever the arrangement, Ohtani seemed thrilled. His agent, Nez Balelo, cited “a true bond with the Angels” as the overriding factor in the decision.
Ohtani could have joined a team that has had a Japanese star, like the Mariners, the Rangers and the Yankees, among others. Instead, he joins a franchise whose biggest Japanese contributor has been Shigetoshi Hasegawa, a middle reliever who arrived in 1997. The next season, when Hasegawa came into games, the team would play “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” by Will Smith, over the loudspeakers — “jiggy” sounds like “Shiggy,” get it?
Needless to say, while Hasegawa had five solid seasons, he was not a phenomenon. That is what Ohtani will be, and by extension, more fans should now get to watch Trout on national telecasts. Last season, ESPN did not schedule the Angels for “Sunday Night Baseball,” its regular-season showcase, until the final broadcast of the season.
A relative lack of exposure has never seemed to bother Trout, who cares much less about his brand than most superstars. He signed a contract extension in 2014 for six years and $144.5 million, delaying his free agency until after the 2020 season. He has never publicly pressured the Angels to build more aggressively around him, yet their window is shrinking to capitalize on his prime.
In the Angels’ division, the Houston Astros have passed them by. In their market, the Los Angeles Dodgers have done the same. But the franchise took an important step on Friday, which could turn out to be a landmark day for the best player in baseball.