MINNEAPOLIS -- On Tuesday night, under the sparkling Minnesota sky, they will play baseball on the same diamond, very likely for the last time. It will be Derek Jeter's final All-Star Game. It will be Mike Trout's third.
They will wear the same uniform, dress in the same clubhouse, find themselves on the same lineup card. But don't let those similarities confuse you. This is the night, this is the time, this is the place where their paths diverge.
It's a night to reflect on the starlit road Jeter has traveled. But as Jeter waves goodbye, he has a torch to pass. You could make a case for that torch landing in the grasp of many players who will join him on that field Tuesday night: Andrew McCutchen ... Giancarlo Stanton ... Yasiel Puig ... Clayton Kershaw.
But who is better positioned to grab that torch and not let go than Mike Trout?
The more we see of him, the more we get to know him, the more it feels as if he rolled into baseball out of the pages of a W.P. Kinsella novel. Larger than life. Too gifted and humble to be real.
So why can't this be Trout's night, too? A night to put his stamp on a special All-Star Game. A night with the potential to make us reflect on where he's going -- for about the next two decades -- and on where he might be taking this whole sport along with him.
"Derek Jeter is going to have an All-Star moment, but it's going to be more of a career-reflection moment," said Bill Sutton, one of America's brightest sports-marketing minds, and the director of the Sports and Entertainment Management MBA program at the University of South Florida. "But if Mike Trout does something that becomes an All-Star moment, it's not a career-reflection moment. It's a whole different kind of thing. ... It's about the future of the game."
And inside baseball's inner sanctum, there's nothing they root for harder than for Mike Trout to BE the future of their game. Heck, even the commissioner, good old Bud Selig, found himself telling a story recently of how he asked a longtime scout friend about the legend of Trout.
"I said, 'Compare him to somebody,'" Selig recalled. "He thought for a second -- and he was dead serious -- and he said, 'Mickey Mantle-type ability.' And that's breathtaking. Really breathtaking."
"Mickey Mantle-type ability," the commissioner repeated, after swirling those words around in his brain for a few seconds. "Breathtaking."
But if that's really what Trout is going to become -- That Guy, the next Mantle, the next face of the sport, that next transcendent, breathtaking star -- a lot has to happen, on and off the field.
So let's take advantage of this unique night, this potentially pivotal moment in time, and consider what has to happen -- and how well-positioned Trout is to make those things happen. Ready? Here we go:
Walking with the stars
Before we really delve into where this guy is going, we need to reflect on where he has already gone. At age 22, here is the kind of company Trout is already keeping:
• He's moved into first place, in the history of baseball, in wins above replacement through his age-22 season. He's currently at 25.8, just ahead of Ty Cobb (25.5). Right behind them on that list you'll find another nobody named Ted Williams (23.6).
• OK, next let's just focus on Trout's bat alone. He now ranks second all time in OPS+ (which factors in both ballparks and eras) through his age-22 season (at 169). Ahead of him is only that Ted Williams guy (at 182). The six names right behind those two in modern history: Cobb, Jimmie Foxx, Eddie Matthews, Rogers Hornsby, Mantle and Mel Ott. Whoever they are.
• But even if you measure him with more traditional numbers, Trout has already zoomed past 500 hits, 300 runs, 200 walks and 80 home runs. And only six other men could say that before their age-23 season: Williams, Mantle, Foxx, Ott, Al Kaline and Kenneth Griffey Jr. But here's where Trout separates himself from those six: No one else on that list had stolen more than 60 bases by this point. Trout has already swiped 96 bases.
Now we don't fire those numerological lightning bolts at you just to show off. We've unfurled them because they tell us something important:
Players who make this sort of impact this young don't fade away and don't turn into Bob Hamelin or Joe Charboneau. They just keep right on rocking.
Of the top 10 eligible names on that OPS+ list, nine (all but Sherry Magee) are in the Hall of Fame. Of the top 20 eligible names on the WAR list, 16 are in the Hall. And every eligible player in that 500/300/200/80 club is a Hall of Famer.
So no wonder the people who get to watch this act every day already believe that's where Trout is heading -- even though a lot of guys his age are still hanging out in the Carolina League.
"Obviously, he's only three years [into his career]," Angels third baseman David Freese said of Trout. "But I think it's fair to say he's well on his way to being one of the greatest ever."
"In 20-25 years, I think we'll be saying, 'That was probably one of the best athletes we've seen in the modern era,'" said Angels interim hitting coach Dave Hansen. "We'll say, 'He was amazing. He could hit. He could run like you wouldn't believe. And how 'bout his baseball instincts? He covered so much ground in center field.' That's what we're going to be saying. And just his numbers. Look at his numbers. I mean, they compare with all the greats."
So is that really where Trout is going? To a place where you can find only "all the greats"? Well, face it: It's easy for them to say and easy for us to say. But we took it one step further.
The ultimate projection
The fabled ZIPS career-projection model comes with no money-back guarantees, with no promises of perfection. So if it turns out not to be quite right in Trout's case, don't send your lawyers looking for us in the year 2034. OK?
But just this month, we asked ESPN.com's resident ZIPS expert, Dan Szymborski, to project Trout's career for us. Here's what his hard drive calculated:
• Trout's most likely career slash line (after 20 years): .286/.394/.514/.908. Based on that slash line alone, it would put Trout in roughly Gary Sheffield territory (.292/.393/.514/.907). But ...
• Now let's fill out the rest of the stat sheet -- with 2,862 hits, 519 stolen bases, 468 home runs, 547 doubles, 165 triples, 1,280 extra-base hits, 1,893 runs scored, 1,596 RBIs and a career WAR of 130.4. You'll find only one man in history who had that career: Mr. Barry Bonds, ladies and gentlemen. And that's all.
You should know that only seven position players who ever lived have been worth 130 WAR or more. There's a good chance you've heard of them: Babe Ruth, Bonds, Willie Mays, Cobb, Hank Aaron, Tris Speaker and Honus Wagner.
Or there's this: The only men in history who put up that extra-base-hit total, regardless of any other numbers on their stat line, were Bonds, Aaron, Ruth and Mays. And only Bonds had 500 steals to go with it.
Or this: Here's the elite group with 500 steals and 500 doubles: Cobb, Wagner, Bonds, Rickey Henderson and Paul Molitor. Period.
So if ZIPS is right, Trout will be walking with legends -- and only legends -- some day. But now here's something that's really scary:
ZIPS also projects there's a 10 percent chance Trout could have this career:
.319/.430/.577/1.077/625 HR/3,550 H/632 SB/2,250 R/1,434 XBH/170 WAR.
Yikes! And what are we looking at if he does that? Well, it would probably make him the greatest player in the history of Planet Earth. That's all.
But even if you want to be slightly more magnanimous to his forebears, the only possible comparables would be Ruth, Bonds or possibly, if you want to push the bar far enough, Mays. But that would be it.
So there you have it. The projectionists have spoken. Now it's up to us to decide what to make of the projections.
If you're familiar with Trout's work, you won't be surprised to learn that when we attempted to run these numbers past him, he wasn't interested.
"I'm not one of those guys who says, 'I want to try and be like this guy or be like that, with those kinds of numbers,'" he said.
When we later asked what kind of career he'd like to have if he were his own personal script writer, he replied, not particularly shockingly: "I don't think it would be numbers. It would be championships. Get to the playoffs. That's all. It doesn't matter what I hit."
And then he dropped the name of the player whose career he would most like to re-enact. Guess whose?
"It would have to be Jeter's," he said, because of all those rings on Jeter's fingers. "That's the only personal goals I have, is just to win championships."
OK, so obviously, this guy is determined to leave the projections -- and the job of deciding what they mean -- to us. And that's cool, because no one really knows for sure how accurate any projection will turn out to be, anyway.
"I just think it's hard to project even 15 years ahead," said another of Trout's teammates, C.J. Wilson. "So you have to temper your expectations. ... And I feel like if you project too much, it's almost like you're ruining the experience of watching somebody play."
Well, we'd sure hate to mess up the fun by doing something like that. So instead, let's focus on that experience. And when we do, you'll understand why this man is likely to age so well. Heck, even the pitchers who face him have grudgingly acknowledged that.
He's already figured them out
Now we turn the floor over to four veteran pitchers who have had the (ahem) pleasure of facing this Mike Trout dude, and have enough scars to show for it that they don't talk about him the way pitchers talk about normal 22-year-old hitters.
Those four pitchers would be: Aaron Harang (against whom Trout has gone 7-for-17, with a .412/.476/.529 slash line); Mike Adams (3-for-6, .833 SLG); Trout's former teammate, Ervin Santana (2-for-4, with a HR); and Ryan Dempster (6-for-13, .462/.533/1.308, with three doubles, two HRs and a triple). Here's the picture they painted:
• HE HITS HIS PITCH, NOT YOURS: "He knows his own zone," said Santana, whose time as Trout's teammate gave him so much insight into how to get the guy out, that he made it through exactly two pitches of their first encounter before Trout homered off him. "He just realizes what he can do, and he swings in that area only. If you throw it [somewhere else], he takes it. He's just not going to swing."
And how unusual is that? "I've never seen that," Santana said. "How good he is. The talent that he has. And he's not done learning yet."
• WHEN HE GETS HIS PITCH, IT'S UH-OH TIME: "He doesn't miss his pitch when he gets it," said Dempster, who is currently working as an analyst for the MLB Network after a 16-year big league career. "Anybody can wait for their pitch. But how many guys say, 'OK, I'm going to swing at a breaking ball,' and when they get the breaking ball, they pop it up to short? He doesn't do that. He's hitting it hard somewhere."
Dempster ought to know. Every hit he ever allowed to this guy was an extra-base hit. Which led to a story about facing Trout in Texas two years ago. Dempster got him to swing at and miss a fastball down and away, and ingeniously tried to go back to the same pitch in the same location two pitches later. Oops!
"I threw the same fastball that he swung and missed, in the exact same spot," Dempster said. "And he hit it out. And I went, 'Whoa.' You don't see that. That's quick adjustments."
• WEAK CONTACT ISN'T HIS THING: Nothing frustrates any pitcher more than making that perfect pitch -- and getting zilch to show for it. But Trout seems to have an innate ability to foil those perfect pitches, said Harang, who has faced Trout 21 times -- more than all but five other pitchers. "He'll waste a pitcher's good pitches," Harang said, "to get to the point where the pitcher makes a mistake, so he'll hit the pitch that he wants. Like I could throw him a good slider, and he'll foul it off. I'll throw him a fastball in on his hands, and he'll find a way to foul it off instead of putting it in play weakly. And that's like a lost art. Joey Votto does that, where he'll take a good pitch, one that he's not quite committed to swing at but knows it's a strike, and he'll just foul it off, so he can come back and wait for you to make that mistake he can drive. For his age, that's something you just don't see."
• HE'S A LOW-BALL HITTING MACHINE: "He doesn't necessarily have a weak spot," said Adams, another fellow whose AL West duels with Trout (back in Texas) didn't go so hot. "He's hard to figure out. He's a low-ball hitter, too. And that plays in his favor so much, because pitchers are told to keep the ball down. And that's where he does his most damage. He's also a five-tool guy. He can beat out an infield hit. He can drive the ball. ... Hopefully, you just make a good pitch and he gets himself out. Him and Miguel Cabrera -- they're the two guys you just hope get themselves out."
Since Trout's first full season in 2012, he's hitting .362 with a 1.044 OPS on pitches that can be defined as "down." That ranks No. 1 in the sport. The average hitter has batted .233 with a .656 OPS on those same pitches.
Dempster told another tale, about throwing what he thought was a perfectly located, 1-and-2, down-and-away fastball to Trout, and watching him turn it into a laser-beam triple off the right-center-field fence.
"If you were going to draw a box that you should throw it to, that's where you want to throw it," Dempster said. "But hey, great hitters, that's what they do. They take that pitch, down and away, and what do they do? They line it to right field. Derek Jeter made a career out of that. But Trout, he's driving that pitch. And that's so unique. And not just driving it, like obscenely driving it. It's not just gap power. It's a bomb the other way."
So why don't pitchers just start pitching him up, you ask? Ho-ho-ho. Easy to say. Hard to do.
"Because he doesn't swing at those pitches," Santana said. "So you'd be wasting a pitch. You're trying to make him swing when he's not going to swing."
Now we're not trying to claim this guy is slump-proof. Trout did, in fact, have a three-week period from April 29 to May 19 this year in which he hit .164 with 24 strikeouts and only 11 hits in 86 plate appearances. But then the light bulb flashed right back on, and he hit .387/.477/.766 over the next month and a half. Hey, of course he did.
"His 'really bad' slump lasts three weeks and not three months," said Dempster. "His 'little' slumps last two at-bats, not two days. ... He makes those adjustments, just like that [while snapping his fingers]."
So what we have is one of those rare members of the species who refuses to let the rest of the sport find any significant weakness to exploit. And how is that possible?
"I don't know," laughed Santana. "He's coming from another planet." But the truth is, Mike Trout isn't an alien. He's just ...
Making adjustments faster than anyone else
So the pitchers have spoken. But we aren't through chasing perspective on what makes this man so impervious to the hitter-unfriendly forces that are sweeping the baseball universe.
Next, we'll turn to three men with a different viewpoint: (A) an advance scout; (B) an American League executive who is involved in data and video-based scouting for his club; and (C) Eddie Bane, the Red Sox exec who was formerly the Angels' scouting director who drafted and signed Trout in 2009.
The focus of their discussion was the most important question of all: Why can't the rest of the sport figure out Trout the way opponents seem to figure out pretty much everyone else with a bat in his hands?
Well, the answer, said the AL exec, is: The sport has actually figured him out. Kind of ... just not successfully.
"In some ways, I think the league has adjusted," the exec said. "If you look at how he's pitched now, there's actually a pretty consistent pattern. Everyone tries to come up and in on him. ... But his skill set is so refined for his age that teams haven't had success [doing] that."
It's been established that Trout does have a hole -- up in general, and up and in, in particular. But it's not "a glaring hole," the exec said. And his "weakness" is just "a relative weakness" compared to how good he is everywhere else.
"He covers up and away and middle away so well, and he covers down and in extremely well," the exec went on. "So you just don't have a large margin for error. The scouting reports say to pound him in, and guys do pound him in ... But you need to really get it in, like in a 4-by-4 [inch] spot ... or he'll kill you.
"A lot of guys you pitch 'in' are swinging at balls so far in off the plate, that it's a reasonable strategy. But he doesn't do that. He has such a mature approach. It's so rare that he swings at balls off the plate. ... You'll see him take balls two inches off the plate, and have no interest in swinging at them."
Not surprisingly, the advance scout was singing the same operetta, even though we didn't give him any indication of how other teams saw Trout.
"He's the best low-ball hitter in the major leagues," the scout said. "He hits that pitch down, and down and away, as well as anybody I've ever seen. Most hitters have holes. He doesn't have much of a hole. Up and in would be about it. But you've got to get it in there, because up and middle usually goes out of the park."
Now remember, advance scouts stay employed by finding weaknesses to exploit in everybody. But what this scout sees is a player who is close to weakness-free -- with no indication that's going to change anytime soon.
"His knowledge of pitching is going to grow," the scout said. "He already knows the strike zone really well. So controlling the strike zone isn't going to be a problem. He doesn't chase much now. But as he figures it out and gets a better body of knowledge of how pitchers are trying to get him out, his mastery of the strike zone is only going to grow. He's something, man. You've pretty much got to make a perfect pitch on him, or he'll get you."
Asked if he saw anything at all that could undo Trout's path to greatness, aside from injury, the scout replied: "Really nothing." And Bane, the man who drafted him, is fully on board with that assessment.
"I really can't think of anything that could stand in his way," Bane said. "The power is off the charts. He scores a ton of runs. He drives in a ton of runs. Every time he steals a base, he's safe. ... So show me one reason he's not going to go up [in performance].
"He's not going to get bored," Bane went on, "because he loves baseball. He looks like an SEC safety, so that body's not going anywhere. He's the fastest guy on the field -- and the strongest. He's got a great eye, and incredibly fast hands. So he should be better than all the other guys, until you look out and see five or six other guys on the field like that. So tell me why his numbers are going to go down. I can't think of any reason."
Well, here's one: Trout isn't going to get faster. So while he might be a fellow who's sprinkling 20 to 30 infield hits a year among the 489-foot homers right now, that's not going to happen forever.
But the projections tell us his power should stay fairly steady. In fact, all three of these men think he'll actually hit more home runs as his knowledge of pitchers grows. Plus, he is already foiling the few shifts he sees with his ability to crush balls to the opposite field. So he's one of those rare hitters who figures to defy modern defensive strategy.
So is he going to keep up this Superman act for years to come? Obviously, you never know -- with anyone. But think about the phenoms Trout was once compared with: Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Brett Lawrie, Xander Bogaerts. Only one of these men has been impervious to the dips and struggles almost all young hitters in history have gone through. And that, of course, would be Trout. But wait. There's ...
One more thing
We can break down the swing. We can break down the approach. We can analyze the skill set. But if Trout is really going to succeed Jeter as the next Face of Baseball, it's going to require more than mere baseball talent.
It takes character, presence, charisma and the inner strength to handle the crush of a spotlight that never burns out.
So ask yourself this: Is there anyone in baseball, once Jeter fades into the rearview mirror, who fits that profile better than Trout?
"You never hear anything about this guy that's not apple pie," said Bill Sutton. "He's Jack Armstrong, and that's extremely rare. He's very quiet. He's very humble. He signs a big extension, and he's still about the team, all about winning. He's very Jeter-like. 'I' never comes up. It's always 'we' and 'us.'"
And whatever it is Trout is projecting, America is buying it. We know, because the public already has spoken on this topic, via polling that was done earlier this year by Repucom, a company that measures celebrity appeal both inside and outside of sports by measuring the "DBI" score of stars in all walks of life.
On one hand, in separate polls of 1,000 Americans, age 13 to 75, who didn't necessarily define themselves as sports fans, a much higher percentage of those surveyed indicated they were "aware" of Jeter (75.4 percent) than Trout (25.62). And that's understandable. But ...
Trout actually outrated Jeter in every other category in the survey among those who were aware of both players:
So what does that response tell us? It tells us, said Sutton, that Trout's "heroic appeal is contrary to the times in which he plays. He is humble at a time when our stars are not humble. He is wholesome, in a traditional way, as our athletes are tattooed and nontraditional. He is a consummate team player with both grace and power. He is capable of almost Herculean achievements, and he plays in a glamour market. ... There are no negatives with this guy."
And as rare as that is, here's what's even more rare: It became clear, over the two months we worked on this story, that it isn't just the general public that perceives Trout this way. It's also the rest of baseball.
Guess which player got more All-Star votes in this year's player balloting than anyone else? It was Trout, of course. In fact, he got more than twice as many votes (731) as Jeter (344), for what that's worth.
But go beyond that -- and listen to how people inside the game talk about him:
• From Freese: "He's got the drive to be one of the best ever. ... He's one of those guys, one of very few guys, who's got that gear that the great ones have. Which is really admirable, to have it that young. And he's not going to change. I don't think I've ever seen him turn down an autograph, which is impressive. ... He loves everything that baseball brings."
• From Hansen: "This kid is on the road to greatness, I think. He's that special. But if there's a little kid around, if there's somebody that wants to meet him, he engages that. He takes the time. And that's the kind of person that I'm looking at, more than the baseball player. He's a well-raised young man. Mike Trout loves -- I mean loves -- the competition. But if there's a moment where he can show some humility and some compassion for a young kid, he's going to do it. I've seen it already. That's pretty special, I think."
• From Dempster: "How do you not love this guy, man? I mean, not just numbers-wise, but how he plays. He hits that [489-foot home run in Kansas City] almost over the waterfall in center field, and before it's over the fence, he's almost at second base. In case it miraculously hit a seagull or something, he was not going to be standing there on second. He was going to be on third. I love that about him. You never see him not run hard. He never styles a home run. He never bat-flips it. He always just has so much respect for the game. ... He's just got 'it.' Whatever 'it' is, he's got it."
• From Harang: "A guy with his kind of talent, I mean, it's disgusting. [Laughs]. But it's special, too. You don't get these types of players very often. ... He's fun to watch. He's actually not fun to watch when he's on the other side of the diamond. But all the rest of the games, he's really fun to watch."
• From Bane: "In terms of makeup, he's up there at the top of guys I've drafted and signed. ... When I picture him, I picture him sliding into third, with a look on his face you just don't see very much, that look of sheer pleasure. The last time I saw that look was on the face of Little League kids who were saying, 'Wait till after the game, when we can go get snow cones.'"
But now, as this magical Tuesday evening presents us with yet one more reason to reflect on where Mike Trout is going, it won't be for snow cones. No sir. For this man, unless something unforeseen derails him, there is something way more flavorful ahead.
"Your first instinct," said Wilson, "is to compare guys to him. So you think, 'OK, let me think of the list of comparables.' And it's like every dude [you could compare him to] is in the Hall of Fame. So you want to avoid rushing to that judgment. Because it's so fun just to watch him play, you just want to pick up the popcorn and watch the show.
"Just let him be himself. You don't have to compare him. He'll be good enough himself that everyone is going to want to be the next Mike Trout. [Laughs.] I know I wish I was the next Mike Trout."
So maybe this is the star-spangled night where it hits us. That we're watching the best player on the field -- even though the rest of the men on that field are the best players alive. That we're watching a special talent with a personality to match. That it almost feels as if we're watching some sort of superhero, gliding through life -- and North America's emerald outfields -- on a potentially historic journey.
Now we just need to figure out which superhero he's about to become.
"Right now?" Dempster asked, laughing. "It seems like he'd be Captain America."