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OC Register: Angels star Mike Trout is still getting better, especially on defense

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ANAHEIM — While Shohei Ohtani is the baseball world’s new fascination, and Albert Pujols is on the verge of adding yet another line to his Hall of Fame resume, the constant hum in the background is Mike Trout.

Just the best player in the world, subtly pushing the bar ever higher in the prime of his career.

“I don’t know how many levels he has, but there’s more levels,” marveled Angels general manager Billy Eppler. “That’s a lot of levels.”

Take a moment away from the obsession with Ohtani or the Pujols Hit Counter — at 2,996, by the way — and you’ll notice that Trout is somehow still improving.

The Angels’ 26-year-old superstar has already won two MVPs and finished second three times. He is also perhaps playing the best baseball of his career right now.

“He wants to get better,” Angels third base coach Dino Ebel said. “I give this guy a lot of credit. He hears his name a lot, and he ignores it. He’s trying to find ways to get better.”

Trout is hitting .291 with 10 homers and 18 RBI. He has a .408 on-base percentage, a .631 slugging percentage and an OPS of 1.039. Last season, Trout slashed .306/.442/.629, and his career line coming into this year is .306/.410/.566.

Aside from the early homer binge, Trout is mostly clipping along at the same elite level offensively.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you can see how Trout is making tangible gains, most notably plate discipline and defense.

Trout said before the season that his goal was to improve his defense, mostly by focusing during batting practice on getting quicker jumps off the crack of the bat.

With the caveats that defensive metrics are imperfect, and the sample size of one month is too small to make any definitive judgments, the evidence so far is that Trout is better.

Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) are both calculated based on the spot on the field where a play is made, measuring a fielder’s performance relative to the average major leaguer. DRS further weights the data based on the number of bases a play saves or costs his team.

Last year, Trout had DRS of -6 and UZR of -4.4, meaning he was below average in both metrics. So far this year, his DRS of 5 is tied for the major league lead, and his UZR of 1.2 is fourth.

Trout has also made 20 “out of zone” catches already this season, or one every 12 innings. Last year he made 63, which was one every 15 innings.

Some of those gains could be the result of his positioning. Statcast, compiled by MLB Advanced Media, can measure the actual ground an outfielder covers after the ball is hit. Outs Above Average (OAA) uses distance and time measurements to compare the range of outfielders.

Last year Trout’s OAA ranked 89th among 124 outfielders with at least 100 opportunities. This year he’s tied for 11th among 105 outfielders with at least 25 opportunities.

“I am getting balls that I don’t think I could have gotten to before,” Trout said. “I think it’s my first step and positioning.”

Trout also appears to be playing more aggressively. He dove for only one ball all of last season, and this season he’s already dove twice.

“I tell myself I can catch everything, instead of giving up midway through,” he said.”It’s just a matter of being more aggressive.”

Ebel, who coaches the Angels’ outfielders, said Trout is not only getting quicker jumps, but he’s taking better routes to get to the ball.

At the plate, Trout is making more contact, and better contact, than he ever has before, along with swinging at his fewest pitches out of the strike zone.

Expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA), from Statcast, calculates a player’s overall hitting performance, based on the quality of his contact, his strikeouts and walks. Trout’s .453 xwOBA would be a career-high. It continues a trend of steady improvement, with his xwOBA going from .414 to .421 to .424 each of the past three years.

Trout is also swinging at 16.7 percent of pitches out of the strike zone, which would be a career low. That number has trended down, from 24.7 to 23.5 to 20.6.

He is also making contact on 86.1 percent of his swings, which would be a career high. Again, the last three years: 80.1, 81.3, 83.1.

The improvement in his contact and discipline was first apparent in the spring, when he went 44 plate appearances without a strikeout.

Trout shrugs off the offensive improvements, insisting they are not part of a conscious effort in the same way he’s amped up the focus on his defense. Instead, it’s a result simply of him getting better with experience.

“Just trying to get better every day, offensively and defensively,” Trout said. “Even if it’s something little every day.”

Eppler said Trout’s commitment to improvement, even when he’s been at the top for years, is one of his best qualities.

“He’s got the right mindset to be successful for a long time,” Eppler said. “That’s a championship mindset.”


Angels (Nick Tropeano, 1-2, 4.67) vs. Orioles (Alex Cobb, 0-3, 13.11), Tuesday, 7 p.m., Fox Sports West, 7 p.m.

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