The legend of Mike Trout grows — ROY and MVP worthy?

The Mike Trout legend was enhanced Wednesday after this spectacular catch robbed Baltimore's J.J. Hardy of a home run. (Patrick Smith/Reuters)

American League catchers may resort to hiding kryptonite in their pockets when Mike Trout comes to bat. There doesn’t seem to be any other way on this planet to stop the runaway Rookie of the Year and emerging frontrunner for AL MVP. After another amazing performance on Wednesday, including going  4-for-5 at the dish with three runs and an RBI, Trout is now leading the league with a .344 batting average.

He also had a pretty nice catch.

Playing in Baltimore in front of family and friends, Trout robbed J.J. Hardy of a home run in the bottom of the first inning. Some are calling it the catch of the year, others are calling it just another routine play for “Trouty.” Teammate, and nine-time Gold Glove winner, Torii Hunter, said it was the best catch he had ever seen with his eyes. The usually reserved Trout gave his chest a little pound and gave a big smile after the catch, showing the enthusiasm he has injected into the Angels this season.

On April 27, the Angels were sitting at 8-14, looking up at everyone in the AL West. After an offseason spending spree of more than $300MM that included locking up three-time MVP Albert Pujols for 10 years/$240MM, and 2011 All-Star C.J. Wilson for five years/$77.5MM, expectations were extremely high. With a now-loaded offense to go along with a scary rotation that included Jered Weaver and Dan Haren, the Angels were expected to win the West over the the two-time defending AL champ Texas Rangers.

Pujols struggled mightily out of the gate, hitting .214 with no home runs and four RBI in April. Vernon Wells also struggled, hitting just .225 with four home runs and eight RBI in April, and the team couldn’t catch a break as their offense was stagnant. Over those 22 games, they were shutout four times, scored three runs or less 13 times and lost six games by one run.

The team’s payroll was $154MM coming into the 2012 season, fourth highest in baseball behind the Yankees ($198MM), Phillies ($175MM) and Red Sox ($173MM). Who knew their savior would be a 20-year old rookie making $414,000 dollars?

Trout has been the answer for the Angels. His extreme confidence in his abilities has made him exceed expectations at every level. In high school, he flew under the radar most of his career. Playing baseball in New Jersey can be a death sentence at times. Unlike year-round warm weather areas like Florida, California, Georgia and Texas, the Northeast doesn’t get a whole lot of attention as far as scouting goes. He set a New Jersey state record with 18 home runs his senior year and the right people knew who he was, they just weren’t sure how his game would translate considering he wasn’t facing the same level of competition as most of the other high-level prospects. When they wouldn’t come to him, he went to them, flying across the country to work out for teams in preparation for the 2009 MLB draft.

At 6’-1” and 200 pounds, he was built like a linebacker and had the speed of a world-class Olympian. He was clocked at 3.65 seconds to first base –  4.00 seconds is considered elite. For comparisons sake, Ichiro has been clocked at 3.7 seconds to first in his prime, and he is left-handed.  The power was there, the plus/plus speed was there and his defense in center field was already gold-glove caliber. Still, he was considered a borderline first-round pick.

One guy who was a believer was Angels manager Mike Scioscia. After watching him a couple of times, he likened his game to another stand-out center fielder with plus tools across the board: Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett. The Angels had the 24th and 25th picks in the 2009 draft, and Scioscia was hoping they would land Trout with one of the picks. They received the 25th overall pick as compensation for losing Mark Teixeira to free agency after the 2008 season. Teixeira played in just 54 games for the Angels in 2008, coning over in a trade with the Braves for minor leaguer Steve Marek and Casey Kotchman.  The Angels used the 24th pick on Randal Grichuk, an outfielder out of Lamar Cons HS in Texas. They then nabbed Trout with the 25th pick. Angels fans were upset at the time that Teixeira bolted for the New York Yankees. Now? Not so much.

Trout turned down an offer to play at East Carolina and headed to the Angels’ Arizona Rookie League, where he hit .360 with 25 RBI, 13 stolen bases and a .905 OPS over 39 games as a 17-year-old, becoming the youngest recipient of the Topps Minor League Player of the Year award.

He hit .362 with 45 stolen bases over 81 games at class-A Cedar Rapids in 2010 before a promotion to class-A advanced Cucamonga as an 18-year old. He finished the season hitting a combined .341 with 106 runs, 28 doubles, nine triples, 10 home runs, 58 RBI and 56 stolen bases over 131 games.

He started 2011 at double-A Arkansas and finished it in Los Angeles, winning the Minor League Player of the Year award along the way. Over 91 games at Arkansas, he hit .326 with 82 runs, 11 home runs, 33 stolen bases and a .958 OPS as the youngest player in the league. He struggled a bit at the major league level in his first go around, hitting just .220 with 30 strikeouts and nine walks over 40 games. He admitted to having some jitters but showed glimpses of the player he would become with dazzling plays on defense, as well as belting five home runs and stealing six bases.

He began this season at triple-A Salt Lake. The Angels outfield was full, and rather than having him sitting on the bench or getting spot starts, they thought he would be better served playing everyday in the minors, continuing to develop his game. While the Angels were struggling, Trout was thriving. Over his 20 games at Salt Lake, he hit .403 with five triples, 13 RBI, six stolen bases and a 1.091 OPS. An injury to Peter Bourjos, and the release of Bobby Abreu, led the team to bring up their top prospect.

In the 53 games he has played in this season, the Angels are 34-19. They have climbed to second place in the AL West and are just 4.5 games behind the Rangers. Aside from his league-leading .344 batting average, he also leads the league in stolen bases with 21. He has scored 47 runs with 14 doubles, three triples, seven home runs, 30 RBI and a .934 OPS hitting solely from the leadoff spot. To put his numbers into perspective, here they are averaged over 162 games:

.344, 144 R, 43 2B, 9 3B, 21 HR, 92 RBI, 64 SB .402/.532/.934

Pujols has slowly turned his season around, as everyone knew he would. Mark Trumbo has been sensational this season hitting .320 with 18 home runs and 50 RBI. The starting pitching has been as good as advertised. But ask anyone on the team who has been their best player this season, and the answer will be the same: Mike Trout.

Trout will no doubt win Rookie of the Year. He may even win a Gold Glove. Hell, the way he is playing, he could become the youngest player to win the MVP award and lead his team to the World Series. This would surprise a lot of people. Just not Mike Trout.

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