They say Mike Trout can do anything. Apparently, all you have to do is ask.
Here goes then: Hey, Mike Trout. Simon says dominate in your first postseason.
OK, maybe that ominous "or else" is overstating the consequences that await Trout, the Los Angeles Angels' 23-year-old megastar, if he doesn't dominate his first October like he's dominated his first three full major league seasons. He won't face charges or be smitten by angry baseball gods.
But you know how it is. Whereas star players who succeed in October are treated as lords of all, the ones who don't give sports media and fans a darn big nit to pick. In Trout's case, struggling in his first October would be an excuse for the cynical among us to wonder, "Hey, maybe this guy's not so great after all."
To Trout's credit, it doesn't sound like he's putting too much pressure on himself.
"You can't get out of your game, try to do too much," he recently told Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com. "Ever since I got brought up, it's been a lot of pressure. But once the game starts, you just go out there and play."
Easier said than done, right? Having never played in the postseason before, Trout can't possibly fathom what the pressure of October baseball is actually going to be like. It's surely inevitable that postseason success will come after his first experience instead of during it.
Actually...meh, not really. Postseason experience isn't a prerequisite for postseason success.
Here, take it from Russell A. Carleton of Baseball Prospectus:
There is no evidence that postseason experience (and I attempted five different definitions of 'experience') has any effect on players in the postseason over and above their previously established talent levels...If it were true, we would see some sort of departure from what we would otherwise expect based on regular-season stats. It’s not there.
With this being the case, Trout is free to be himself in the postseason, beginning Thursday with Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Kansas City Royals.
And "himself," of course, is a guy who's been unquestionably the most productive player in Major League Baseball over the last three seasons.
Outside of scoring runs, Trout hasn't been better than everyone else at dominating the baseball card stats. But his league-best WAR is best seen as a reflection of how nobody in the game has mixed hitting, power and speed like Trout has, all while playing a premium defensive position in center field.
The catch, such as it is, is that Trout didn't spend 2014 getting even better while Miguel Cabrera, his nemesis in the last two American League MVP races and "best player in MLB" discussions, got worse.
Trout was still outstanding, mind you, notably rating as baseball's best offensive player and once again leading everyone in FanGraphs WAR. But the strikeout habit he developed hurt his consistency, he only managed 16 steals and the defensive metrics rated him as a below-average center fielder.
This doesn't necessarily mean it's become difficult to argue for Trout as baseball's best player. But it's at least made it difficult to argue he's baseball's most perfect player. It also means that, just like in 2012 and 2013, there's something for his skeptics to latch on to.
And you better believe that said skeptics will only become louder if Trout doesn't seize his first chance at adding postseason dominance to his budding legacy.
Somewhere along the line, the denizens of the sports world got it in their...OK, fine, our heads that a great player isn't truly great until he conquers the postseason. Sometime after that, we got it in our heads that great players who are conquered by the postseason are something less than great.
Heck, "subhuman" might even be the best word for it.
Think of all the guff Tony Romo and even Peyton Manning take from NFL people for not being world-class postseason performers. In the NBA, it's Carmelo Anthony and, even after two NBA Finals victories, LeBron James. In the world of MLB, there are a number of guys who fit the bill.
Prince Fielder (career .620 postseason OPS) comes to mind. So does Robinson Cano (.686). And Nick Swisher (.575). Outside of his amazing run in the 2009 postseason, Alex Rodriguez has often been highlighted as a postseason choker. It was the same with Barry Bonds before he went off in 2002.
And so will it be for Trout if his first postseason gets the better of him. The knock on him will be that he shrinks when the bright lights are on, and scenes like this one described by MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince would surely become more common:
It would happen. You know it would.
But then, of course, there's the flip side of all this. What if Trout does seize his first postseason opportunity?
Man, if you think he's celebrated now...
One can think of all sorts of athletes whose career accomplishments are enriched by postseason success. You think of Michael Jordan. You think of Kobe Bryant. You think of Joe Montana. You think of Tom Brady.
In baseball, you certainly think of Reggie Jackson. Of Derek Jeter. Of David Ortiz. Of Carlos Beltran. Shoot, it often seemed like Jack Morris' Hall of Fame argument was built on a single postseason game.
Granted, Trout isn't going to establish himself as an October legend in just one postseason. No matter how well he does. But if he does catch fire, he'll at least have one thing in common with the aforementioned names: the distinction of being both great and clutch.
And given the circumstances, Trout has a shot at being labeled a special brand of clutch if he does come through.
That the Angels finished with an MLB-best 98-64 record suggests that Trout is surrounded by plenty of talent and that, as such, he doesn't need to carry his team in the postseason. Realistically, this isn't true.
The Angels lost their best pitcher when Garrett Richards' knee buckled underneath him in August. Without him, the team really doesn't have a starter capable of matching up with the top No. 1's in either league.
More recently, Josh Hamilton has been battling aches and pains serious enough to render his postseason status a question mark. Elsewhere, Matt Shoemaker's rib cage injury will likely force past-their-prime versions of Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson to lead Mike Scioscia's postseason rotation out of the gate.
With issues like these, the Angels are baseball's best team only in record. That puts them in a perfect position to be carried by one player.
To that end, well, shoot. Who better than the one guy who's been better than anyone else over the past three years?
Such is the road immediately ahead of Trout. Crash and burn in October, and the debate over whether he's truly the best player in baseball will rage on. Succeed, however, and he'll have shown that he can not only handle the pressure, but that he's so unfazed by it that he can even carry a team in October.
Do the latter, and Trout will have inspired a grand realization best summed up like so: He really can do anything, huh?
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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