Here’s a legitimate question to you, readers of New York, which is to say, people who might casually care about sports but are perhaps not as obsessive as readers of, say, Deadspin: How many times have you seen Mike Trout play baseball?
Sure, you’ve heard about Mike Trout, how he’s off to one of the best starts to a career in baseball history; how he’s already about to pass Willie McCovey and Duke Snider in career value even though he’s only 26; and how he’s so head and shoulders above everyone else that Fangraphs has speculated on a potential path for him to become the greatest player of all time. But when have you actually watched him play?
If you’re an Angels fan, surely, a lot. But how many Angels fans do you even know? And the rest of us rarely come across Trout at all. We might see him when he comes into town to play our team. But otherwise? His games don’t usually start until 10 p.m. ET. The All-Star Game gets worse ratings every year. Despite all his dominance, his team has only made the playoffs once, way back in 2014, and it lost all three games it played. The Angels, a middling team outside of Trout, are rarely featured in national television broadcasts. Mike Trout plays baseball like no one has ever played it, and the odds are excellent that most of you have seen him play once, maybe twice. Is that because of Mike Trout? Is that because of baseball? Is that because he plays in Anaheim? This is a question baseball needs to figure out. And quick.
This morning, ESPN’s Jeff Passan broke the biggest news in baseball all year, reporting that the Angels and Trout were near an agreement to keep him with the Angels, essentially, for the rest of his career. The price was steep: $430 million, the largest contract in professional sports history and an amount that’s crazy high and still probably a steal for the team — even if it will be paid over 12 years, assuring he’ll be with the Angels until he is 39 years old. But while it’s a great deal for Trout and for the Angels — who get to keep one of the best players in the history of the game in the same ugly uniform forever — the question has to be asked: Is Mike Trout staying his entire career in Anaheim good for baseball?
Staying in one low-profile place his whole career is definitely on-brand for Trout. He’s a far more mild-mannered player than, say, Bryce Harper, the contemporary he came through the minors with, and the one Trout will always have (unfavorably) compared to him. He did not come into the league looking to upend any notions of what a superstar is; he’s a traditional Unwritten Rules old-school type of player, and other than an amusing interest in weather patterns, he doesn’t have any noteworthy personality traits at all. He’s just an affably dull, monotonous, relentlessly straightforward person, which are the precise skills that make you a fantastic baseball player and concurrently a wet noodle of a multimedia superstar. Derek Jeter made this work, but it was a slightly different era for sports superstars, and he played for the Yankees, for Christ’s sake. Trout is so nondescript a persona that his most prominent advertisement is for … Super Pretzel, in what has to be the saddest advertising campaign for an otherworldly baseball player ever.
There was a time that being the best baseball player made you one of the most famous human beings on the planet. That time is not now. Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post reported last year that Trout scored a 22 Q Score in the “awareness” category, which means that one out of five Americans have no idea who he is. For comparison, Kilgore noted that’s roughly the awareness Americans have of Kenneth Faried, a backup center for the NBA’s Rockets who has only appeared in three games for Houston in the last month. MLB officials will tell you they’ve tried to promote Trout more in recent years, but that he just doesn’t have a ton of interest. Kilgore noted that Trout and his agent are constantly worried about “overexposure,” and that Trout has avoided high-profile publicity opportunities, instead insisting he focus solely on baseball. That’s great for Trout and the Angels, but usually you want your greatest player to appear on more than the side of pretzel boxes.
That’s why staying in sleepy Anaheim — which, depending on whether or not Manny Machado can revitalize the Padres, might be the third-most-popular team in Southern California — is a perfect fit for Trout … but a missed opportunity for baseball. Had Trout hit the free-agent market in 2020, every high profile team — the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Cubs, the Dodgers, the Phillies, everybody — would have moved heaven and earth to get the New Jersey native, and all of them would have showcased him in every possible way. Had he played for the Yankees or Red Sox, you’d have the game’s best player, the guy who exemplifies everything baseball wants to be, the way the game is played at this current moment, essentially on television every weekend. But that’s not what Trout wanted. He wanted to stay in Anaheim. He just wants to focus on baseball. That will continue to be all he has to do.
But you’re not much more likely to watch him play baseball over the next seven years than you were over the past seven. The Angels might get a little better over this time — you’d like to think Trout will someday get that first playoff win — but he’s still going to be on the West Coast, on a team few care about, in a sport that’s more popular than it’s given credit for but is still primarily more massive regionally than it is nationally. If you want to watch baseball played at its highest level, which is the way Mike Trout plays, you’re going to have to seek him out on your own. And we’re seeing fewer people willing to do that. To put another way: If a Mike Trout breaks every record, but he’s in a forest where no one is around to hear him, does he make a sound?
Will Leitch’s Games column runs weekly. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.