What the backs of Mike Trout’s baseball cards tell us

The questions the past few days, in the wake of a $426.5 million extension that will span a dozen seasons, have centered on how long Mike Trout can maintain his level of greatness, whether he can provide the Los Angeles Angels with MVP-caliber performances into his 30s and, in a larger sense, whether he can extend his prime long enough to someday go down as the greatest ever.

Here’s something that hasn’t been considered: Mike Trout continuing to get better.

Take a close look at the back of Trout’s baseball card — or his Baseball-Reference page or his FanGraphs profile or his ESPN section — and you might notice the subtle, year-to-year improvements that define him as the player of his generation.

Trout, now embarking on his age-27 season, identifies an area to refine before reporting to camp every year, then spends his entire spring focused on it. It keeps him sharp and helps him stay motivated under circumstances in which most others would settle into contentment. And in the end, well, he gets better.

We took a look at the improvements Trout made each season and how he went about accomplishing them. We also identified what’s next.

2010-2011: Starting strong

Courtesy The Topps Company, Inc.

Trout didn’t advance past Class A here, in his first year out of high school and his first full season as a professional baseball player. But he was already beginning to breeze through the Angels’ system, setting the tone for what would become a sparkling career. The baseball card industry sees it that way, too. This card, in Gem Mint condition, was recently listed for $25,999.99 on eBay.

2011-2012: Breaking through as a star

The big jump: Everything

How the card shows it: Everywhere

“I push myself. I see that people are saying I need to improve on this, I need to improve on that — it’s great. You take it to your heart and take it to your mind that you want to prove those people wrong and you want to do it.”

Mike Trout on setting goals

Trout began the 2012 season in Triple-A, which sounds crazy in hindsight but is actually quite reasonable if you consider the circumstances. The Angels’ roster was littered with redundancies heading in, with three first basemen (Albert Pujols, Kendrys Morales, Mark Trumbo) and four established outfielders (Vernon Wells, Torii Hunter, Peter Bourjos and Bobby Abreu). Trout was sick for parts of that spring and battled a shoulder injury for the rest of it, limiting him to three games.

He was shipped to the minor leagues without complaint, then quickly forced his way to the majors by batting over .400 in the first month. The Angels released Abreu on April 27 in Cleveland, and Trout — an inconsistent performer with sparse playing time in the second half of 2011 — never looked back. He put together one of the greatest first seasons in history, winning the American League Rookie of the Year Award unanimously and nearly capturing an MVP at the age of 21.

Then came the hard part: Identifying areas to improve.

2012-2013: Learning how to walk

The big jump: 4.08 P/PA in 2012, 4.21 P/PA in 2013

How the card shows it: 67 BB in 2012, 110 BB in 2013

“I got my little zone that I like. If the ball’s not in that zone, I don’t think it’s a strike.”

Mike Trout on his approach

Trout took until he got a strike in the minor leagues. Now take a moment to think about how impressive that is: that a young player — a teenager, actually — who is still trying to figure himself out would possess the discipline to do such a thing. Voluntarily. Trout wanted to see as many pitches as possible, even if the first one happened to be a fastball right down the middle. He was so confident in his abilities that he didn’t mind constantly falling behind in counts.

Members of the organization tried to dissuade him at certain points, but Trout never budged. He knew it would help. And did it ever. In 2013, Trout was coming off a historic rookie season, and the league had basically decided it was not going to let him beat it. Trout saw far fewer strikes, but he remained patient. That’s why he was able to draw 43 more walks, representing baseball’s second-largest increase in the past seven years. His on-base percentage rose from .399 to .432.

2013-2014: Increasing power production

The big jump: 234 ISO in 2013, 274 ISO in 2014

How the card shows it: 27 HRs in 2013, 36 HRs in 2014

“I don’t tell myself I want to hit home runs. Barreling up the ball and it going over the fence — that’s the biggest thing. If I try to hit a home run, I’m going to get out. There’s times — 3-1, 2-0 — I try to take a hack, but I usually foul it back.”

Mike Trout on hitting home runs

Trout tries his best to not chase home runs. He has learned his lesson from all those times when he found himself in favorable hitters’ counts and wound up over-swinging. But he reached 36 home runs in 2014, his age-22 season, and so he took a run at 40 the following year and surpassed it, finishing with 41, which remains a career high. “It meant a lot,” Trout said. “Obviously, you don’t chase numbers throughout the season, but that was a cool accomplishment.”

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