Would the Giants have moved a young Willie Mays out of center field?
Not a chance. Mays won 12 straight Gold Gloves from 1957 to '68, and presumably would have fared just as well in advanced measures, if sabermetrics had existed back then. The Giants wouldn’t have messed with Willie Mays, future Hall of Famer — even if they had some hotshot defensive alternative in center.
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So, why the heck would the Angels mess with Mike Trout?
I’m not saying Trout is Mays — not yet, anyway. But coincidentally or not, Trout’s offensive tear began when he returned to center field on April 30. That was the date Peter Bourjos — the Angels’ hotshot defensive alternative — went on the disabled list with a strained left hamstring.
Trout prior to Bourjos’ injury: .252 batting/.322 on-base/.402 slugging, two homers in 25 games.
Trout since: .343/.419/.713, eight homers in 28 games.
Again, it’s a reach to draw a direct correlation. Trout was bound to get hot, and the other adjustment the Angels asked him to make — dropping from the No. 1 to the No. 2 spot in the lineup, directly in front of Albert Pujols — also might have contributed to his offensive surge.
If the Angels want the complete Trout — the full Mikey — they need to put him in a position of maximum comfort. That position, virtually everyone acknowledges, is center. Yet, manager Mike Scioscia continues to say that Bourjos, when healthy, will reclaim the position.
Bourjos, who was batting .313 with a .370 on-base percentage at the time of his injury, is expected to begin a rehabilitation assignment next week and rejoin the Angels shortly thereafter.
“Whether Mike plays center or left, it’s not connected with his offensive performance,” Scioscia said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Mike is a center fielder, no doubt about it. But with Peter playing well, you’re taking a burden off Mike. There’s less of a grind moving from center to left.”
Well, I’m not sure the Angels should worry about the physical burden on Trout, who does not turn 22 until Aug. 7. And while I’m no expert on psychology, Scioscia seems to be missing the human element, the effect on Trout’s psyche, and — for lack of a better word — his swagger.
We are talking, after all, about the best all-around player in the game.
Trout is not a fading veteran who needs to change positions to compensate for his loss of range. He also is not that inferior to Bourjos defensively. According to John Dewan’s plus-minus ratings on Bill James Online, Trout made 34 plays above the number an average fielder would make last season, second among center fielders only to Michael Bourn, who was plus-37. (Bourjos, who played 501 2/3 innings to Trout’s 1,225 2/3, was plus-13.)
Never mind that Trout has been a good soldier, never once complaining about playing left. Angels people concede that Trout’s old smile and energy returned after he moved back to center. And in the past several days, I’ve spoken with three analysts at MLB Network — former major leaguers Bill Ripken, Harold Reynolds and Dave Valle — who were adamant that Trout should remain at the position.
Why do their opinions matter? Because they understand a player’s perspective (as opposed to the perspective of Scioscia, who once was a player, but now is a manager). In their view, Trout likely is asking himself, “Why should I yield my position to a player who I’m much better than?”
Players actually think like this; they aren’t robots. Sabermetricians might scoff at such talk, dismissing the impact of ego and emotion, pointing to statistical evidence that Bourjos is a better defensive center fielder than Trout. But you know what? A broader statistical analysis suggests that Trout should be in center, too.
As one rival executive explains, a .930 OPS from Trout in center would give the Angels a far greater competitive advantage than a .930 OPS from him in left. Center fielders generally don’t hit as well as left fielders. The average OPS in center this season is .728. The average OPS in left is .765.
One could argue that Trout’s baserunning and defense would extend his advantage over left fielders more than it would over center fielders. But the offensive difference in center probably would carry greater weight. The Angels could be average in left and still come out significantly ahead.
Why not put Bourjos in left? Well, he has played only five games at that position in his eight-year professional career, none in the majors. What’s more, his offensive profile is hardly that of a left fielder, neutralizing the advantage that the Angels would gain with Trout in center.
A better move would be to trade Bourjos for a pitcher, but the Angels explored that option last offseason and evidently were not satisfied by the offers they received from other clubs.
Which only reinforces my point.
If other clubs don’t value Bourjos enough to make the Angels an acceptable proposal, why do the Angels consider him valuable enough to disrupt Trout?
Then there is this:
Once Bourjos is back, the Angels occasionally might want to rest him against certain right-handers in favor of J.B. Shuck, a left-handed hitter who was a career .301 hitter with a .763 OPS in the minors, and has produced comparable numbers in 36 games with the Angels this season.
Under that scenario, Trout would shift back and forth, playing left when Bourjos was in center and likely moving to center when Shuck was in left. Shuck, 25, plays all three outfield positions, but the Angels signed him last November as a minor-league free agent. It’s inconceivable they would use him in center over Trout.
Frankly, this entire discussion is downright odd.
We wouldn’t even be talking about Trout vacating center if he had four or five years of experience — the Angels would be terrified of upsetting him and losing him as a free agent. But really, shouldn’t Trout already merit that kind of respect? He is the Angels’ best player, better than Pujols, better than Josh Hamilton. And by the end of this season, he might be a two-time, top five MVP finisher.
Heaven help the Angels if they move Trout back to left and he loses his offensive mojo, for whatever reasons. For the team to stand any chance of reversing its horrid start and getting back into contention, it needs the full Mikey, the guy in center field.
You don’t mess with the modern-day Willie Mays. You shouldn’t even think about it.