In Trout and Puig, lightning has struck twice in SoCal
LOS ANGELES -- The odds must be astronomical against two baseball meteors landing in the same geographical region with enormously positive impact in back-to-back seasons. On the other hand, maybe not, in light of the location.
"This is Hollywood," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said, grinning.
In a sport tying together so many components and elements, it seems implausible that a fresh-faced rookie with little or no experience can transform an entire team overnight from something ordinary into something extraordinary.
In consecutive seasons, that is precisely what we have seen with the Angels' Mike Trout and the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig.
"What we're seeing now is like [Willie] Mays, [Mickey] Mantle and [Duke] Snider in that late '50s era when Frank Robinson, [Hank] Aaron and [Roberto] Clemente came along," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "You look at Trout, you look at [Bryce] Harper, you look at Puig and [Manny] Machado ... these are five-tool guys with unbelievable talent. They're all just getting started and have the ability to do great things for a long time."
It is Scioscia's good fortune to see Trout on a daily basis. And the former Dodgers catcher has seen enough of Puig to get a line on his soaring talents.
"Tremendous athlete," Scioscia said. "Great speed -- and bat speed."
The parallels are striking and undeniable, if you have witnessed the unfolding of both stories, reel to reel, in classic Hollywood fashion.
The Angels were spinning their wheels last season, 6-14 and seemingly going nowhere, when Trout, just 20 years old, showed up in late April, lifting the club's spirits and performance level immediately.
From the day Trout arrived to the end of the season, the Angels' 83-59 record was a half-game behind the Yankees (84-59) and the A's (83-58) for the best in the American League over that stretch. The Tigers were 78-64 over the same period, winning the AL Central -- and clinching the AL Most Valuable Player Award for Miguel Cabrera over Trout, even though the Angels had a better overall record by one game.
After leading the league in hitting most of the season, Trout, at .328, finished second to Cabrera, the Triple Crown winner.
Trout ranked third in the AL in on-base percentage (.399), third in slugging (.564) and second in OPS (.963). The biggest surprise was his power surge to 30 homers and 83 RBIs, an uncommonly high figure for a leadoff hitter. He led the Majors in runs scored with 129 and steals with 49, getting caught just five times for a 90.7-percent success rate.
Playing superb center field, he took away four home runs. Trout was as complete a package as the game had seen in years. He awakened a slumbering team with his skills and upbeat, enthusiastic attitude.
It felt like a once-a-lifetime experience. Turns out, the Cuban Comet was on his way to virtually match Trout's impact.
Puig, 22, hit everything that moved in the spring but was sent to Double-A Chattanooga to smooth over the rough edges. With Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford on the disabled list, Dodgers management took a flyer on the fleet outfielder, and when he danced into the home clubhouse at Dodger Stadium on June 3, the party was about to start.
Puig joined a last-place team, 23-32, 8 1/2 games out of first place in the National League West. Mattingly may have been on the verge of getting fired, according to widely circulated media reports.
By the end of that June 3 night, everything changed. A team that seemed sound asleep suddenly had a pulse. The Dodgers beat the Padres, 2-1, on Puig's stunningly perfect throw from the right-field warning track to first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, doubling up a baffled Chris Denorfia.
It was just the start of an incredible display of athletic prowess. With Puig in their lineup, the Dodgers have gone 49-20, seizing their division by the throat with one of the most impressive runs of excellence in Major League history.
When Boston's Jake Peavy shut them down on Sunday night, giving the Red Sox a 2-1 series win, it was the first series the Dodgers have lost in their past 19.
Puig is sixth in the Majors with a .342 average since his June 3 arrival. The leader over that period? Trout, with a .363 mark. Only the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter, with 54, has scored more runs than Puig's 51 in that span.
While there are those who insist on belaboring Puig's highly visible flaws, rooted in the extreme aggression of a kid trying to show the world what he can do, the bottom line is inescapable: The Dodgers were a better team the day Puig showed up.
Along with Hanley Ramirez, who brought a loud bat and voice off the disabled list, Puig turned a quiet clubhouse into a playhouse -- as it is with almost all good teams.
Within three weeks, the Dodgers would become a dominant team, launching a historic 46-10 run.
Thick in the neck and broad across the shoulders like a running back -- and Trout -- Puig signed with the Dodgers in 2012 for seven years and $42 million on raw potential alone.
When he was summoned to Dodger Stadium, he had 262 Minor League plate appearances, compared with Trout's 1,312 when he began his otherworldly 2012 season.
Drafted and signed at 17 out of Millville, N.J., Trout was 18 when he tripled in his first at-bat in an Angels uniform in a 2010 Spring Training game. He is amazingly disciplined for any player, not just in relation to Puig.
"I've been in the game 30-something years, and I've never seen anyone like him," said Oakland general manager Billy Beane, the 2012 Major League Executive of the Year. "He's just a phenomenal talent. I shouldn't go overboard with the superlatives, since he's with another club. But I love watching him play. He's from the '60s: Mickey, Whitey and Mike Trout. He looks like a 'Boys Life' cover."
Despite being on a disappointing team, Trout is producing another brilliant season, underscored by a .330/.427/.571 line. He's second in the AL in average and on-base percentage, fourth in slugging and third in OPS. And, yes, he has found time to take notice of Puig.
"You just want to ride it out," Trout said. "He's having so much fun, like I did last year. I've seen a few of his games on TV. He's playing free and attacking the game. That's how baseball should be played."
Puig has run into too many outs and missed too many cutoff men. He also has evoked images of Clemente and comparisons with Vladimir Guerrero. Those superstars were far from finished products as rookies.
Puig's all-out aggression made him the NL Player of the Month in June, his first month in the big leagues. He hit four home runs, including a grand slam, in his first five games.
When he puts the first pitch in play, he's hitting an astounding .600 (30-for-50) with five homers and a 1.060 slugging percentage.
But when he started swinging wildly, he accepted the advice of Mattingly and hitting coach Mark McGwire and became more selective. He has kept his OBP at a high level (.402). He is slugging .547 to go with his .342 batting average. Unless you're Miguel Cabrera, you'd be delighted with those numbers.
His offensive production, speed and exceptional arm are his primary gifts, but Puig also gives the Dodgers a lively presence in the clubhouse and dugout. Mattingly talked about the energy infusion Puig brought from day one, and that has not subsided.
"It's hard for you not to feel that energy," Mattingly said. "It's so powerful."
While he's not in Trout's league in terms of polish and poise, Puig has the charisma and talent of the Angels superstar. Dodgers and Angels faithful have enough material to fuel a lively debate for a long time to come.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.