CINCINNATI — Mark McGwire hit 49 home runs as a rookie. It took him nine years to do it again.
McGwire set a rookie record that stands to this day. Mike Trout celebrated his debut season with wondrous feats — some never before accomplished by a rookie, some never before accomplished by anyone.
As the second year of the Trout Era dawns, with visions of Cooperstown dancing in the minds of Angels fans cheerily sporting fish heads, this would be a good time to take a deep breath. It is with appreciation, not with caution, that we say Trout can be an incredible player even if he does not duplicate his magical numbers from last season.
Odds are, after all, that he will not.
The Angels put together all kinds of statistical projections for players — the ones they want to keep and the ones they want to add — toward the goal of putting together the most effective pieces. General Manager Jerry Dipoto said the Angels had made no projections for Trout this season.
"That's more of a fantasy element," Dipoto said.
Fantasy league, he meant. But the numbers Trout put up last season were the stuff of pure fantasy.
Had a rookie ever hit 30 home runs and stolen 40 bases? No. Had any player hit 30 homers, stolen 45 bases and batted .320? No. Had any player hit 30 homers, stolen 45 bases and scored 125 runs? No.
And Trout spotted the rest of the league close to a month, starting the season in triple A.
With numbers so far off the charts, Dipoto said he used a different evaluation system for Trout.
"In his particular case, the eyeball more than anything," Dipoto said.
The Angels saw a player who adjusts to pitchers between at-bats, who hits the hittable pitches and lets the others go by, who so thoroughly dominates on the bases and in the outfield that he can go 0 for 4 and be the star of the game.
Still, in a world where perception is reality and fans can be their own media outlets, Trout could hit .310 with 25 homers — "98% of the guys can't do that," Dipoto said — and get hammered with a million rounds of "sophomore jinx."
"I haven't really thought about that," Trout said. "I have one thing — to try to get to the playoffs. If I hit .350 or .300 or .285 — if you get to the postseason, that's the main goal. Numbers don't mean a whole lot if you don't get there."
Trout said he would like to walk more and strike out less. However, pressed on the statistics to which he would pay closest attention this season, he smiled and said, "Torii Hunter's."
McGwire, now the Dodgers' hitting coach, shakes his head at the thought of the pressure on Trout. When McGwire hit those 49 home runs, for the Oakland Athletics in 1987, ESPN was a toddler and the World Wide Web had not been born.
"The media was in such a different stage," McGwire said. "What I did was sort of forgotten about the next year. Nowadays, things are never really forgotten."
McGwire followed his first season by hitting 32, 33 and 39 home runs — very good, but not 49 — then battled injuries and admittedly used performance-enhancing drugs before returning to his rookie heights.
McGwire believes Trout can get better. This generation of players has access to pitch-by-pitch video recall from a decade's worth of at-bats, the stuff of sci-fi fantasy in 1987.
"They can become better hitters a lot faster than we could," McGwire said. "We just had paper scouting reports."
McGwire's scouting report on Trout: too strong mentally to worry about what fans might say if he slumps, too disciplined in his command of the strike zone to get too deep into a slump.
McGwire and his family live in Irvine, not far from Angel Stadium. He has boys ages 9 and 10, no doubt rooting for Trout.
"Angel fans and baseball fans should never have to worry about him," McGwire said. "It's going to be fun to watch him for the next 20 years."