You watched LeBron James transform from an uber-hyped teenager to an all-time great. You saw Tom Brady grow from a little-known backup to the best quarterback in history. You witnessed Sidney Crosby raise the Stanley Cup on three occasions. You tuned into every major Tiger Woods entered, every major in which Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic re-shaped the debate of the best player in the world.
You heard about Mike Trout’s greatness. You read about his incredible achievements. But you’ve rarely seen the greatest player of his generation perform.
The career of one of the most gifted athletes in the world has been unlike any other superstar’s in any other major sport. Trout is a product of highlights and headlines. His 12-year career has been consumed in snippets. A home run here. A leaping catch there. Then the highlight transitions to another player or game and he disappears, only to be briefly seen again upon his next noteworthy feat.
Last night, Trout attempted to make history by becoming the fourth player in MLB history to homer in eight straight games — a record shared by Dale Long (1956), Don Mattingly (1987) and Ken Griffey Jr. (1993) — but the Angels star went 0-for-3 with a walk in a 3-1 loss in Cleveland.
The game wasn’t broadcast nationally, which is appropriate. He is sports’ hidden superstar.
The South Jersey slugger was raised next door, yet he essentially doesn’t exist on the East Coast — or anywhere outside the Angels’ local TV market. When was the last time you watched him play a full game that didn’t involve the Yankees?
Because he has spent his entire career with one of the worst franchises in the sport, Trout has played three playoff games (2014) in his entire career. Though baseball has morphed from the national pastime into a primarily hyper-local sport for its fans, the game’s biggest superstars have almost always been showcased in October. Trout’s greatness has translated into popularity — his jersey has ranked among the top 20 in sales every year since his rookie season — but the 31-year-old could walk down most streets without attracting a second look.
Aaron Judge couldn’t do the same. Despite being far less accomplished than the Angels outfielder — Trout is less than one year older than Judge, and has outhomered Judge, 345-215 — Judge has been a postseason fixture with the Yankees. He will be there again next month. Trout may never get there again.
Part of it is Trout’s fault. He had the opportunity to leave as a free agent after the 2020 season, but instead signed the largest contract in American sports history — 12 years, $426.5 million — with the Angels in 2019.
Trout will be a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. He is a three-time MVP who finished in the top-five of MVP voting for nine straight years (2012-20). He is a career .303 hitter who is MLB’s active leader in on-base percentage (.415), slugging percentage (.586) and OPS (1.002). He is one of two active players in the top 60 — or top 120 — all-time in WAR (81.4, per Baseball Reference’s formula), and will soon surpass Ken Griffey Jr. in the category.
In a 2022 season in which Trout endured a career-worst 0-for-26 hitless stretch and missed more than a month because of a rare back condition that could plague the rest of his career, the outfielder is still hitting .277 with 35 home runs and rank fourth in the sport in OPS.
Maybe you knew that. But you haven’t seen much of it.
Imagine saying the same for LeBron, Tiger or Brady.
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The case against Judge
Unlike Trout, Shohei Ohtani — who is eligible for free agency after next season — is unlikely to spend so many years playing meaningless games with the Angels. But just like Trout, their team’s incompetence may not stand in the way of Ohtani winning another MVP award.
In one of the most intriguing MVP races in recent years, the Japanese phenom recently received a surprising endorsement from Aaron Judge’s former teammate, CC Sabathia. Though the former Cy Young winner referred to Judge as his “little brother,” Sabathia noted that no position player can compete with Ohtani’s historical two-way feats.
“He’s the best player to ever play baseball,” Sabathia said Monday on MLB Network. “He’s the MVP every year that he’s healthy. He continues to get better as a pitcher. You got to give him the MVP.
“He’s having a better year than last year. I understand everything that Judge is doing. I think it’s going to be incredible to watch him chase down 61 [home runs] in a Yankees uniform. If it wasn’t for him, they probably wouldn’t even be in the playoff picture, but this guy [Ohtani] is literally the best player that we’ve ever seen.”
Judge’s 57 home runs — including two more in last night’s extra-innings win at Fenway Park — puts him on pace to hit the most homers in American League history, and he leads the league with 123 RBIs. His .310 batting average ranks fourth, giving him an outside shot at the Triple Crown. He is having a season for the ages, but Ohtani is doing the unprecedented.
Ohtani is tied for sixth in the majors with 34 home runs while hitting .265 with 88 RBIs. On the mound, he is 12-8 with a 2.55 ERA and 188 strikeouts.
Still, it appears Judge will likely get his first MVP award. The latest SI sportsbook odds have the Yankees slugger as a -2500 favorite to win; Ohtani is a +600 underdog.
I think it’s time to take a road trip out of New York — where we absurdly can’t wager on individual awards — and place a flier on Ohtani. It is the smart play — and the right choice.
Our Week 2 watch list
Week 1 was wild. The Super Bowl champs lost by three touchdowns. The AFC champs choked at home against Mitch Trubisky. The Giants won on the road against last year’s top seed in the AFC and were one of eight underdogs to win outright.
Good luck guessing what happens next.
Here’s a quick look at the most interesting games in Week 2:
Chargers at Chiefs (Thursday, 8:15 p.m., Amazon): The best matchup takes place Thursday night — unfortunately, you can’t watch it without an Amazon Prime subscription — with a battle between Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert. The AFC West rivals split last season’s series.
Buccaneers at Saints (Sunday, 1 p.m.): New Orleans is 4-0 against Tampa Bay since Tom Brady joined the NFC South. In the most recent meeting, Brady and the Bucs were shut out.
Dolphins at Ravens (Sunday, 1 p.m.): Is Miami for real? After a decisive home win over New England, Tua Tagovailoa and Tyreek Hill get a tougher test against the AFC North favorite.
Titans at Bills (Monday, 7:15 p.m., ESPN): Last season, Tennessee pulled out a thrilling 34-31 home win against the Bills. Josh Allen threw for 353 yards and three touchdowns in the loss. Expect similar numbers with a much different outcome.
Vikings at Eagles (Monday, 8:30 p.m., ABC): Minnesota looks ready to knock the Packers off their perch atop the NFC North. The Eagles are suddenly the strong favorite to take the NFC East. That’ll do.