LOS ANGELES -- The Freeway Series was about to begin, and Dave Roberts, manager for the Los Angeles Dodgers, spoke vaguely about the challenges of facing "the best player in the game," a label that has become so synonymous with Mike Trout that his name isn't required for clarification. The Dodgers' TV reporter, Alanna Rizzo, playfully stated that Cody Bellinger -- MVP favorite in the National League, breakthrough star at the age of 24 -- didn't play for the visiting Los Angeles Angels. Roberts laughed.
"I hear you," he said, "but you're talking about longevity. And Trout has done it so consistently for so long."
Later that night, Trout recorded an out at home plate with a throw that nearly reached 100 mph and blasted a towering home run that landed in the left-field upper deck, leading his Angels to the first of back-to-back victories against the crosstown Dodgers.
Trout's 6.6 FanGraphs wins above replacement leads the majors, topping that of Bellinger (6.1) and Christian Yelich (5.9) and far ahead of the next American League player, Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts (4.7). With 64% of the season complete, Trout leads the AL in OPS (1.105), home runs (33), RBIs (81) and walks (80), all of which are on pace to set career highs.
In a year when Bellinger is aiming for the Triple Crown and Yelich is chasing his second straight NL MVP, Trout remains the sport's undisputed overlord.
He is the AL MVP front-runner by a wide margin, even though his Angels sit 11½ games back in their division.
"No doubt," teammate Kole Calhoun said. "But I don't have a vote. I mean, he's finished second a couple times when I thought he should've been the MVP. He's the best player I've ever seen. Everybody's astonished he can keep doing it and keep doing it, but I've stopped being impressed. He's the best in the world, and he lives up to it every day."
Lately, the production has come in the wake of tragedy.
At the start of July, Trout lost a teammate and a close friend when Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs was found dead in his Texas hotel room. The Angels have somehow rallied ever since, winning 12 of 18 to move a season-best five games above .500, and Trout has helped carry them with a .291/.397/.945 slash line. His 11 July home runs, in only 15 games, are two shy of the Angels' record for a month.
Angels manager Brad Ausmus was asked how Trout can maintain such an elite level in the midst of such sobering circumstances.
"I don't know," Ausmus said. "I guess we all kind of expect it from him at this point."
Skaggs was noticeably at the forefront of Trout's mind after Tuesday's game. He laughed about how Skaggs would have given him a hard time for bragging about his 98.6 mph throw, which stood as the third-hardest outfield assist this season. And he brought up how his home run traveled 454 feet, Skaggs' number forward and backward, just as one did on the night of an inspired no-hitter.
"It's tough," said Trout, who also lost his brother-in-law, Aaron Cox, last August. "It's been tough."
Trout is slashing .296/.443/.662 while on pace for 52 home runs, 127 RBIs and 126 walks. His contact rate (84.4%), chase rate (17.8%) and strikeout rate (17.5%) are on pace to be the best of his career. Barring the unforeseen, he will finish within the top two in MVP voting for the seventh time, already only two shy of Barry Bonds for the major league record. At this rate, he will capture his third MVP trophy before his age-28 season, a feat accomplished only by Stan Musial.
"He's the most talented hitter on the planet," Ausmus said. "No offense to Cody Bellinger, who's also very talented."