You put it off, and you put it off, and you put it off, but at some point, you have to just suck it up and write a post about Mark Trumbo. Why a post about Mark Trumbo? He’s major-league-leader-in-home-runs Mark Trumbo. Granted, a guy tied for fourth is Adam Duvall, and he’s even more surprising, but, one thing at a time. Trumbo leads in dingers. He’s eighth overall in wRC+. Trumbo already has his highest WAR since 2013, and he’s a bad defensive outfielder, and it’s June. He can’t not be written about, right? Here, watch a dinger. It was yesterday.
Something that’s always struck me with Trumbo — even though he wouldn’t put up elite numbers, he always looked so natural hitting homers. The swing wouldn’t look exaggerated; it would look quick, somehow both short to the ball and powerful. Trumbo’s always swung and missed, and he’s always gone out of the zone a little too often, and those things were limiting. To be better, he’d either have to change one of those, or he’d have to make more of his batted balls.
Thus far, he’s been making more of his batted balls. So, he’s sitting on career-best results. Why has this been happening? It might actually be really simple.
I can tell you Trumbo isn’t better at general contact. Not statistically. His contact rate is right where it’s always been, which is a good deal lower than the average. Trumbo continues to swing and miss with three out of every 10 cuts.
I can tell you Trumbo still expands. Sure, if you squint, you can see an improvement in his chase rate, but Trumbo’s rate of swings at pitches out of the zone is in the same range as usual. He’s not a hopeless hacker, obviously, but he’s not Jose Bautista.
What it comes down to is Trumbo’s contact is just more productive. When the bat has met the ball, the ball has gone off and achieved better things. That’s what Trumbo has needed in order to join what we might call the J.D. Martinez and Yoenis Cespedes class. That is, the class of hitters who are effective despite underwhelming walk and strikeout rates. Trumbo has gotten here with a simple tweak. Really, it’s probably a very complicated tweak to implement, but it’s simple on paper, and this is where it would help to understand one thing about Trumbo’s skillset.
What Statcast has shown us is that Trumbo does belong with the elites in terms of contact quality. It’s been kind of quiet, perhaps, but last year, Trumbo ranked in the top two percent of baseball players in average batted-ball speed. This year, he’s again in the top two percent. Average batted-ball speed isn’t a perfect measure, by any means, but it also doesn’t tell lies. Trumbo, on average, has hit the ball 94 or 95 miles per hour. That’s also true of, say, Miguel Sano. Only Giancarlo Stanton appears to be meaningfully ahead of Trumbo, and he’s meaningfully ahead of everyone. Otherwise, Trumbo’s right there. He really and truly kills the ball.
So, think about that: Trumbo makes outstanding contact, when he makes contact. Statcast proves that. When you make outstanding contact, where do you want the ball to go? The answer is, the air. When you hit the ball that hard, you can maximize your productivity with extra-base hits. This is all very basic. So now, more Statcast. Last year, Trumbo ranked in the 66th percentile in average launch angle. Not terrible, but, room for improvement. This year, Trumbo ranks in the 91st percentile in average launch angle. His average batted ball has been five degrees more elevated. Once more, it’s not a perfect measure, but it shows that Trumbo is wasting less of his time on potential singles. He’s directing that elite power more into the air.
We don’t have any launch-angle stuff from before last season, so we can settle for a proxy. Here’s Trumbo’s whole career, as told by his ground-ball rates:
Trumbo, for a long time, would flirt around with a roughly average grounder rate. That didn’t make him bad, but it limited the extent to which he could hit for power. Now more of those baseballs are finding the air, which is a trend Trumbo began in the second half of last season. He’s given partial credit for his success to his time spent last year with Edgar Martinez, and it’s worth noting that last year, from July 4 on, Trumbo posted a 137 wRC+. That was over 279 trips to the plate, which means that over his last 517 trips to the plate, he’s run a wRC+ of 145. This isn’t strictly a 2016 thing. It’s almost a full-calendar-year thing, which makes it tougher to ignore.
Trumbo hasn’t had to overhaul his swing. It’s been more about minor adjustments, and some about pitch selection. Going after pitches he’s better able to lift. In particular, Trumbo has keyed in on fastballs, which opposing pitchers have most definitely noticed. For his career, through 2015, Trumbo was about eight runs better than average against heaters. That’s total. This year, already, Trumbo is at about +17 runs, which ranks him third in the game. Trumbo has looked for fastballs and abused them, and that explains why he’s seen a lower rate of fastballs than anybody. Here’s a rolling-average plot of Trumbo’s career and fastball rates, using 30 games this time because, I don’t know.
Not even all that long ago, pitchers were exploiting Trumbo with fastballs. That’s come tumbling down, as Trumbo has gotten better and better at mashing them. He was only pitched like this before around the end of 2012 and the start of 2013, and 2012 is when Trumbo had his best full season at the plate. So this pattern is unusual, as pitchers have recognized that Trumbo wants to obliterate the straighter stuff. He’s been great at it, when he’s had the chance.
Ultimately, he is still Mark Trumbo — he’s still a player the Mariners basically gave away. You don’t want to throw away the track record because of two solid months. But if there’s one thing that’s absolutely certain about Trumbo, it’s that he does make elite-level contact. It makes sense, then, that if he can keep putting more baseballs into the air, he’s going to keep on producing more than he has. Power was never the problem. Trumbo’s been tapping into more of it. Baseball can feel so simple sometimes.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.