Amid Fits and Starts, Mike Trout Might Be Getting Better at Something

© Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

During the past two years, we here at FanGraphs have spent a good bit of time staring into the abyss in contemplation. Specifically, we’ve wondered about a world without Mike Trout, or at least a world where he’s no longer the game’s top player. Who will inherit the mantle of this generation’s Mantle? What would our lowered expectations for Trout look like? What are the chances that in his age-30 season, he’s a bust? What would the playoff races look like without him?

Alas, we got an all-too-real demonstration of that last question just weeks after Dan Szymborski posed it last April, as Trout was limited to 36 games due to a right calf strain that he sustained on May 17. The strain, which occurred as he ran the bases on an inconsequential two-out popup, was supposed to sideline him for six to eight weeks, already the longest absence of his career. It turned out to be worse than expected; he never got comfortable enough in his recovery to begin a rehab assignment, and didn’t return to action before season’s end. Thankfully, he’s back now, and while he may not be better than ever, what his ridiculous stat line — .365/.476/.808 for a 270 wRC+, with all of those numbers major-league bests save for the batting average — presupposes is… maybe he is?

If Trout is on the precipice of age-related decline, it hasn’t come yet. After starting the year just 3-for-15, he’s put together a 10-game hitting streak, during which he’s putting up cheat-code numbers (.432/.523/.946). The streak went on ice for a few days when he was hit on the left hand by an 81 mph slider from the Rangers’ Spencer Patton on April 17; I don’t know about you, but I can’t watch the clip without the urge to yell, “Move, Mike!” when he reflexively pulls his hands down towards his waist and puts them in harm’s way. Thankfully, x-rays were negative, and while he missed three games, he’s kicked things up a notch since returning, with multi-hit efforts in four of his last six games, and seven of the 11 hits within going for extra bases.

On Wednesday night against the Guardians in Anaheim, Trout smoked a pair of doubles in the 110 mph range, the first off the left-center field wall against starter Zach Plesac in the first inning, the second into the left field corner off Logan Allen in the eighth, that after he had come close to landing a similar hit at Plesac’s expense via a couple of loud foul balls in the fourth; with two on base, Plesac wisely walked him.

On Tuesday night, Trout hit a towering home run off Triston McKenzie, then got to wear the cowboy hat in a post-homer celebration that harkens back to the days when the team was owned by country music legend Gene Autry:

While we’re in highlight mode, enjoying that perfect swing, here’s a montage of Trout’s four other homers from this season, because it’s been too damn long since we could:

Each of those is beautiful and impressive in its own way, but the first two stand out. That first drive, a towering 32-degree, 445-footer into the rock pile, was Trout’s first regular season homer in over 11 months. The second shot had his highest exit velocity (112.9 mph) and longest projected distance (472 feet) of the young season; the ball hit just inches below the top of the batter’s eye and bounced back onto the field. It was Trout’s fourth-longest in terms of projected distance of the Statcast era, with a 486-footer off Brett Anderson in Oakland on September 5, 2019 still the one to beat.

The season is young, but it’s reassuring to see Trout hitting so well in light of the arc of his last few years. Recall that in 2019, he didn’t play after September 7, as he was shut down in order to undergo surgery to correct a Morton’s neuroma in his right foot, an outage that cost him 19 games, but not his third AL MVP award. After some question about whether he would play during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season because his wife was due to give birth in early August, he did so and remained healthy, but “slipped” to a career-low 161 wRC+ and played at “only” a 7.0-WAR pace while striking out 23.2% of the time, his highest rate since 2015.

Trout bolted from the gate last year, hitting .425/.523/.781 through April before cooling off. At the time of his injury, he was batting .333/.466/.624 for a 190 wRC+, two points higher than his highest mark, set in 2018; his OBP, wRC+, and 2.2 WAR all led the majors when he went down. The injury, and his puzzlingly slow recovery, deprived him of what looked to be yet another peak season, as he was on pace for 8.9 WAR.

Which isn’t to say that he was going to sustain it. Underneath the hood, Trout had some extreme stats, such as a .456 BABIP (33 points higher than Babe Ruth’s .423 in 1923, the highest full-season rate since 1901), a 53-point gap between his slugging percentage and xSLG, and a career-high 28.1% strikeout rate. Based on his ZiPS projection for this season (.274/.418/.581 for the 50th percentile), Szymborski flagged Trout for his bust candidates piece while writing,”[G]iven his status as quite possibly the best player most of us will ever see, him becoming just a normal superstar will feel almost devastating as a baseball fan. Unfortunately, I think there’s a good possibility that we’ve reached that point.” Gulp.

The numbers suggest otherwise, though of course we’re only three weeks into the season, the samples are small, the stats haven’t stabilized… you know the drill. We can’t really draw any firm conclusions about what’s happening, but we can poke around to get a feel for it, and we can marvel.

So far, Trout’s 91.8 mph average exit velocity and 46.3% hard-hit rate are very good, slightly above his career marks, but short of the elite numbers he put up in 2020 (93.7 mph and 55.1%); those landed him on the 99th and 97th percentiles, respectively, territory he hadn’t occupied since 2015. What is elite — the majors’ best, in fact — is his 26.8% barrel rate. He’s 11 points ahead of his .355 xBA, but 78 points behind his .886 xSLG. Dude is getting robbed by the deadened ball!

Take a look at this ridiculous leaderboard:

Small-Sample Theater: 2022 xSLG Leaders
Player Team PA BBE EV Barrel% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
Mike Trout LAA 63 41 91.8 26.8% .365 .355 .808 .886 .544 .541
Joc Pederson SFG 55 41 95.7 22.0% .353 .378 .745 .794 .485 .505
Andrew Vaughn CHW 52 39 89.4 12.8% .298 .319 .617 .693 .430 .446
Rowdy Tellez MIL 60 44 90.9 15.9% .218 .303 .436 .664 .315 .421
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. TOR 79 55 91.5 14.5% .309 .324 .559 .662 .401 .423
Austin Riley ATL 80 52 92.4 15.4% .275 .323 .536 .659 .403 .447
Yordan Alvarez HOU 54 39 94.3 17.9% .234 .329 .532 .654 .376 .441
Wander Franco TBR 75 65 91.6 10.8% .319 .367 .611 .648 .409 .438
Aaron Judge NYY 75 48 95.8 22.9% .288 .309 .545 .647 .401 .423
Ji-Man Choi TBR 53 25 95.9 20.0% .357 .318 .595 .644 .472 .457
Anthony Rizzo NYY 77 54 91 14.8% .281 .277 .703 .642 .473 .429
Alex Verdugo BOS 77 65 90.5 9.2% .254 .314 .418 .640 .302 .390
Will Smith LAD 51 36 90.5 13.9% .250 .310 .455 .635 .363 .434
C.J. Cron COL 75 53 87.6 17.0% .282 .286 .662 .634 .418 .396
Ty France SEA 83 63 90.1 7.9% .366 .372 .620 .626 .463 .450
Marcell Ozuna ATL 79 62 91.9 16.1% .257 .299 .486 .623 .341 .393
Kyle Tucker HOU 73 52 89.1 9.6% .179 .305 .328 .612 .256 .403
Willy Adames MIL 80 48 91.8 16.7% .225 .304 .437 .607 .336 .414
Max Kepler MIN 69 46 91.4 13.0% .263 .302 .509 .607 .402 .434
Tim Anderson CHW 57 46 89.6 15.2% .309 .318 .491 .607 .366 .395
Minimum 50 PA

If we limit the leaderboard to batting title qualifiers (3.1 plate appearances per game), then Trout has a 222-point xSLG lead over the second-ranked hitter, Tellez (Pederson is four PA short). Remarkably, his xSLG is more than double the current big league-wide xSLG of .431! Wrap your head around that one: the balls that he’s hitting should be producing total bases at twice the rate of the average batter.

In terms of xwOBA, Trout owns a 91-point lead over the next-highest batting title qualifier, France, whom Jake Mailhot just covered. Statcast’s leaderboard, which uses a lower standard of 2.1 PA per team game for its qualifiers, shows Angels teammate Taylor Ward — who finished Wednesday night’s game a single short of the cycle — second with a .511 xwOBA, albeit in just 49 PA and with 29 batted balls to Trout’s 41. He’s a subject for another day.

In contrast to his rising strikeout rates from 2020 and ’21, Trout has struck out just 17.5% of the time, which would be a career-low rate if he could maintain it. That said, his 8.5% swinging strike rate is 1.6 percentage points above his career mark, but 1.7 points below last year’s abbreviated spike. Even in small samples, you don’t get to pull off a career-low strikeout rate with a near-high swinging strike rate without ridiculous numbers with two strikes and, yup, he’s hitting .259/.412/.556 for a 185 wRC+ in those situations, for which the major league average is .163/.239/.245 (46 wRC+). That two-strike wRC+ is tied with J.P. Crawford for second in the majors at a 30-PA cutoff (Trout has 34); the Mariners shortstop is hitting .371/.463/.457 in such situations, with Rizzo’s 204 (via a .281/.343/.688 line) leading the way. Lower the bar to 25 PA and Ward (.286/.444/.905, 278 wRC+) jumps to the head of the line. Still, a 185 wRC+ with two strikes is just bonkers.

So is this:

Mike Trout vs. Pitch Types
Pitch Type Yrs # PA Avg xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
Fastballs 2022 162 42 .343 .356 .686 .798 .492 .515
Non-Fastballs 2022 108 21 .412 .353 1.059 1.068 .647 .599
—Breaking 2022 92 17 .357 .294 1.000 1.002 .606 .552
—Offspeed 2022 16 4 .667 .630 1.333 1.379 .823 .799
Fastballs 2020-22 1251 288 .329 .332 .591 .641 .439 .461
Non-Fastballs 2020–22 652 153 .275 .254 .725 .637 .443 .411
—Breaking 2020–22 531 120 .262 .242 .718 .637 .433 .404
—Offspeed 2020–22 121 33 .321 .295 .750 .638 .481 .434
Fastballs 2011–19 14848 3349 .316 .321 .594 .642 .436 .460
Non-Fastballs 2011–19 7391 1812 .289 .265 .561 .540 .388 .384
—Breaking 2011–19 5464 1241 .277 .250 .501 .498 .360 .364
—Offspeed 2011–19 1927 571 .315 .297 .691 .633 .447 .429
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

That’s a lot to take in, so bear with me. On Wednesday night, the Angels’ broadcast put up Trout’s Statcast splits versus non-fastballs, including what was at the time a .933 SLG; he raised that 126 points during the course of the game. In terms of his 2022 numbers, which we know are through the roof pretty much across the board, he’s doing far more damage against breaking and offspeed stuff than he is against fastballs of all varieties.

Of course, we’re dealing with very little data, so I wanted to see how that stacked up within what we might call the Small Sample Era of Trout’s 2020–22 seasons, which covers only 104 games and 450 PA, and compare that to what we might call the Classic Era of his 2011-19 seasons.

Long story short, you can focus on the yellow cells of the table. While he has produced very similar numbers against fastballs in both of the larger splits — the wOBAs are just three points apart, the xwOBAs one point apart — in the more recent years he has become more productive against non-fastballs, by 55 points in terms of wOBA (.443 vs. .388), and by 27 points in terms of xwOBA (.411 vs. 384).

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, it might be a mistake to take those 104 games spread out over three partial seasons as a single body of work; I’ve internalized all of the sample-size complaints myself. Yet what we have here is some evidence that even while playing only intermittently since pocketing his third MVP award, Mike Trout — the best player in the bigs over the past decade — has found a way to get better at something, namely destroying the clever offerings of pitchers who dare to throw him something besides a heater. Make of that what you will. I’m going to let my jaw sit here on the floor for a few minutes while watching more replays of a guy who is just absolutely locked in.

As I write this, it’s April 28, the 10th anniversary of the date when the Angels brought this incredible dynamo back from Triple-A Salt Lake City for good. Happy anniversary to Mike Trout, and happy anniversary to all of us who have gotten to watch him over this past decade.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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2 months ago

Great article, Jay! I’d also point out after years of being nearly dead last in outfielder jump statistics, he’s now in the 75th percentile per Statcast.

2 months ago
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Got his calf all charged up