Forcing a Reason to Worry about Mike Trout

Understand, immediately: Mike Trout is currently first in the American League in WAR. In the majors, he’s sandwiched between two Rockies, one surprisingly healthy and one surprisingly awesome, and Trout’s current season pace puts him at 13 WAR, which would eclipse what he’s already done, and what he’s already done has been basically impossibly good. That Mike Trout doesn’t lead the majors in WAR isn’t a reflection of Trout; it’s a reflection of, hey, sample sizes, and also, don’t forget about Troy Tulowitzki, who is also amazing.

But let’s talk about something, just because it’s interesting. Trout is so good, so almost perfect, that we’re at heightened awareness when something might not be right. At the moment, he’s running an extraordinary 161 wRC+, which is an almost exact match for his career mark. But behind that summary number is another number that doesn’t look like the numbers that’ve come before it. What I’m referring to inspired an article in the LA Times.

From Mike DiGiovanna:

“I think you worry about strikeouts when they aren’t balanced by walks or production, and I think he’s doing OK in those departments,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “For guys who work counts, strikeouts might follow.”

Trout, who finished second in AL most-valuable-player voting in 2012 and 2013, has two three-strikeout games and had the first four-strikeout game of his career in Detroit on April 19.

“It’s not a concern for me,” Trout said. “My last couple of years, I’ve had over 100 strikeouts. Sometimes I’m chasing pitches, trying to do too much, like I did in the first month last year, when I was too anxious. I have to look for my pitch and hit it. Pitchers are throwing good pitches too. You have to give them credit.”

This is about Mike Trout and strikeouts. In his first full season, he struck out about 22% of the time. Last year, he struck out about 19% of the time. This year he’s struck out about 28% of the time, showing up on the first page of the strikeout-rate leaderboard. At the same time, his walk rate has gone a little down, so it’s not simply a matter of ending up in a lot more deep counts. For Trout, this obviously isn’t a thing that’s killed his productivity, but it’s a thing that’s different.

There are 153 players who have batted at least 100 times this season after batting at least 250 times last season. Trout’s strikeout-rate increase is the third-greatest, behind only Edwin Encarnacion and Brad Miller. Miller has whiffed his way almost out of favor, and Encarnacion is deserving of a post of his own, but he, at least, has struck out some in the past. Trout has a track record of not doing this so much. So what might be driving the strikeouts?

It’s not simply swinging and missing. Trout’s contact rate is down, but it’s down only a few percentage points, so that doesn’t seem to be enough of a factor. His swing rate, also, is above last season’s, so it’s not like he’s watching more strikes. His chase rate isn’t up, and there’s no clear difference in the way he’s been pitched, in terms of pitch selection. He’s seeing a characteristically low rate of first-pitch strikes.

Something one notes, though: Trout has hit a lot more foul balls. So far, 45% of his swings have resulted in fouls. The two years previous, that rate was 39%. Fouls, before there are two strikes, are no better than whiffs, and fouls are specifically not balls in play. So you can combine the dual facts that Trout has hit more fouls while also making a bit less contact.

Here’s what you end up with: 33% of Trout’s swings this season have resulted in a ball in play. His career rates:

2011: 44% balls in play
2012: 41%
2013: 41%
2014: 33%

Between years, Trout has seen a drop of 8.4 percentage points. That’s the largest drop in baseball, barely bigger than Justin Upton’s but considerably bigger than everyone else’s. Justin Upton, of course, has an even higher OPS than Trout does. This is a marked change for Trout, and in-play rate usually holds up pretty consistently season to season. So you wonder if there’s something Trout’s been doing differently, on purpose.

And there might be. First, for the sake of reference: the difference between this year’s rate and last year’s rate so far is about 20-21 balls in play. This year, Trout has put 82 balls in play. At last year’s rate, by now he’d be up to 103. I’ll leave it up to you to decide on the significance of 21 swings. But, last season, Trout had an even distribution of pulled balls and balls hit to the opposite field. In his first full year, Trout’s ratio was 1.1. So far this year, he’s at 1.7. That is, Trout has hit fewer balls the other way, and he’s pulled more of them toward left. There’s also a very slight increase in balls hit up the middle.

So Trout’s pulled the ball a little more, and he’s missed the ball a little more, and he’s fouled the ball a little more, while swinging more aggressively. It could be that there’s something up with Trout’s swing. Or it could be that he’s trying to hit for more power. It stands to reason Trout’s home-run totals will climb as he gets older, and this could be the beginning of a transition to Trout becoming more of a true slugger. Alternatively, this could be a bunch of noise — no matter what you do with the data, it’s still looking at season-to-date data at the beginning of May. You can’t make it not a small sample.

What we know for certain: Trout’s strikeouts are up, a byproduct of putting the ball in play less often. What we don’t know for certain: the why. You can’t actually worry about Mike Trout right now. There are other prominent hitters with changes in their profiles who aren’t on pace for a 13-WAR season. But if Trout was just about perfect before, then the strikeouts change the look of that perfection, which makes them of interest to monitor. If Trout’s just becoming more strikeout-prone, that’s fascinating. If Trout’s becoming more strikeout-prone as a part of his development into a slightly different kind of superstar, that’s fascinating, too.

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.

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8 years ago

Have you looked into whether he has had stretches like this in the past?

Thinking maybe this stretch is noticeable because it is at the beginning of the season

8 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

The 4-strikeout game was against Max Scherzer…not worried. The three-strikeout games were against the Astros and the Nats’ Taylor Jordan…okay, now I’m worried just a bit…