So many good players right now. Let me fluff that up. So many great players right now. For Major League Baseball, it really is a kind of embarrassment of riches. Dave just wrote about Josh Donaldson earlier. He’s great. Kris Bryant? He’s great. Francisco Lindor, Manny Machado, Jose Altuve — all great. These are just great position players, of course. These players, and so many more, deserve all the attention they can get. But still, there’s Mike Trout. The current leader in position-player WAR is Mike Trout. Over the past calendar year, the leader in WAR is Mike Trout. Going forward, the leader in projected WAR is Mike Trout. Mike Trout Mike Trout Mike Trout. It’s hard to believe we ever stop thinking about Mike Trout.
Or maybe it’s not? Everything good in our lives, we take for granted. At least, given enough time. And while Trout isn’t boring, consistency is boring, and since becoming a regular Trout hasn’t posted a wRC+ under 167 or over 176. At some point we all run out of original ways to remind ourselves that Trout is fantastic. His supporting cast doesn’t help. Now it seems like 80% of conversations about Trout concern whether the Angels should trade him.
I can’t speak to the real purpose of Valentine’s Day, but it functions as a day of appreciation. Not that you should require a scheduled push to appreciate your partner, but, again, we take good things for granted, because it’s how we’re programmed. A Mike Trout FanGraphs post is similar. Take a minute. Think about Trout. And, wouldn’t you know it, but the man is evolving. He’s not as static as he seems.
I’m going to put this out there in full detail. I already mentioned it once, but this should drive the point home. Trout became an everyday player in 2012. Here’s how he’s hit:
- 2012: 167 wRC+
- 2013: 176
- 2014: 167
- 2015: 172
- 2016: 169
That makes it seem like Trout has stayed the same player. But remember to consider the force against which he’s worked. When someone posts an elevated wRC+, the expectation should be for that wRC+ to come down. Basic regression to the mean. There’s nothing radical about the principle, and so while Trout hasn’t necessarily improved, he also hasn’t gotten any worse. The adjustments he’s made have been for the purpose of not declining. Over the years, there have been a few adjustments. This year, Trout has folded in another. Actually, he’s folded in another two.
Firstly, Trout is more aggressive going after the first pitch. Not dramatically so, but observably so. He’s still patient, but he used to sit on nine of every 10 first pitches. This year, Trout has 12 hits against the first pitch. Last year, he had five. The year before, he had seven. He’s topped out at 13. I’ve written before about how Trout would pretty much never chase a first-pitch curveball. All the way through last year, Trout swung at two first-pitch curves. This year alone, he’s already swung at two first-pitch curves. Maybe that fun fact is a little underwhelming, but it supports the overall point. Trout’s going up more ready to hit. Keeps him in a good position.
More importantly, there’s a second thing. Perhaps you’ve noticed that Trout has eliminated a bunch of his strikeouts. But this isn’t just because he’s more aggressive early. It’s not that Trout’s avoiding deep counts. It’s that he’s being more successful in the deep counts.
The green line shows the rate of Trout’s plate appearances that have advanced to two strikes. The blue line shows the rate of those two-strike plate appearances that have resulted in strikeouts. The green line hasn’t moved in three years. The blue line, however, has dipped. It’s dipped by a lot!
For reference, on average, about 51% of plate appearances get to two-strike counts. Trout gets into more. And, on average, about 40% of two-strike counts turn into three-strike counts. That’s around where Trout used to hover. A few years ago, with two strikes, Trout struck out 46% of the time. Last year, he came in at 41%. This year, he’s at 31%. That’s already a difference of 22 strikeouts, which means 22 more opportunities to do some damage.
To put this way more simply: Mike Trout has become a better two-strike hitter. If you believe this year’s numbers, he’s actually become one of the best two-strike hitters. There’s this number on Baseball-Reference called tOPS+, which compares OPS+ in a split to overall OPS+. The league-average tOPS+ in two-strike counts is 42. Mike Trout is sitting at 75, after previously topping out at 56. Mike Trout isn’t a better hitter when he has two strikes on him — nobody is. That wouldn’t make sense. But Trout has balanced out his splits. With two strikes, he’s slugging .481. Xander Bogaerts is slugging .474 just overall. It’s become that much harder to put Trout away.
With Trout better defending the plate, he might also be more able to avoid extended slumps. This is just speculation on my part, but you can check out the following plot:
In 2014, Trout had a couple stretches where he wasn’t producing like an average bat. Last year, he had one even deeper slump. So far this year, Trout hasn’t scraped the 100 mark, and while there’s still half the year left to go, it’s something. Even before, Mike Trout was obnoxiously consistent. Now he’s seemingly turning that up. It’s all a part of getting better by not getting worse.
I’ll note that improved two-strike hitting might be a key for new Angels hitting coach Dave Hansen. Last year, the Angels were 11th in the American League in two-strike tOPS+. This year, they’re first, and it’s not all because of Trout alone. I’m not sure of Hansen’s methods, but players tend to clam up when you ask them about their two-strike approaches. It’s considered private information, but even without the details, we can look at Trout and say he’s less strikeout-prone. Maybe it’s a shorter swing. Maybe it’s just a better plan. If it works, it works. To this point, it’s worked.
Once again, Mike Trout is his boring old almost-perfect self. It’s hard to notice, because we’re used to it, and it’s hard to notice, because the Angels are bad. But this is still happening — Mike Trout is 24 years old — and the latest version of Trout is more aggressive early, while staying alive better late. He hasn’t gotten worse. It’s unbelievable he hasn’t gotten worse.
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.