I Found a Statistic Where Mike Trout Is Bad

Mike Trout’s the best. You didn’t need the reminder, but there you go. He’s the best that there is. He won’t always be the best that there is, and maybe even in this coming season someone will emerge to be better, but given what we know right now, it’s Trout, then it’s the others. Spring training is a time for universal optimism. It’s a time for seeing the best in developing players. Take a young player on your favorite team. Imagine that player at his ceiling. Mike Trout is almost certainly better than that, and he has been for five years.

Trout is insanely talented, and that’s his foundation. But to be this good and stay this good, players also need to be able to adjust. They need to see weaknesses and work to eliminate them. Trout’s done that! He used to have a high-fastball problem. Been addressed. Relatedly, he used to have a strikeout problem. Been addressed. A couple years back he didn’t do enough on the bases. Been addressed. He used to run below-average arm ratings in the outfield. Been addressed. He’s so good.

Yet I’m a professional digger, in a sense. I’m always on the hunt for unknown strengths or weaknesses, and I’ve stumbled upon something I didn’t realize. There is an area where Mike Trout was bad. Last season, I mean. Who could’ve known? Even the best have their blemishes.

For the Angels team-preview segment on Effectively Wild some time back, Ben and I talked with Pedro Moura. We did talk about other Angels players — there are other Angels players — but we had to talk about Trout for at least a few minutes. One of the things Moura mentioned is that Trout is still kind of figuring his way out when it comes to starting at-bats. When he first came up, he watched the first pitch almost every single time. As he’s gotten older, he’s become more willing to swing early.

Here’s a plot of Trout’s first-pitch swing rates:

This is all still below average. The league as a whole goes after the first pitch roughly 28 – 29% of the time. Trout, even last season, finished lower than that by double-digit points. Mike Trout remains a patient hitter, and at his most aggressive to this point, he’s taken five first pitches out of every six. Count this as one of many differences that exist between Mike Trout and Yasmany Tomas.

There’s nothing inherently good or bad about Trout’s first-pitch swing rate. Some good players are more aggressive, and some good players are more patient. Clearly, Trout made a conscious effort to go after the first pitch more often. Before last year, he established a pretty steady baseline, where he remained for four seasons. Then he decided to ambush some more. No one likes falling behind in the count.

It’s a perfectly sensible thought process. Every hitter has some kind of ideal equilibrium, and Trout might’ve needed to raise his rate for game-theory reasons. But it doesn’t begin and end with first-pitch swings. You have to also look at what those swings are accomplishing. As a hitter, you want to hit the ball. A foul or a whiff just means you’re behind 0-and-1. So here’s another plot, looking at how often Trout has turned those first-pitch swings into fair batted balls:

Note that “in play” here includes home runs. That’s different from how we talk about BABIP, but I’m focusing on balls hit forward, between the lines. You can ignore the point from 2011, since that’s just one out of three (33%). There’s been a decrease over time. When Trout went after the first pitch in 2012, he hit the ball fair more often than he didn’t. Then that dropped, then that dropped, then it held steady, then it dropped again. Last season, the league-average batted-ball rate on first-pitch swings was a hair above 38%. Trout finished a little above 27%. For further context, here’s a table of the 10 lowest rates, out of players who went after the first pitch at least 100 times:

Attacking the First Pitch
Player In Play%
Steven Souza Jr. 25.0%
Chris Iannetta 26.5%
Mike Trout 27.4%
Carlos Gomez 27.5%
Lonnie Chisenhall 27.5%
Brandon Belt 27.9%
Mike Napoli 28.1%
Chris Davis 28.1%
Brandon Moss 28.2%
Leonys Martin 28.6%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
2016 season; bottom 10 out of 208 players with at least 100 first-pitch swing attempts.

Third-worst. Mike Trout: the third-worst! Third-worst, out of a sample of 208 players. Mike Trout doesn’t show up around third-worst in very many statistical categories. Souza is the very worst here — he put just one out of every four first-pitch swings somewhere fair. Trout was barely any better than that. Although he chose to swing at more first pitches, the overwhelming majority of those swings simply put Trout behind in the count.

What did this mean? What was the effective cost of those early fouls and whiffs? Trout, overall, posted a wOBA of .418. Absurdly good. However, in plate appearances where Trout swung at the first pitch and subsequently fell behind 0-and-1, his wOBA dropped to .361. That is still a very good wOBA, but it’s a drop of 57 points. Mike Trout was made worse as a consequence of his own aggressive decision-making.

But then, well, hold on. When Trout swung at the first pitch, he hit 32 balls fair. On 13 occasions did he hit into an out. He had 12 singles, four doubles, and three homers. When that first-pitch swing yielded a batted ball, Trout’s resulting wOBA was .673. We can’t ignore that information if we’re going to use the other stuff.

So, putting it together…Trout, again, had an overall .418 wOBA. In plate appearances where he swung at the first pitch, he had a wOBA of .447. In plate appearances where he didn’t swing at the first pitch, he had a wOBA of .412. Which is worse. It’s actually considerably worse. If anything, this would suggest Trout should’ve gone after the first pitch *more*, low in-play rate and all.

Therefore, let me amend the headline. I didn’t find a statistic where Mike Trout is bad. While examining a statistic where Mike Trout looked bad, I found another statistic where Mike Trout is good. Add it to the pile.

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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7 years ago

I’m honestly surprised a measure has been found where Trout isn’t exceptional. Bravo.

7 years ago
Reply to  sabrtooth

Is that really the conclusion of the article?