The forces of supply and demand appears to be bringing the offseason to a standstill when it comes to heavy hitters. Not many teams are looking for that type of player, and yet a number of them remain available. Edwin Encarnacion had to take less than he wanted, while Jose Bautista and Mark Trumbo headline a group of bat-first guys still available on the market. It’s a group that also includes Chris Carter, who was non-tendered by the Brewers, as well as Pedro Alvarez, Brandon Moss, and Mike Napoli. The qualifying offer hurts for Bautista and Trumbo, but the real reason Trumbo remains unsigned is that he isn’t worth a multi-year deal, and he probably isn’t even worth the $17.2 million attached to the qualifying offer.
There’s certainly some sort of market for Trumbo and the 47 homers he hit in 2016. As a player, though, he only does one thing really well, and it’s tough for him to compensate for his deficiencies with that one strength. It’s not just that Trumbo is a poor defender and baserunner, it’s that he isn’t even that good on offense. Last season, Trumbo’s on-base percentage was .316, below the league-average mark of .323 for non-pitchers. Sure, his .533 slugging percentage was very good, but it wasn’t among the top 10% of baseball, and when combined with his lackluster OBP, his 123 wRC+ ranked a respectable 40th out of 176 qualified players last season. While respectable, getting such little mileage out of 47 homers is a little disconcerting.
The graph below shows all of the players who have hit at least 40 homers since the end of World War II and their respective wRC+, with Trumbo highlighted.
Trumbo didn’t produce the worst offensive season ever for a player with at least 40 homers, but he wasn’t that far off. There are 295 qualified players who’ve recorded 40-homer seasons. They’ve averaged 155 wRC+, collectively. Trumbo, meanwhile, finds himself in the bottom 10%; just 16 players have recorded a lower wRC+ and only Ryan Howard in 2008 hit more home runs (48) with a lower wRC+ (120). The reason for Trumbo’s low wRC+ totals relative to his homers is a combination of walks, strikeouts, and a low batting average on balls in play.
Trumbo tends to strike out a lot, having recorded a 25% career average and a similar 25.5% last season. Strikeouts limit the number of balls in play a hitter gets, limiting the number of opportunities a player has to get on base. Trumbo hits a lot of fly balls (43% in 2016), and a decent percentage of those fly balls (13% in 2016) are of the infield variety, leading to essentially automatic outs. Trumbo doesn’t leg out a lot of infield hits, and his lifetime .288 BABIP and his .278 BABIP in 2016 are not the product of bad luck, but of Trumbo’s approach and strategy to get the ball in the air and hit a lot of homers.
Trumbo’s approach isn’t necessarily a poor one for him, but that low BABIP combined with a low walk rate means his on-base percentage is never going to be high. For Trumbo, it seems, this is the best way for him to be an effective hitter, as he told David Laurila last season:
I’m not [disciplined enough] in a lot of people’s eyes, but that’s the way I’m most efficient. I’ve tried both. I’ve tried to be a high-walk guy, and that version of me is not even a major-league-caliber player. I have opinions on plate discipline, and the best version of me is the one that’s aggressive. If I swing at a few pitches out of the zone, so be it.
Trumbo’s lifetime walk rate is just under 7%; last season it was 7.6%, still below league average. To put Trumbo’s walk rate in some practical terms: if he’d walked in 10.6% of his plate appearances last season instead of 7.6%, he would have gotten on base 20 more times. Those 20 walks are worth roughly the equivalent of seven homers. If he walked more, he could afford to hit fewer homers, but as he suggests above — and 2014 helped to prove — that approach isn’t likely to work for Trumbo, as he ends up trading away more home runs than the walks he receives.
If he can’t walk more or strike out any less — and if he isn’t going to hit for a higher BABIP — that means the offensive version of Mark Trumbo we just saw is very likely the best version of Mark Trumbo we will ever see. After subtracting a couple runs for Trumbo’s baserunning and accounting for his defense, it means that, at his very best, Trumbo is an average baseball player. The graph below is a similar one to the one seen above, except this plots 40-homer seasons against WAR.
Trumbo’s 2.2 WAR ranks 287th out of 295 seasons. Only one Jose Canseco in 1998 has authored a season with at least 42 homers and been worse overall than Trumbo was last season. Of course, 40-homer seasons are generally going to self-select good players having good seasons, but Trumbo’s 2016 is one of the least valuable in that club. Nor was Trumbo’s seasonal WAR figure unduly deflated by randomly poor defensive numbers. Trumbo split the season between the outfield and designated hitter, and his UZR in the outfield was right in line with his career numbers, where he has been roughly 10 runs below average over a full season for a corner outfielder. That figure plus the positional adjustment for corner outfield (-7.5 runs) is equivalent to the adjustment for designated hitter (-17.5), which means that making Trumbo a designated hitter isn’t going to save him any more runs as a player overall.
Mark Trumbo just hit 47 homers but still only registered a 123 wRC+ and 2.2 WAR. Given the normal numbers for him elsewhere offensively in walks, strikeouts, and BABIP and the unlikely prospect of a change in approach, Trumbo’s 2016 offensively likely represents the absolute peak for what he can expect to do. His baserunning and defense cost him in total value and they aren’t likely to get any better, either. At age 31, he is at a level where we expect to see some decline offensively. As a result, Trumbo isn’t likely to provide any more value than the qualifying offer he received from the Orioles. Given his age and total value as a player, he certainly isn’t worth a multi-year deal, and because the team that signs him will lose a draft pick next season, he might not even be worth $10 million to sign. The current market is probably hurting Trumbo some, but his lack of value as a player should be hurting him more.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.