I guess you could say that the Angels are sputtering. After sprinting out to an astonishing 13-3 record, the club has lost five out of six, getting swept by the Red Sox and then losing two of three to the Giants. It was a fairly unremarkable weekend for the most interesting player in baseball. Shohei Ohtani was in the lineup twice, and he even batted cleanup. Though he recorded three singles, he didn’t drive in any runs, nor did he score any himself. He struck out two times on Sunday.
Meanwhile, context be damned, it was a tremendous weekend for the best player in baseball. In the eighth inning on Friday, Mike Trout homered. In the third inning on Saturday, Mike Trout homered. And in the eighth inning on Sunday, Mike Trout homered. Trout leads baseball with nine home runs. Over the weekend, he homered to left field, to center, and to right.
There exists a recurring joke(?) that baseball statistics start to matter the day that Trout assumes the lead in WAR. Barring a DL stint, it always feels like an inevitability. As of this Monday morning, Trout leads all players in WAR according to FanGraphs. And Trout also leads all players in WAR according to Baseball Reference. Here we are, and, you know, we haven’t checked in with Trout in a while. He seems to…be…better?
Trout spent the weekend batting 6-for-11 with the three home runs, plus another two doubles. Even if you didn’t know anything about him before, the homers alone would make it tempting to conclude that Trout must be among the very best players. This is the pitch that Trout hit out to left-center:
This is the pitch that Trout hit out up the middle:
This is the pitch that Trout hit out to right-center:
Fastball in on the hands? Check. Offspeed pitch dropping below the knees? Check. Fastball down and away? Check. Easy power, all-fields power, quick, compact swings. Trout showed exactly what makes him so dangerous. Looking at only three swings over the span of three days, you can tell that Trout must be one blessed individual.
When it comes to Trout improving, though — the way that Trout is getting better isn’t something that’s readily apparent. It would be easy to miss in a single game, or even in a single series. Trout is very good at the big and flashy things. He doesn’t make it very hard to put together a highlight reel. Here’s a home run. Here’s another home run. Here’s a triple, followed by a massive home run. That’s Mike Trout.
But we should talk about Trout setting himself up for success. More and more often, Trout is making it easier on himself. Easier on himself, and therefore more challenging for his opponent. What do you do when Mike Trout stops swinging at pitches out of the zone? Because that is the very direction he’s headed.
Trout has never been an overaggressive kind of hitter. If anything, he’s gone through bouts of being *too* patient. That’s something he’s tried to work to improve. But there’s patience, and there’s discipline. Hitters just about never benefit from chasing. How well does Mike Trout currently know his own strike zone? We can examine his entire career, looking at rolling 50-game averages.
There are fluctuations — there are always fluctuations — but Trout is chasing less and less often. As another way of looking at this, we can pull some data from Baseball Savant. Using their detailed-zones feature, we can look at how often Trout has swung at pitches (A) clearly in the zone, (B) around the edges, and (C) clearly out of the zone. In this plot, the numbers just go year-by-year, so forget about rolling averages for a moment.
What do we have? When it comes to swinging at would-be balls, Trout is at a career low. He’s been taking more of those pitches — especially down and in, and down and away. Around the edges, Trout hasn’t changed so much. Those are the 50/50 pitches. Sometimes you just have to protect. And when it comes to swinging at would-be strikes, Trout is at a career high. He’s been swinging at more of those pitches — he’s up seven percentage points from the previous two seasons. Those seasons were themselves up about five percentage points from Trout’s earlier norm.
Late last week, I wrote about the Red Sox’ increased level of selective aggression. This follows along some similar lines. Trout’s overall swing rate is somewhere close to where it’s always been. However, if you were to judge each individual swing, a greater rate of Trout’s 2018 swings would be considered good decisions. He’s laying off more pitches he couldn’t do very much with, and he’s attacking more pitches he thinks would be hittable. Focusing on the former — if you’re a pitcher, what can you do when a hitter doesn’t chase? If you want to have any chance, you have to throw strikes. Mike Trout is seeing strikes.
In a certain sense, Mike Trout has forced pitchers into the zone, because he won’t let them get away with pitches somewhere else. There’s always the option, I guess, of just issuing walk after walk. Pitchers haven’t gotten there yet. Maybe they will pretty soon. Because, of course, Trout is dangerous, and, what happens when, as a hitter, you don’t chase, and you force pitchers to throw strikes? Trout has been making more regular contact.
Last season and this season, Trout has ranked in the 97th percentile in terms of chase rate. That is very, very good. And, by contact, Trout used to rank around the 60th percentile. Last season, he ranked in the 78th. So far this season, he’s ranked in the 93rd. There’s never been a good way to pitch to Mike Trout — at least, not for very long. He’s been baseball’s best player year after year after year. Yet, right now, pitching to Trout is somehow extra impossible. This version is extra selective, and therefore extra dangerous. This version of Trout gets into even better counts, and this version of Trout is even more able to generate the loft he’s always looking for. You want to tie Trout up? Can’t really do it. You want to get him to overextend his arms? Can’t really do it. Trout is just about constantly under control. He knows what he wants to attack, and he knows precisely how to attack it.
According to Statcast, Mike Trout might’ve improved a little bit defensively. I don’t have anything on that, and that’s just a whole other matter. This is about only Trout in the box, and, in the box, Trout has found a way to inch closer to perfect. He appears less likely to chase a pitcher’s pitch. Pitchers can’t consistently repeat their quality pitches. More than ever, the Trout decision seems to be: put him on base, or give up hard contact. That was already sort of true before, but even the best of the best can improve. As terrifying as that is to consider.
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.