On Saturday afternoon in Anaheim, Mike Trout went 3-for-4 with two singles and a home run. For a player who, at age 26, has basically secured a place in the Hall of Fame, that kind of performance is pretty commonplace. Mike Trout is the best player in the world; nothing in this piece will attempt to convince you otherwise.
What was notable about that Saturday game, however, is that it represented Trout’s first multi-hit effort since since June 18th. If you’re the kind of person who takes life as it comes, for good or for bad, this sort of thing might not even register. But for the rest of you, who worry about the little moments in between the big ones, there is this: for the last two weeks or so, before he got three hits on Saturday, Mike Trout had been in a bit of a slump. For about two weeks or so, Mike Trout was a below-average major-league hitter.
Consider the following, which is a chart of Trout’s rolling wRC+ in 14-game chunks, dating back to the beginning of the 2012 season, which was his first full campaign, and concluding on July 6th, the day before his home run:
There are roughly 1,000 games here, so it’s pretty condensed. The most important part of it, however, is the low point on the right-most edge of the graph. That’s the slump Trout was enduring until Saturday, a 14-game stretch (June 22nd to July 6th) during which he recorded just a 70 wRC+. With the exception of that horrible second half he had back in 2014 and the very beginning of his 2012 season, it was the worst offensive period of his very excellent career to date.
A couple weeks spent hitting 30% worse than league average isn’t a news item for most players. Trout’s teammate Justin Upton has recorded just a 64 wRC+ over the last two weeks, for example, and that’s unlikely to inspire a post here at FanGraphs. Billy Hamilton owns a lifetime batting mark of 71 wRC+. For Mike Trout, however, this type of stretch is nearly unprecedented — and especially notable as it came hot on the heels of some of the best baseball in his glittering career.
So what was going on? Well, at some level, only Trout knows that. Trout and the members of the Angels’ field staff, maybe. There is a theory that presents itself pretty conveniently, however, and it concerns the index finger that Trout sprained sometime early in the week of June 18th. The theory is the finger was still bothering him, and that once it’s healed, he’ll be better. In that sense, I’m pleased to see that he appears to be heating up just in time for this article to publish.
Here are some facts: on June 19th, Trout’s finger was hurting sufficiently badly — it’s not clear exactly how or when he hurt it — that he moved out of center field and into the designated-hitter spot, where he’d previously played just three times all season, where he said he felt uncomfortable, and where he stayed for nine consecutive games until moving back to center field on June 29th. In the 16 games after the injury moved him to DH, leading up to the 7th, Trout hit .176/.391/.275 with one home run in 70 plate appearances, after hitting .439/.535/.772 in the 16 games before that, with five home runs.
His slump, in other words, was entirely consistent with a player who still possessed an elite approach at the plate but lacked the physical capacity to do his customary level of damage on contact. During that interval, Trout struck out only a little bit more than he did before, (24.3% of the time since June 19th, compared to 18.6% before that date), but he actually walked more often (22.9% of the time against 19.2% before the move), which suggests to me that his eyes were just fine. He also, and somewhat more injuriously, more than doubled his rate of soft contact during the slump, all while raising his ground-ball rate from 30% before the injury to 50% after it.
All of which seems like the work of a man whose finger is still hurting him and who therefore finds it difficult to drop the head of the bat on the ball and drive it the other way. Or drive it at all, in any direction. Indeed, Trout’s only home run since June 18th — besides the one he hit Saturday — was on June 29th against the Orioles’ David Hess. You can see this particular change play out most dramatically if you examine the pitch locations on which Trout was able to generate fly balls before his move to the DH:
And compare them to the significantly smaller number of places in which he was able to generate fly balls in the 16 games after that time:
This somewhat fundamental difference in batted-ball type — even in a relatively brief sample — seems to support the hypothesis that Trout was not just enduring the kind of “luck” slump that all hitters experience from time to time. For the past two weeks, rather, he appears to have had quite a bit of trouble getting the ball in the air. He didn’t have trouble on Saturday, though. Mike Trout was the best player in baseball two weeks ago. Two weeks from now, the notion of a mini-slump could very well seem distant and silly. I hope it does, because it’ll mean that whatever was going on with Mike Trout was as simple as his finger hurting and not anything more complicated than that. Two weeks was probably enough time for a finger to get better, anyway.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness. By night he tweets.