Pitching to Mike Trout: 2015, Vol. 1

During the FanGraphs trip to Arizona in February, Carson remarked that I was squeezing an awful lot of juice out of the pitch-comp fruit. It’s true, I was — it was an idea I found interesting, and, more importantly, I didn’t have much else to write about. But now we’ve got a baseball season, a whole brand-new one, which means I get to resume writing about the thing I find perhaps the very most interesting: pitching to Mike Trout. I’ve probably written about this 10 times. I’ll probably write about it another 100 times. Many of you are probably sick of it. I might never grow sick of it.

Scouting reports make the rounds. At first, information is private, exchanged only within the industry. At some point, something gets leaked, or identified by an analyst. Then a report will make the rounds within analytical circles. Analysts write, so reports will be exposed to analytically-minded fans. But things can keep going, if sufficiently remarkable. Sometimes you’ll have a scouting report that makes its way into general baseball knowledge, even among people who don’t think in such granular terms. The Mike Trout scouting report is out there. I don’t even need to tell you anything about it because you’ve been hearing about it for months. Everybody knows. A few days ago I was listening to Mariners radio announcer Rick Rizzs, and he was talking about the importance of pitching Trout hard and in and up. It might be the only thing he has in his brain from within the past 12 years.

So it’s 2015 now. How is Mike Trout being pitched, given, you know, everything?

This early, these numbers can be deceptive. The samples, of course, are small, and just as important, there can be opponent bias. Perhaps a player has faced pitchers who are disproportionately likely to do something. Opponents don’t average out after seven or eight or nine games. So, this is something to keep in mind. But with Trout, the early numbers are so extreme that even regressing them somewhat still suggests a strong signal. Pitchers haven’t just pitched Trout like they did last year. They’ve decided to turn it to 11.

Here’s a quick glimpse — Trout pitch locations from 2014, and Trout pitch locations from 2015. What’s happened is immediately obvious.

trout-heat-maps

A perhaps representative plate appearance, from Tuesday, with Trout facing off against Nick Martinez:

Trout-Martinez-2015-2

  1. fastball, up-and-in quadrant
  2. fastball, up-and-in quadrant
  3. fastball, up-and-in quadrant
  4. fastball, up-and-in quadrant
  5. fastball, up-and-in quadrant
  6. slider, up-and-away quadrant
  7. fastball, up-and-in quadrant

One plate appearance doesn’t tell you everything, especially when that plate appearance is followed by Martinez pitching in a similar way to Albert Pujols. But we can make some use of Baseball Savant. Let’s examine the very early tendencies, comparing Trout to the rest of the league’s right-handed hitters in 2015.

Inside Pitches

  • Trout rate: 65%
  • Trout rank: 1
  • League rate: 43%
  • Trout rate, 2014: 47%

Trout this year has played in eight games. His lowest inside-pitch rate for a game is an even 50%. That’s still percentage points above the league average for righties. And I just noticed Trout’s game is underway Wednesday, and he’s batted two times. Seven of eight pitches have been over the inside half.

High, Inside Pitches

  • Trout rate: 36%
  • Trout rank: 1
  • League rate: 19%
  • Trout rate, 2014: 25%

Inside Fastballs

  • Trout rate: 54%
  • Trout rank: 1
  • League rate: 29%
  • Trout rate, 2014: 35%

High, Inside Fastballs

  • Trout rate: 35%
  • Trout rank: 1
  • League rate: 15%
  • Trout rate, 2014: 21%

In each category, Trout ranks No. 1 in baseball, sometimes by a wide margin. In all cases, he’s blowing away the league average, and while his numbers are so extreme you have to round them down a little bit in your head, he’s also skyrocketed right by last year’s rates. Which is what you should expect in the early going — Trout’s the best player in baseball, so opponents are going to look for any way to get him out. And they’re going to keep at it until Trout forces them to change. The league and Mike Trout are still trying to establish some kind of pitch-frequency equilibrium, and with that in mind, how has Trout looked this month?

Here’s Trout, against Nick Martinez, late last year:

Trout-2014

Here’s Trout, against Martinez, Tuesday:

Trout-2015 (1)

Trout-2015 (2)

In the clip from last year, Trout hits the ball off the fists. Now look at the two other clips. They’re similar pitches. Technically, both resulted in outs to the left fielder, so in these clips, Trout went 0-for-2. But you can see better quality of contact. In the first one, Trout flew out to left to moderate depth. In the second one, Trout very nearly hit the ball out to left-center, with the defender catching the ball against the wall. With bucketing, it was a hitless at-bat, but by actual performance, Trout did almost as well as possible. Trout said during spring getting better against these pitches was a priority, and, well, it’s something to think about. He’s very young and very good.

But to this point, Trout has three extra-base hits. One came on a thigh-high fastball just barely over the outer half. One came on a similarly-located sinker. And one came on a low fastball more or less over the middle. Trout has hit high, inside pitches hard, but until he does it more, and until he’s truly rewarded for it, this is probably what life is going to be like. Pitchers will keep attacking up there. Trout will look for those pitches more, so he’ll be more prepared for them. In theory, that will leave Trout slightly more vulnerable against other pitches, and then you’re closer to an optimal balance. The question concerns where that balance will be.

Pitchers are still searching. They’re still pushing it. And in the very early going, they’ve pushed their patterns ever more extreme. This is my favorite story in baseball, and I have no idea what happens next. I look forward to seeing it, and I look forward to writing about it. I might never stop writing about it.

We hoped you liked reading Pitching to Mike Trout: 2015, Vol. 1 by Jeff Sullivan!

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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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Baseball Guy
Guest
Baseball Guy

He’ll adjust of course, but some of this is just going to inevitably moderate his outrageous numbers, simply because he IS a low ball hitter. If you look at his approach and swing path, it’s just designed to hit low hard stuff (or soft, whatever). He CAN hit higher pitches, but he’s always going to struggle a bit more. Trout is a generational talent, but he also got lucky in riding the low-strike craze that hit baseball right about when he turned pro.

Paul
Guest
Paul

What about his bat path is designed to hit low pitches?

Baseball Guy
Guest
Baseball Guy

Look at the path the bat goes to get from load position to contact. The angle the bat makes to pure horizontal is quite high (something like 45%). Put another way, his barrel is coming into the hitting zone at its maximum velocity, and lowest point. That’s simply not true of many other hitters, and that’s his natural swing. To hit a pitch that’s only a foot or so lower than his shoulders (as opposed to two feet or what have you) requires a different swing. Compare his swing to a natural high ball hitter.

4 Fish To NEVER Eat
Guest
4 Fish To NEVER Eat

What would he have to do to adjust that swing for pitches in the upper half of the zone? Is this something he can easily adjust when he recognizes the pitch, or does it require a more substantial adjustment to his overall approach?

Jerry Brewer
Guest
Jerry Brewer

his top hand function. he gets his top forearm turning (supination) very early. I discuss in this video.

https://youtu.be/cj2Dj9fXGU8

ReuschelCakes
Guest
ReuschelCakes

“he also got lucky in riding the low-strike craze that hit baseball right about when he turned pro”

I mean, what a lucky guy – to be the best hitter in the world. Too bad that luck has ended now that after 3 seasons and almost 30 WAR those generous opponents are no longer just gonna willingly throw the ball in his “swing path” and let him rake for the sake of it…

Oh – this is sarcasm and that was a stupid comment.

Baseball Guy
Guest
Baseball Guy

No, it’s because pitchers who can command the bottom of the strike zone were systematically promoted for several years, meaning he could feast on pitches he most naturally hit. Good for him. Now it’s changing a bit, and he’ll hit slightly less otherworldly going forward.

olethros
Guest
olethros

Or he learned to hit those pitches because that’s what everyone was throwing him, and now that they’re throwing him high heat he’ll learn to hit those pitches too.

Vicmackey
Guest
Vicmackey

Pretty sure pitchers have been taught to keep the ball down for long before trout was in the big leagues. Not sure there was a time when there was a premium was put on pitchers who can command the belt high fastball.