Pondering Mike Trout’s Sluggish Start

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

If he never played another game, Mike Trout would waltz into the Hall of Fame. With three MVP awards, 10 All-Star appearances, and the number five ranking among center fielders in JAWS — all complied in fewer than 1,500 games spread across 13 seasons — he’s already accomplished more than most enshrinees. Hell, he recently surpassed Ken Griffey Jr.’s 83.8 career bWAR, in over 1,200 fewer games (he did so in fWAR early last year). So far this season, however, Trout is off to one of the worst starts of his career, and it’s fair to wonder if we’re seeing the tail end of his time as one of the game’s elite players.

Trout, who’s two months shy of his 32nd birthday, had a big night in Anaheim on Wednesday against the Cubs. In the top of the fourth, he robbed Ian Happ of a home run, then followed up by homering off Jameson Taillon in the bottom of the frame, his 14th dinger of the season. He added to his highlight reel via back-to-back pitches in the seventh inning, making impressive running catches on flies off the bats of Miguel Amaya and Matt Mervis.

Mike Trout is still pretty damn good at baseball.

Having said that, Trout’s homer was just his fourth hit in his last eight games dating back to May 30. He’s hitting just .265/.363/.500, which is hardly anemic; his 137 wRC+ is tied with Anthony Rizzo for 12th in the American League and 25th in the majors among qualifiers. Yet that wRC+ is 34 points below his career mark, and 37 points below last year’s mark.

It’s notable in itself that Trout has enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, as injuries prevented him from doing so in both 2021 and ’22. He played in just 36 games and made 141 plate appearances — none after May 17 — in 2021 due to a right calf strain, and last year was limited to 119 games and 499 PA (three short of qualifying) due to T5 costovertebral dysfunction, a rare back condition causing “abnormal loading of the joint between the rib and the middle of the upper back (thoracic spine).” Trout was actually more productive after his five-week absence, which began on July 13 (.308/.370/.686, 192 wRC+) than before (.270/.368/.599, 168 wRC+), offering some reassurance that he could remain a top-flight player. He finished with a 176 wRC+, just one point below his 2019 mark, set in 134 games and 600 PA.

Thus far this year, he hasn’t hit close to that level. In fact, if we dial back to the end of May, he had the lowest wRC+ mark of his career to that point:

Mike Trout Lowest wRC+ Through May
2023 236 .278 .369 .522 144
2012 134 .303 .366 .521 145
2015 218 .295 .381 .542 151
2013 253 .294 .372 .548 157
2014 242 .294 .380 .549 164
2016 229 .318 .419 .573 167
2019 236 .284 .458 .585 169
2021 146 .333 .466 .624 189
2022 189 .302 .402 .636 190
2018 252 .302 .444 .663 195
2017 206 .337 .461 .742 207
Includes games in March, April, and May.

As you can see if you sort the table, Trout’s batting average was the lowest to that point as well, with his on-base percentage and slugging percentage barely ahead of his marks from 2012. Trout went on to have a season for the ages that year, his official rookie season, batting .326/.399/.564 (167 wRC+) with 10.1 WAR, but I don’t think anyone is waiting around for him to rebound to the point of replicating that line.

This year’s early-season performance ranks as one of the worst two-month stretches of Trout’s career, by which I mean calendar months, as in “easy to search via our Splits Tool.” Limiting the selection to include only months where he had at least one plate appearance, he’s had six worse stretches, though five of those were based on much smaller samples due to his stints in the minors or on the injured list:

Mike Trout’s Lowest wRC+ in Two Adjacent Calendar Months
2022 July-August 89 .229 .281 .422 98
2023 May-June 134 .226 .336 .400 104
2011 August-September 88 .250 .318 .450 115
2011 July-August 75 .250 .307 .515 125
2022 June-July 137 .225 .321 .550 137
2014 July-August 258 .260 .329 .498 137
2023 April-May 236 .278 .369 .522 144
Includes only months with at least one plate appearance. “April” may include March games, “September” may include October games.

Only one other worse two-month sample had anywhere close to the same total of PA. That was 2014, when Trout brought home a 167 wRC+, just as he had two years earlier; that time he finished at .287/.377/.561.

While there’s some straightforward logic to and ease of using calendar months for comparative purposes, the uneven sample sizes make Baseball Reference’s Span Finder tool a useful alternative. As the bulk of this research was done before Wednesday night’s showcase, I ran my search using 58-game stretches, sorted by lowest OPS, and found that Trout’s least productive 58-game stretch by that measure spanned from the first game of a doubleheader on July 16, 2011 (his fifth major league game) to May 25, 2012, a span during which he hit .260/.320/.457 for a .777 OPS; that was one of just 11 stretches out of 1,408 in which he posted an OPS below .800. Since six of those stretches originated in 2011, when he was bouncing back and forth between Triple-A and the majors, and still just a prospect — admittedly, an elite one — rather than an established major leaguer, I chose to limit the set to the start of 2012, and omitted spans that bridged two seasons. That left me with this bottom 10, and I think you can spot the next problem:

Mike Trout Lowest OPS in 58-Game Spans Since 2012
Span Started Span Ended PA AVG OBP SLG OPS
7/2/14 9/5/14 266 .250 .316 .467 .782
7/3/14 9/6/14 267 .250 .318 .467 .785
7/1/14 (2) 9/4/14 265 .252 .321 .471 .791
7/5/14 9/8/14 268 .254 .325 .471 .795
7/4/14 9/7/14 268 .250 .321 .479 .800
7/1/14 (1) 9/3/14 266 .251 .320 .481 .801
7/7/14 9/10/14 270 .258 .333 .483 .817
7/6/14 9/9/14 268 .263 .332 .488 .820
6/29/14 9/2/14 266 .257 .331 .489 .820
7/19/14 9/19/14 262 .250 .340 .482 .822
7/8/14 9/11/14 270 .259 .337 .485 .822
Spans limited to a single season.

All of those spans overlap, an inevitability when you insist upon doing this sort of exercise. I then decided to exclude any streak that began within a month of one with a lower OPS, allowing me to cross off all of the other streaks that began between June 3 and August 2 of 2014, for example. This reduced Trout’s 142 lowest stretches by OPS to a mere 10, with only one instance of overlap (four days in June 2016). This manageable number additionally allowed me to convert each of those back to wRC+ using our Splits Tool; you can sort the table either way:

Mike Trout Lowest OPS and wRC+ in 58-Game Span Since 2012
Span Started Span Ended PA AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+
7/2/14 9/5/14 266 .250 .316 .467 .782 125
7/24/12 9/27/12 268 .271 .369 .476 .845 137
5/20/22 9/3/22 240 .242 .321 .526 .846 134
3/30/23 6/6/23 258 .266 .364 .491 .855 136
8/1/15 10/2/15 248 .261 .387 .488 .875 143
4/5/14 6/13/14 263 .285 .373 .525 .898 155
4/18/15 6/19/15 248 .275 .359 .555 .914 146
4/1/13 6/3/13 267 .299 .371 .547 .918 156
4/4/16 6/7/16 254 .302 .409 .533 .942 155
6/4/16 8/10/16 245 .305 .420 .527 .948 160
Spans limited to a single season, with start dates no closer than one month apart.

By OPS, this is Trout’s fourth-worst single-season streak since 2012, while by wRC+, it’s his third-worst and (gulp) not too far removed from his second-worst, which bridged across his absence last year. Again, let’s underscore that’s still pretty damn respectable, a top-25 performance in most seasons.

If Trout is near his worst — a slump that’s probably better than something like 95% or 98% of all position players depending upon whom you count in the pool — the question is, “Why?” The man himself isn’t sure. “If I could pinpoint it, I could fix it by now,” he said on May 17, a point to which he’d hit for a 134 wRC+. He’s hit for a 143 wRC+ since, which is to say that he hasn’t dramatically heated up and still doesn’t have the whole answer. Via The Athletic’s Sam Blum, he did say this on Tuesday:

“I think the biggest thing right now is that my front side is flying open… I’m not hitting off of anything. Just up there swinging all upper body. It’s a process. For me, I can go in the cage … And then in the game, it’s just a different thought process. I couldn’t tell you why.”

…“When your front side is flying open, your backside drops,” Trout said. “That’s why I’m under a lot of balls, and hitting balls to right field. When I get a strong load, keep the front side closed, I’m the old Mike.”

Digging through his numbers, a few things do stand out. While remaining an exceptionally disciplined hitter, Trout is swinging more, and missing more:

Mike Trout Plate Discipline
Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% SwStr%
2019 20.5% 61.2% 36.8% 69.2% 88.8% 82.3% 6.4%
2020 17.4% 59.9% 36.7% 68.0% 87.4% 82.4% 6.4%
2021 22.1% 63.4% 39.5% 61.5% 79.1% 73.4% 10.2%
2022 26.3% 67.9% 43.4% 60.7% 79.6% 72.9% 11.6%
2023 23.2% 72.7% 44.8% 60.4% 81.6% 75.5% 10.9%
Total 23.1% 59.3% 38.8% 68.0% 87.0% 80.5% 7.4%
Totals are for full career (since 2011).

Trout’s rate of swinging at pitches inside the strike zone has risen by 11.5 percentage points since 2019, and is over 13 points above his career mark. Meanwhile, his rate of making contact in the zone has fallen by over seven points and is 5.4 points below his career mark. He’s swinging and missing about 70% more often than in 2019.

Particularly when one compares Trout’s overall walk and strikeout rates from 2019 (18.3% and 20%, respectively) to ’22 (10.8 and 27.9%) and ’23 (11.1% and 27.5%), the data suggests he’s being beaten in the zone with much greater frequency, and a look at his heat maps confirms that’s the case. Here’s 2019 versus ’23 (these plots and the data cited exclude Wednesday night’s game) in terms of whiff rates:

Yikes. Trout’s whiff rate on middle-middle pitches is 2.6 times higher than it was four years ago. His whiff rate on pitches on the inner third has spiked from 8% to 20%, and on the outer third from 15% to 31%. Looking at it vertically, he’s risen from 22% to 32% in the upper third of the zone, and from 10% to 20% in the lower third of the zone.

If we simply compare this year’s performance to last year’s — that is, 31-year-old Trout versus 30-year-old Trout instead of pre-pandemic 27-year-old Trout — we see much less pronounced versions of these trends:

Trout’s still swinging more often while making less contact in the zone, but not all of the comparisons are dire; while his whiff rate on the inner third has climbed from 16% to 20%, and likewise in the lower third, he’s a point lower on the outer third (32% to 31%), and seven points lower on the upper third (39% to 32%).

Trout’s whiff rates on conventional breaking balls are up relative to last year (from 41% to 52.9% versus curves, and from 27.6% to 36.6% versus sliders), though his whiff rate against sweepers has dropped from 44.4% to 20% in a much smaller sample. He’s been more productive on contact against curves and sliders (but not sweepers), but the same can’t be said for his performances against four-seamers and sinkers:

Mike Trout vs. Fastballs
Year Pitch Type % PA HR BBE AVG XBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA EV Whiff%
2019 4-seam 43.4% 235 15 140 .268 .299 .552 .638 .413 .452 88.6 16.5%
2022 4-seam 42.9% 190 13 106 .265 .237 .560 .545 .390 .374 93.1 31.0%
2023 4-seam 49.0% 108 4 58 .230 .264 .437 .544 .363 .410 93.7 28.5%
2019 Sinker 14.5% 101 9 62 .408 .411 .855 .858 .551 .560 95.1 10.3%
2022 Sinker 16.0% 97 7 71 .311 .315 .600 .576 .410 .404 89.8 16.7%
2023 Sinker 13.8% 37 0 25 .188 .271 .188 .342 .240 .326 87.5 20.5%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

There’s a lot going on here, so I chose to omit the smaller samples of 2020 and ’21 to make it easier to focus. First, note that Trout is seeing substantially more four-seamers than last year or in 2019, a sign that pitchers believe they can beat him with the heat. But while his actual results when making contact with the four-seamers are well below last year, his expected results are comparable or even better — if nowhere near as good as 2019. As for the sinkers, his actual results are well below his expected ones, which are still much worse than last year. While 25 batted balls is still a small sample, the elevated whiff rate is concerning, especially given that it’s doubled since 2019.

Via the combination of contact and non-contact results, Trout’s Statcast run value against four-seamers has fallen from 15 runs in 2019 (1.4 per 100) and 16 runs last year (1.8 per 100) to three runs (0.5 per 100) this year. For sinkers, it’s sunk from 24 runs in 2019 (6.7 per 100) and eight runs last year (2.4 per 100) to -5 runs (-3.4 per 100 this year) — a 10-run swing per 100 pitches since the pre-pandemic days, which again just seems impossibly bad and way out of line with his career marks. Setting aside his 36-game 2019, he hasn’t been worse than four runs above average, or 2.1 runs per 100 sinkers, in a season.

Clearly, one reason why Trout’s sinker numbers are off is that he’s not elevating them as usual. He averaged a 95-mph exit velocity and a 14-degree launch angle when making contact with sinkers in 2019, and while the EV was down to 89.8 last year, his launch angle averaged 19.2 degrees. This year, he’s at 87.5 mph and just 7.5 degrees. His groundball rates against the pitch haven’t changed much, in the 22-27% range in this span, but he’s making more poor contact (weak, topped, or under) against them; 43% of his batted balls against sinkers (16 of them) fit in one of those buckets, compared to 39% last year but just 26% in 2019.

Overall, Trout is hitting more balls on the ground than in his recent full seasons; setting aside the incomplete 2020 and ’21, one has to go back to 2017 to find one higher than this year’s 31.6% rate, though that’s still 3.7 points below his career mark:

Mike Trout Batted Ball Profile
2019 354 0.49 24.3% 49.2% 90.9 17.5% 43.8% .291 .310 .645 .678 .436 .460
2022 300 0.44 24.7% 56.7% 91.6 19.7% 50.3% .283 .265 .630 .583 .418 .395
2023 155 0.73 31.6% 43.2% 92.2 15.5% 50.3% .265 .279 .500 .531 .371 .388

The increased frequency of grounders is more than neutralizing Trout’s higher exit velocity; he’s hitting the ball hard but barreling it less often. It’s worth noting that the 52-point gap between his 2022 and ’23 expected slugging percentages is less than half of the 130-point gap between his actual ones, suggesting that at least some of this will come out in the wash. If his 2019 level isn’t coming back, it’s not out of the question that he can rebound to something approximating last year, if not quite as hit-lucky.

I’m no hitting coach, but Trout’s numbers and words suggest he’s dealing with some combination of declining bat speed and mechanical issues. Those may or may not have something to do with age and his recent injuries, particularly with his back. Having said that, even while conceding that I’m particularly prone to anxiety about Trout, and that I’m hardly alone among my FanGraphs colleagues, I don’t yet think that what we’ve seen from him in 2023 is his new normal. Sooner or later, he and his coaches will identify and target an issue or two and adjust accordingly, and while he may not get back to a wRC+ in the 170s, there’s a lot of ground between that level and his current one. Plus, as Wednesday night shows, he still plays a mean center field. He’s currently playing at a 5.4-WAR pace, and it’s hardly a stretch to think he can get back above 6.0 (last year he was at 6.1 while missing a quarter of the season). If he’s no longer the very best player in the game — Ronald Acuña Jr., Aaron Judge, and Shohei Ohtani would be three I’d put on the podium, in some order — he’s still one of the best and most exciting. I think we can figure out a way to live with that.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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Cave Dameron
10 months ago

Thank you Jay, very cool!

10 months ago
Reply to  Cave Dameron

I’m just an unfrozen caveman lawyer, but even I can see Mike Trout is going to read this and wOBA about .500 the rest of the year just to make you look bad. RIP Phil Hartman