The Latest Mike Trout Bummer Could Produce His Longest Absence

The injury bug is biting all too often these days, and this week, it has taken a chunk out of Mike Trout’s season. Off to one of the best starts of his career, the 29-year-old center fielder strained his right calf in Monday night’s game, an injury that will sideline him for six to eight weeks — potentially the longest outage of his career — greatly reducing both the chances that the Angels will make the playoffs and that Trout will claim his fourth MVP award.

As if we needed more proof that the universe is a random and uncaring place, Trout suffered the injury doing something that turned out to be entirely routine and inconsequential: running the bases on a two-out popup by Jared Walsh. The play took place at the end of the first inning of the Angels’ game against Cleveland, after Trout had walked and taken second base on a wild pitch. You can see from the overhead video that by the time he reached third base, he was visibly limping:

Trout left the game, underwent an MRI on Tuesday, and was diagnosed with a Grade 2 calf strain. “I thought I got hit by a line drive,” he told reporters in describing his injury. “And then I got to the bag and then I said, ‘Man, something’s not right.’ And then I felt a pop and then I went down to the tunnel, made sure it wasn’t my Achilles, so I mean, I guess if there’s any positive coming out of it, it’s that it wasn’t my Achilles because that’s what scared me when it first happened. It was just a freak thing.”

That freak thing has struck Trout down at a time when he’s hitting .333/.466/.624 while leading the majors in on-base percentage, wRC+ (198), and WAR (2.5). He led the AL in slugging percentage at the time of the injury, but teammate Shohei Ohtani overtook him on Tuesday night thanks to his third straight game with a homer.

Despite missing three games in late April after being hit on the left elbow by a pitch, Trout had put together the best opening month of his career, hitting for a 255 wRC+ (.425/.523/.781) in 88 PA while drawing the wonderment of the baseball world as to how the game’s best player could possibly be getting better. Via the Los Angeles Times‘ Jack Harris:

Trout spent the spring refining his swing. He practiced on a drill also used by Shohei Ohtani to keep his body square and his swing on time. He worked on making his mechanics in the cage more similar to his stroke in the game.

His main objective was simple.

“For me, it’s just being on time, getting that foot down, not trying to do too much,” Trout said. “It all starts with getting that foot down. When it’s not down, I don’t recognize pitches, the chase rate goes up. Just being on time and recognizing pitches is big for me.”

One thing that stood out for Trout in the early going was his aggressiveness. He swung at 41.1% of all pitches in April, a bit above the 36-38% range of his previous four seasons. He produced a batted ball on the first pitch of his plate appearance 12 times in the season’s first month and connected for seven hits, including three doubles and two homers. His 13.6% rate of putting the first pitch in play (or homering) was more than double his 2020 rate (6.6%); he’s never had a season with higher than 7.7%. He had reined in that aggressiveness since the calendar flipped to May, with his seasonal swing rate dropping to 39.5% (0.1% below a career high set in 2012), and his first-pitch percentage dropping to 8.2%. Meanwhile, he cooled off to the point of relative mediocrity, though his .182/.379/.364 line in 58 PA this month still amounts to a 113 wRC+.

Even with that downturn, Trout’s numbers are off the chart. Despite hitting groundballs at a higher rate than any season since 2012 (42.1%), he’s hit for a wRC+ 11 points ahead of any of his full season marks. His .456 BABIP is unreal but also unsustainable; the highest BABIP by a qualified hitter in any season from 1901-2019 is 33 points below that, and even if we drop the threshold to 400 PA — perhaps a more realistic target for Trout given his injury — it’s rare for a 21st century player to top .400:

Highest BABIPs since 1901
Player Team Season PA BABIP AVG OBP SLG wRC+
Mike Trout LAA 2021 146 .456 .333 .466 .624 198
Babe Ruth NYY 1923 699 .423 .393 .545 .764 231
George Sisler SLB 1922 654 .422 .420 .467 .594 170
Rogers Hornsby STL 1924 640 .422 .424 .507 .696 221
Ty Cobb DET 1922 612 .416 .401 .462 .565 167
Ty Cobb DET 1913 501 .415 .390 .467 .535 186
Harry Heilmann DET 1923 626 .414 .403 .481 .632 189
Rogers Hornsby STL 1921 674 .409 .397 .458 .639 191
Reggie Jefferson BOS 1996 418 .408 .347 .388 .593 140
Rod Carew MIN 1977 694 .408 .388 .449 .570 175
Yoan Moncada CHW 2019 559 .406 .315 .367 .548 140
Danny Santana MIN 2014 430 .405 .319 .353 .472 132
José Hernández MIL 2002 582 .404 .288 .356 .478 119
Joey Votto CIN 2012 475 .404 .337 .474 .567 178
Drew Stubbs COL 2014 424 .404 .289 .339 .482 112
Manny Ramirez CLE 2000 532 .403 .351 .457 .697 182
Roberto Clemente PIT 1967 632 .403 .357 .400 .554 170
George Sisler SLB 1920 692 .401 .407 .449 .632 176
Ty Cobb DET 1919 545 .401 .384 .429 .515 161
Bill Terry NYG 1930 710 .400 .401 .452 .619 156
Luke Appling CHW 1936 618 .400 .388 .474 .508 142
Minimum 400 plate appearances (except Trout).

Taking his ups and downs together, only once has Trout had a higher wRC+ through the Angels’ first 40 games:

Mike Trout Through Angels’ First 40 Games
2012 78* 3 .338 .397 .574 168
2013 187 8 .293 .364 .549 154
2014 185 8 .269 .357 .531 153
2015 171 11 .288 .386 .555 155
2016 174 9 .320 .408 .567 163
2017 147 11 .352 .449 .738 207
2018 180 12 .315 .450 .650 193
2019 163 9 .275 .454 .567 163
2020 163 15 .292 .387 .672 178
2021 146 8 .333 .466 .624 199
*Trout did not make his 2012 debut until the Angels’ 21st game.

That 2017 season, Trout’s best showing at the one-quarter mark, sticks out like a sore thumb in his career because, well, he missed 39 games that season due to a torn ligament in his left thumb that required surgery. His total of 114 games that year isn’t just a full-season low, it broke a streak of four straight seasons with at least 157 games played. Trout hasn’t played more than 140 games in a season since; he missed 105 games for various reasons from 2017-20, about 19% of the Angels’ total. He missed 19 games in 2018 due to right wrist inflammation, and the final 19 of the ’19 season due to season-ending surgery to address a Morton’s neuroma in his right foot, though that didn’t stop him from winning his third AL MVP award. Healthy last year, he played in 53 of the Angels’ 60 games, with four games of paternity leave in early August his only absence of note.

Now he’s potentially facing the longest absence of his career. If he were to return exactly six weeks from Tuesday, on June 29, he’d miss 38 games, one fewer than in 2017. If his absence stretches into July, he’ll have set an unenviable personal record, and quite possibly eliminated himself from contention for a fourth MVP award, as only one non-catching position player has won while playing 120 games or fewer over the course of a full season: George Brett in 1980, when he hit .390 in 117 games.

Of course, the bigger deal than the hardware is what this does to the Angels, who despite the heroics of Trout, Ohtani, and Walsh (who’s hit for a 167 wRC+) are a disappointing 18-23 at this juncture, due in significant part to the majors’ worst defense by DRS (-28) and defensive efficiency (.657, nine points worse than any other team and 41 points below the major league average). Their outfield already lost Dexter Fowler for the season due to a torn ACL and Walsh to a move to first base to replace the departed Albert Pujols. They’ve received subpar offensive performances from left fielder Justin Upton (97 wRC+) and a host of fill-ins including Taylor Ward (61 wRC+ in 50 PA), Juan Lagares (64 wRC+ in 27 PA), and superutilityman Jose Rojas (63 wRC+ in 86 PA). Scott Schebler, who started in center field when Trout was out with his elbow contusion, was recently outrighted to Salt Lake City. Ward, who’s hit just .207/.277/.347 (72 wRC+) in 347 major league PA so far, made the first start of his nine-year professional career there on Tuesday and will get the bulk of the playing time there, with help from Lagares. It’s not great.

As for Jo Adell and Brandon Marsh, they’re the future of the Angels’ outfield in some configuration with Trout, but both are getting much-needed seasoning at Salt Lake City, the former after a rough big league debut last season, and the latter in his first taste of Triple-A. The team has no immediate plans to call either one up.

Trout’s loss nearly cut the Angels’ Playoff Odds in half overnight:

The Angels, who by our estimate had a 39.5% chance at the outset of the season — their highest at that point since at least 2016 — had fallen to 23.5% heading into Monday, where now they’re down at 12.8%. Their odds of winning the AL West had fallen from 23.8% as of Opening Day to 9.8% before the injury to 4.4% now. While Ohtani will keep the team relevant for viewing purposes, Trout’s injury nearly guarantees another October without the game’s best player.

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

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3 years ago

Is it time to consider moving Trout to Left Field and giving him more days at the DH position to try to reduce the wear and tear on this body? I know it reduces his value a little, but it would still be better than what the Angels are getting from him on the IL.

3 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

I think so. Also might be time to consider a trade tbh. He’s almost 30, and they have little pitching on the farm coming. If they aren’t going to pour more money/assets into pitching, they should just trade him and retool/rebuild. They still have Rendon and Ohtani, which is a good start. But without pitching, it doesn’t matter. I bet a contender would give up a young player or two plus a few top prospects. I would never trade Trout, but at some point it has to be a consideration.

3 years ago
Reply to  steveo

They just signed him to a 12 year deal a couple years ago. They aren’t trading him. Besides, he has 10 and 5 rights and he pretty clearly wants to stay put in Anaheim given he signed a 12 year deal so he isn’t being traded.

But it does bring up an interesting question: is he now actually tradeable? The problem before he signed his extension is no team could come up with a fair package for him as he would command multiple elite prospects and no team had enough to make a fair package (& it’s questionable whether any team that did have a farm system that good would sell it all out just for 1 guy). But with him now having another 9.5 years and some $340M or so, is it possible that some team could come up with a package that the Angels would agree to? Maybe. . . .

3 years ago
Reply to  Anon

The White Sox could. Robert and a couple big time pitching prospects like Crochett and Kopech. I’m not entirely sure that’s enough, but it’s a start, especially if the Angels paid some of the salary.

Smiling Politelymember
3 years ago
Reply to  steveo

I understand why you’d consider a trade, but just no. There really wasn’t a good justification for Mookie’s trade, and Trout makes Mookie look the way he makes Luke Raley look. You simply can’t get value for Trout via players, and how do you make up for losing the best player, period? You think Angels fans are gonna care about prospects they get for Trout?

The problem is the owner is committed to mediocrity and that the Angels can’t build a winning team around the best player in a half century or so, not that Mike Trout is 30 and deployed ineffectively.

3 years ago

“There really wasn’t a good justification for Mookie’s trade”
One year of Betts is good but five years of Verdugo is also good?

3 years ago
Reply to  tung_twista

The Betts trade was pretty good for the Red Sox, at least in the abstract and in isolation. The problem with the Betts trade was always that the team signed Eovaldi and Sale to those big contracts and then cried poor about the best homegrown player the team has had since Wade Boggs. Guys like that don’t grow on trees. It was more or less the sheer absurdity of the context that made people so angry.

But the deal was pretty good once you strip out the context. Verdugo’s not a center fielder but he’s a strong return for one year of anybody.

3 years ago

Best player in a half century? I don’t think so. Bonds was better, A-Rod was similar, and even if you don’t count the PED guys, you still have guys like Pujols and Griffey who were just as good in their primes. That’s all before you even consider pitchers like Atlanta’s Big 3, Clemens, Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan, etc.