The Nature of Mike Trout’s Problem

The default introduction: Mike Trout is among the least-troubled players in baseball. By WAR, you could split him into four or five parts and have four or five decent everyday players, at least given good enough prosthetic limbs. Trout’s coming off an MVP award he deserved, after back-to-back seasons of not winning MVP awards he probably deserved. Regarding his very well-known weakness, I’ve written about this perhaps literally countless times, so maybe you’re tired of hearing about it. And I’m about to make a post out of one quote offered at the beginning of spring training. You know what you’re getting, here. Read on, and the blame lies with you.

Trout has checked into Angels camp. Because he’s a star, people want to know what he’s thinking, and as he stood before a horde of media types, Trout said he’d like to increase his stolen bases. Good news, fantasy players! Trout also said he’d like to cut down on his strikeouts. Probably to 0%. Maybe that’s unrealistic, but Trout opened up just a little bit about what was giving him issues, and it’s not often you can get Trout to say anything of substance.

From Mike DiGiovanna’s column:

“Plain and simple, I was chasing the high pitch, everybody knows that,” Trout said of his strikeout figure. “There are things you can work on. The majority of time, they’re balls, and I was chasing them.”

There’s no way around it — Trout identified high pitches (high fastballs) as the reason behind his strikeout increase. It’s been one of the loudest secrets in the game, so, maybe that’s why Trout was willing to admit it. It comes as news to no one. But let’s parse this just a little bit. “I was chasing the high pitch.” Was Trout really chasing the high pitch? It seems like a stupid question, given all the content we’ve generated about this subject, but the answer here might surprise you.

In fact, I’m not even going to cite numbers. I’m looking at numbers, here on my own laptop, but I’m not going to write them. Numbers are ugly to read and oftentimes they’re unnecessary. I can just give you some true statements, based on PITCHf/x.

Against elevated pitches out of the zone, Trout finished with one of the lowest swing rates in baseball.

Against elevated pitches in the zone, Trout finished with one of the lowest swing rates in baseball.

Looking at the same things, but with two strikes, Trout finished with some of the lowest swing rates in baseball.

How about we split it to just the second half, when Trout’s strikeouts really took off? Great, so, in the second half, against elevated pitches out of the zone, Trout finished with one of the lowest swing rates in baseball. The same applied to elevated pitches in the zone. Ditto the same stuff, with two strikes. We all saw Trout swing through plenty of elevated pitches, but his actual swing rates were far from obscene. If anything, they were obscenely low. That’s not actually true, but Trout wasn’t out of control with his swings at pitches up. The problem wasn’t exactly his chase rate.

The problem was more that Trout just couldn’t do anything with pitches up. Very rarely did he do any damage, so while he infrequently swung, he even more infrequently swung and did something good. This is what pitchers identified: not that Trout was swinging too much upstairs, but that his swings weren’t real threatening. No one in baseball saw a greater rate of fastballs in the upper half. No one in baseball saw a greater rate of fastballs in the upper half with two strikes. The trend got more extreme as the season wore on. Trout wasn’t chasing more, on a rate basis, but he was swinging upstairs more often just because he was getting pitched upstairs more often. His weakness was amplified.

Against pitches in or beyond the upper third, Trout just batted .078, slugging .138. The two seasons before, against the same pitches, he batted .184, slugging .382. His own personal swing rate against pitches up did increase, but by fewer than three percentage points. He didn’t turn into a hacker. He just swung through those pitches more, and when he made contact, the contact was weaker. This probably has to do with the same swing or approach adjustment that caused Trout’s groundball rate to plummet between years. As Trout tried to get more air under low pitches, he made himself even more vulnerable against high pitches, and if there’s any batter worth studying for a hole, it’s the best player in the game. Trout couldn’t hide.

So let’s say Trout has a weakness against high pitches. Seems fair. He was weaker in 2014 than he was in seasons previous. What’s the solution? I think there are three ways to go. One: do nothing. Change nothing. Trout was just voted the Most Valuable Player! Let’s not exaggerate this vulnerability — it didn’t stop Trout from being absolutely incredible. Even down the stretch, he was one of the best players in the world.

Two: tweak something with the swing mechanics. I don’t know what. I’m not a swing expert. Maybe try to get back to 2013 form. If you make a change to try to address pitches upstairs, you’ll probably end up a little weaker against pitches downstairs. That’s just the nature of balance, and I don’t think anyone’s capable of covering every pitch in every part of the zone. Even Trout. An MVP has his relative strengths and weaknesses.

Three: try to swing up even less often. And maybe this is what Trout intends to try to do. If he feels like he chased too much, it sounds like he wants to chase less, even though, as it turns out, he didn’t chase at an extraordinary rate. I don’t know how much lower Trout’s rates could go, but if he can’t hit those pitches well, maybe it’s best to let them go by, even if plenty of them nip the zone. It would be worthwhile to go back to Eno’s Brandon Moss interview. Moss talked about understanding his weakness up in the zone, so he’d try to just ignore those pitches, or foul them off if there were two strikes. Mike Trout is better than Brandon Moss, but maybe they see this the same way: let ’em go. Swing if you have to, but stay focused down. Eventually, most pitchers will throw a pitch down.

I don’t know how many more times I’m going to write “it’ll be interesting to see how Trout gets pitched early in 2015.” But it will be. And it’ll be equally interesting to see how Trout gets pitched late in 2015. People ask me about the storylines I’m most interested in following this year. If my writing is any indication, it turns out I care about Mike Trout’s pitch patterns more than I care about my own favorite team, or health.

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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9 years ago

Please pay attention to your health, Jeff. It’s more important than Mariners, Trouts, or even volcanoes.

9 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

Very 🙂

Jim S.
9 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

It’s all about your health, ’bout your health, ’bout your health — no bullshit.