The New And Not-So-Improved Mike Trout

The divisional round of the playoffs is in the books, and the sport is taking a deep breath for a couple of days before the final four tournament gets underway. Both wild card survivors live on, the team with the best record in each league has been sent home, and all viable regular season MVP candidates suddenly have some unexpected free time on their hands. In fact, the two likely frontrunners, Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, were among the primary culprits for their respective teams’ defeats.

Kershaw, most visibly, had a couple of really bad 7th innings, and Trout pulled the ol’ 1 for 15 as the Angels were swept by the Royals. It’s small sample size theater, obviously – these guys are generational greats, no matter what happened in the 2014 playoffs. In the details of Trout’s exceptional 2014 season, however, lie the imprint of some worrisome trends that might be signs of long-term trouble.

Trout has been a devastating force from the moment he first put on a professional uniform. An absolute steal with the 25th overall pick in the 2009 draft as a 17-year-old, Trout laid waste to the minor leagues to the tune of a .342-.425-.516 line, as the youngest player in every league in which he played. I scouted him in the Midwest League when he was 18 years old, and put a Mickey Mantle comp on him. 80 raw power, 80 speed. Such tools and performance marked him as a likely future superstar, but as we all know, a lot can happen on the way to the big leagues. As it turned out, Trout was even better than anyone could have imagined once he established himself with the Angels.

Trout’s first two seasons in the big leagues were the stuff of legend – 10.1 and 10.5 WAR, hit for average, hit for power, play impact defense at a key position, and run like the wind, for volume but with efficiency. He did everything but win an MVP Award, but that’s a topic for another day. Miguel Cabrera’s considerable peak – with a shiny Triple Crown as its beacon – happened to coincide with Trout’s monumental debut seasons. No problem – he’d almost certainly rack up a handful before his time was done, and he still might, with his first crown likely to be bestowed upon him shortly.

Quite clearly, however, Trout’s third season doesn’t quite measure up to his first two – there is simply no competitor of 2012-13 Cabrera’s caliber to take him down this time around. 7.8 WAR is still nothing to sneeze at – perhaps not a historic season, but still good enough to contend for hardware in most seasons. It’s perfectly within an acceptable range of variation for a star player – from 10.1, to 10.5, to 7.8 WAR – who wouldn’t sign up for that? The Angels would sign on the dotted line – again – right now for a player with guaranteed annual 7.8 WAR production over the next decade. They locked him up through 2020 for a total of $139.5M over the next six years, including a cool $33.25M per year over the last three. Any way you slice it, despite that record annual salary, it’s almost impossible to envision a scenario in which Trout is not a bargain, even in those three peak salary years.

It’s not the decline in performance in 2014 that is a reason to at least be slightly concerned about the future of Mike Trout – it’s the nature of that decline. Let’s take a closer look at Trout’s 2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data to assess the situation. First, the frequency information:

FREQ – 2013
Trout % REL PCT
K 19.0% 105 62
BB 15.4% 191 98
POP 5.0% 61 11
FLY 31.3% 109 61
LD 24.3% 113 82
GB 39.5% 94 46
FREQ – 2014
Trout % REL PCT
K 26.1% 128 81
BB 11.8% 155 90
POP 9.5% 123 70
FLY 35.1% 125 90
LD 22.1% 106 64
GB 33.3% 77 8

Obviously, the first thing that stands out is the significant increase in Trout’s K rate from 19.0% in 2013 (62 percentile rank) to 26.1% in 2014 (81 percentile rank). That is an awfully big one-season jump. His BB rate, though still quite high, also moved in the wrong direction, declining from 15.4% in 2013 (98 percentile rank) to 11.8% in 2014 (90 percentile rank). This might be one case when the raw numbers grab you more than the rate data – his K-BB differential was 26 in 2013, and 101 in 2014. That is far from inconsequential.

One of the most staggering aspects of Trout’s 2012-13 dominance was his ability to maximize positive outcomes while minimizing negative ones. For example, this was a slugger who didn’t pop up, as evidenced by his 5.0% 2013 popup rate (11 percentile rank). His popup rate almost doubled in 2014, to 9.5% (70 percentile rank). That’s a lot more free outs given to pitchers via strikeout and popup – almost 50% more in 2014 compared to 2013.

His liner rate also decreased in 2014 (64 percentile rank) as compared to 2013 (82 percentile rank), but I’m not concerned about that one. Liner rates fluctuate more than that of other batted ball types, and Trout’s has been above MLB average – though steadily declining – in his three seasons. I would be more concerned about the spike in his fly ball rate to a 90 percentile rank in 2014. That, coupled with the decline in his grounder rate to an 8 percentile rank, puts him in some not-so-good company.

In 2013, only 17 of the 135 primary AL position players – only 12.6% of them – hit more fly balls than grounders. They were:

Brandon Moss
Chris Davis
Nick Franklin
Evan Longoria
Colby Rasmus
Jarrod Saltalamacchia
Daniel Nava
A.J. Pierzynski
Nick Swisher
Matt Wieters
Jed Lowrie
Kelly Johnson
Asdrubal Cabrera
Justin Smoak
Raul Ibanez
Brian Roberts
Chris Carter

Franklin spent most of 2014 in the minors, and Wieters spent most of the season on the disabled list, so let’s throw them out of our analysis. The other 15 players had an average OPS+ of 118 in 2013…..and 92 in 2014. Carter was the only one of the group whose OPS+ increased in 2014. Davis, Ibanez, Swisher and Smoak experienced the largest declines, but most of the plunges were quite steep. The average age of these 15 players in 2013 was exactly 30. Mike Trout’s 2014 fly/ground imbalance is not a positive development. It’s a trait of an older player who is about to experience a significant decline.

And that’s just the frequency info – now let’s look at his production by batted-ball type data to gain better perspective regarding his all-around offensive package:

PROD – 2013
FLY 0.362 1.080 191 187
LD 0.645 0.944 106 121
GB 0.356 0.391 228 126
ALL BIP 0.410 0.711 178 162
ALL PA 0.317 0.423 0.549 183 170
PROD – 2014
FLY 0.380 1.153 236 239
LD 0.698 1.128 135 128
GB 0.346 0.392 206 154
ALL BIP 0.405 0.792 201 187
ALL PA 0.283 0.369 0.553 165 156

This data shows some continued growth on Trout’s part. As hard as he hit the ball in the air in 2013 (187 REL PRD after adjustment for context), he hit it even harder in 2014 (239), in an overall offensive environment that showed a decline in MLB fly ball authority. His line drive (121 to 128 REL PRD) and grounder (126 to 154 REL PRD) authority also increased from 2013 to 2014. The continued significant impact of his speed upon his offensive game – despite the decline in his stolen base totals – can be seen in the substantial difference between his actual production on grounders (228 and 201 ADJ PRD in 2013 and 2014, respectively) and his REL PRD figures. This is what I call his “speed premium”.

Overall, he’s been a better ball striker in 2014 (187 ADJ PRD on all BIP, adjusted for context) than in 2013 (162). Once you add back the K and BB, however, the tide turns, with his overall 2014 ADJ PRD figure of 156 lagging his 2013 mark of 170. He crushes the baseball, and his ball-crushing trend line is positive, as one would expect of a 22-year-old. When you dig a little deeper into his batted-ball data, however, you find additional troubling information.

Trout pulled the ball an awful lot more in 2014 compared to 2013, particularly on the ground. His grounder “pull ratio” – (GB to LF + LCF)/(GB to RCF + RF) – mushroomed from a near MLB average (for a righthanded hitter) of 3.50 in 2013 to an extremely high 6.12 in 2014. This means that Trout is now a clear infield overshift candidate. At this stage of his career, Trout’s ability to crush the baseball along with his top-shelf speed have enabled him to bat about .350 on grounders over the last two seasons, over 100 points above the MLB average. Trout won’t be able to run like this forever – what happens if this pulling trend continues and/or intensifies? Chris Davis is an even more extreme ground ball puller. He certainly can’t run like Trout, but he is lefthanded and gets a head start to first base. Davis batted .129 on grounders this season. If Trout was merely a league average producer on grounders – .245 AVG – in 2014, his average drops to .266.

Interestingly, there is a fairly strong likelihood that Trout’s home run power still has room to grow. In 2013, he hit exactly 6 extreme pull fly balls (to the LF sector), and in 2014, increased that to a whopping 11. Trout still has plenty of room to increase his homer total by learning to selectively pull the ball in the air. The one positive aspect of his increased fly ball total is that it led to an increase in his homer total. With more pulled fly balls, Trout could become a 50-homer guy at some point in the next few seasons.

That said, he appears to have become a power-before-hit guy rather than the hit-before-power guy he was in 2012 and 2013. The aforementioned factors underlying his 2014 performance – the increased K’s, popups and fly balls, and the increased pull tendency on the ground – are hallmarks of older players. Trout has pushed himself several years forward on his personal aging curve, and as it is with the defensive spectrum, it’s a lot easier to move in one direction than the other. It’s similar to fighting the force of gravity.

Mike Trout is not in a steady, inexorable decline. He is an incredible athlete, with elite ball-impacting skills. He will win more MVP Awards, and his current contract is very likely to turn out to be a bargain. That said, my long-term prognosis for him isn’t as sunny as it was entering this season. Offensively, he looks a lot more like Giancarlo Stanton than Mickey Mantle going forward. Mantle struck out a lot, but he had the platoon advantage each and every time he batted in the major leagues. Trout apparently has sold out the approach that worked for him in his first two seasons for power, power, power. He’ll exhibit plenty of it in the coming seasons, but I would expect him to be a much different player at the end of his current contract than he is today. Someday, he’ll have to move to an outfield corner, and 2014 marked his first large step to a corner outfielder skill set. He now appears much more likely to experience a conventional aging curve rather than a Hank Aaron-esque hit-before-power path that features peak level performance as late as one’s late thirties.

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Andre the Angels Fan
Andre the Angels Fan