Trevor Story Is Making an All-Time Improvement

There was a time at which FanGraphs got swept up in Trevor Story mania. FanGraphs, of course, wasn’t alone in how it responded to Story’s big-league debut, because back in April of 2016, Story came out of the gate like a bolt of lightning. In his first-ever major-league game, he hit two home runs. To follow that up, he hit another. To follow that up, he hit *another.* And then he went deep twice in game number four. Story hit ten home runs that month, and he finished it with a slugging percentage of .696. It was impossible not to sit up and notice.

But there are debuts, and then there’s the rest. Many players have come up and done well at first. Fewer have sustained their success. The key to sticking around is to adjust to the opponents’ adjustments, and from May 2016 through the end of 2017, Story managed a combined 93 wRC+. Playable, certainly, yet hardly fantastic. Story was in danger of being forgotten, and, worse than that, he was in danger of being supplanted. Maybe not right away, but Story had to prove he should be considered a part of the Rockies’ longer-term core.

Here we are today, and by any measure, Story’s been one of baseball’s best shortstops. The Rockies are in first place in the NL West, and while their run differential is far worse than that of the Dodgers, Story has obviously done his part. He’s helped to push the Rockies into their present position, and all it’s required is an improvement for the record books.

Used to be, Story was like Joey Gallo without the elite-level power. Last year, for example, Gallo struck out 37% of the time, while hitting 28% ground balls. Story struck out 34% of the time, while hitting 34% ground balls. That happened while playing half the time in a strikeout-suppressing environment. Story didn’t quite have the full extent of Gallo’s swing-and-miss, but the book on Story was relatively straightforward — he’d try to hit the ball up, and he could be exploited. Even as a shortstop, he was a borderline starter.

Story, then, was a guy with a major strikeout problem. Even today, his strikeout rate remains above the league average. But look at the following plot, showing every hitter with at least 250 plate appearances in each of the last two seasons. You see changes in strikeout rate and contact rate, and Story is the point in yellow.

Story’s strikeout rate has improved by nine percentage points. His contact rate, in turn, has improved by seven percentage points. These are exceptional changes, and the only comparable player is Corey Dickerson. Dickerson, though, hasn’t really seen an overall change in productivity. Story’s wRC+ has vaulted from 81 to 124. By making more contact, Story is having far fewer empty at-bats, and an improvement like this is not easy to pull off.

The above plot considered players from the last two years with at least 250 plate appearances in each season. Now I’d like to broaden the scope, going all the way back to 1900, and considering players with at least 500 plate appearances in consecutive seasons. The resulting sample size numbers 7,219 season-pairs. Here are the largest year-to-year decreases in strikeout rate:

K% Improvements, 1900 – 2018
Player Year 1 Year 2 Y1 K% Y2 K% Change
Mark Belanger 1968 1969 21.5% 9.1% -12.4%
David Ortiz 2010 2011 23.9% 13.7% -10.2%
Brook Jacoby 1986 1987 21.4% 11.8% -9.6%
Jeff Burroughs 1975 1976 23.1% 13.7% -9.4%
Sam Chapman 1940 1941 17.1% 8.1% -9.0%
Jason Thompson 1983 1984 20.5% 11.5% -9.0%
Cory Snyder 1987 1988 27.0% 18.1% -8.9%
Trevor Story 2017 2018 34.4% 25.5% -8.9%
Bobby Thomson 1948 1949 15.2% 6.5% -8.7%
Willie McCovey 1967 1968 20.4% 11.7% -8.7%
Minimum 500 plate appearances in consecutive seasons.

There’s Story, presently eighth, out of 7,219. Ortiz is the only other particularly recent player in the table, and for him, that was more of a return to his normal strikeout baseline. Two relevant comparisons, to me, are Kris Bryant and Xander Bogaerts. Between 2015 – 2016, Bryant lowered his strikeout rate more than eight percentage points, and he hasn’t gone back. Between 2014 – 2015, Bogaerts also lowered his strikeout rate more than eight percentage points, and he also hasn’t gone back. Bryant had been good as a rookie with a bunch of strikeouts, and Story was good with a bunch of strikeouts in 2016, himself. But Bryant — and Bogaerts — became more polished, complete hitters. Story seems to be achieving the same thing. It’s no longer a small sample when the calendar flips to September.

What, then, has been happening for Story? What’s the secret behind his greater success? In part, he seems to have a tweaked and simplified swing, even though I couldn’t find very much on video. I’ll take their word for it. Story knows his own swing a lot better than I do. And then there’s also been a mental adjustment — Story is approaching the plate more ready to swing. In this way, he’s somewhat reminiscent of Christian Yelich. You can see it when you look at Story’s success on the first pitch; right now he owns a league-leading 21 first-pitch extra-base hits. Last year, he had 12. As a rookie, he had seven.

You can also see it elsewhere. When a hitter is ready to swing right away, you can observe some downstream consequences. About 52% of major-league plate appearances end up at two-strike counts. When Story was a rookie, he got to a two-strike count 61% of the time. In his follow-up year, he got to a two-strike count 62% of the time. This year, he’s all the way down at 52%. It’s only a little about Story avoiding a third strike. It’s more about him avoiding being in that spot in the first place. Story has become more aggressive early and in the strike zone, and so it’s become more difficult to put him away. Before there’s a two-strike count on the board, pitchers might be less willing to bounce a breaking ball, or throw a four-seamer at the letters. Story is granting fewer such opportunities.

As surprising as it is to say, Story has become something remarkably balanced. The six pitches thrown most often are the four-seamer, the two-seamer, the slider, the changeup, the curveball, and the cutter. This year, out of all qualified hitters, Story is one of just a dozen of them who have above-average run values against each of the individual pitch types. The list runs from Mike Trout and Joey Votto to Miguel Andujar and Didi Gregorius. It’s not so much that Story has made a point of becoming a better breaking-ball hitter. It’s that he’s just a better hitter in general, and he’s ending up in fewer putaway breaking-ball situations. His approach and bat-to-ball skills are the best that they’ve been, and strikeout improvements tend to be pretty sticky. Trevor Story has begun a new chapter.

I don’t know if the Rockies are going to hold off the Dodgers. Probably not. The Dodgers are very good, and the Rockies need to scratch and claw for every last win. But Story makes them feel better about their chances now, and he also makes them feel better about their chances down the road. Story is a part of the core, just as it seemed a couple seasons ago. Story’s strikeout-heavy approach worked for a little while, and then he was forced to play catch-up. He’s all caught up these days, as a hitter more prepared to damage any pitch. Just because there’s room for further improvement doesn’t mean Story’s improvement isn’t already impressive. It is, in fact, historic.

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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5 years ago

Jeff, I’m interested in your comment that Colorado is a ‘strikeout-suppressing environment’. I get how park factors could increase offense generally, but how would they suppress Ks? I would think that swing and miss rates would be pretty consistent across the parks, but is it somehow related to breaking balls not being as nasty, fastball rise/sink being decreased? Maybe I answered my own question!

5 years ago
Reply to  SucramRenrut

Batter’s eyes are a large factor in ballpark K-suppression. What the batter has behind the pitcher on which to identify and locate a pitch matters.

In a smaller, not-widely studied hypothesis of mine, I personally believe the ballpark’s dimensions/weather impact how the batters approach the at-bat, which could influence their K-tendancy. Similarly for pitchers and how they pitch in a park.

EDIT: Colorado, though, has a significant effect on pitch movement (and therefore selection) through altitude.

5 years ago
Reply to  tb.25

Great question, I’d theorize this – eyes/dimensions/weather. Seems to cover it all. Batters eye we hear about often enough. Day vs. night games, shadows/angles, which direction the wind is blowing, etc. Foul ground, altitude, etc. I say the pitchers eye too – heard on MLB I think Pleasac talking about it – you try to visualize the balls path to the plate and some plates/zones seemed to shrink and look small, and some looked big. Not sure how much of that is a thing, but interesting to think about!

5 years ago
Reply to  tb.25

That’s an interesting hypothesis. I would assume Arizona, which has a big beautiful batter’s eye, probably has a significant K-reduction than a place like Wrigley with a crappy little batter’s eye.

Tim L.
5 years ago
Reply to  SucramRenrut

Breaking balls just don’t break as much. I’m guessing pitchers “nibble” more because of this and the park dimensions and thin air. I haven’t checked but I bet that walk rates are elevated at Coors as a related issue.

5 years ago
Reply to  SucramRenrut

University of Illinois physics lab actually did a study on the affects of altitude on a pitched baseball and they used Coors as their exemplar. When compared to Fenway park a pitch can be expected to only break about 82% as much – which means a lot more pitches not only in spots they aren’t supposed to be but also a lot “straighter” to barrel up from the batters perspective. If they’re easier to barrel up, then obviously there will be fewer K’s… on a grand scale nothing dimensional or psychological about it, just physics and air resistance

5 years ago
Reply to  SucramRenrut

k rates and bb rates drop at Coors just because more balls are put into play – ABs are less likely to get to the 3rd strike or 4th ball.

5 years ago
Reply to  SucramRenrut

Breaking balls are relatively ineffective in COL. Mystery solved.