Top of the Order: Mike Trout’s Injury Is a Major Bummer

Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll be starting your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

Things couldn’t be going worse for the Angels. The Halos have stumbled to an 11-19 record in Ron Washington’s first year managing them, and he’ll now try to tread water without his best player. Future Hall of Famer Mike Trout is set to undergo knee surgery for a torn meniscus in his left knee, and while it isn’t expected to end his season, it will keep him out for awhile.

Trout started the year in fine form, with a wRC+ of 142 and 10 home runs tying him for the league lead. His production was elite despite a hilariously low .194 BABIP, which portended things likely would’ve gotten even better for him as the sample-size shenanigans worked themselves out. On top of that, he was much more aggressive on the bases, with his six steals equaling his total from the prior four years combined. That put him on pace for his first 30/30 season since his otherworldly 2012 rookie campaign. Indeed, this was shaping up to be another MVP-caliber campaign for Trout.

Of course, all of our optimism came with the cautious caveat: as long as he stays healthy. Which, as we know all too well, hasn’t been the case in recent years. Trout hasn’t played more than 120 games in a season since 2019, the year he won his third MVP award.

Beyond the silver lining that we might see Trout play baseball again in 2024, it’s too soon to know when he’ll be back in the lineup. Even so, we have some data to help us guess. A 2023 study by the Mayo Clinic’s Department of Orthopedic Surgery compiled data from 314 meniscus injuries from MLB and MiLB players over a seven-year period, with the median return to play time coming out to 70 days. But that includes all meniscus injuries, including those that didn’t require surgery. Knowing that Trout needs surgery paints a bleaker picture, with the median return to play for those players jumping up to 104 days. Put another way: A typical return from surgery wouldn’t have Trout returning to the Angels until the middle of August.

As difficult as it may be, the Angels still have to play baseball games without Trout. Taylor Ward (127 wRC+) and Jo Adell (174 wRC+) have done their part and will need to anchor the lineup and outfield without Trout. Mickey Moniak is expected to replace Trout in center field, at least against righties, and will likely platoon with new addition Kevin Pillar, whom the Angels signed to a major league deal shortly after Trout went down. Cole Tucker and Luis Rengifo are also capable of playing the outfield.

Bryce Miller’s Evolution

By now you’ve probably heard of Mariners righty Bryce Miller, though it’s certainly possible you hadn’t until he shined against the Braves on Monday. He took a perfect game into the sixth and a no-hitter into the seventh, striking out 10 and allowing just one run. The excellent showing lowered his ERA to 2.04 over his first six starts, with just 19 hits allowed in 35.1 innings. His strikeout rate has jumped from 22% last year to 29% so far this season, though he’s also walking a higher percentage of batters (9%, up from 5%). Of course, his .179 BABIP allowed is unsustainably low; then again, his 3.81 FIP is still respectable. Even if he’s due for some negative regression, it’s still worth discussing what has made him so effective thus far this year.

Miller relied heavily on his fastball as a rookie, and you would too if yours had 99th-percentile spin rate and nearly 10 inches of vertical ride — that’s more than all but seven pitchers who threw at least 100 innings in 2023. But when you throw your fastball nearly 60% of the time, major league hitters are going to know it’s coming and make the necessary adjustments to crush it. And boy, oh boy, they did, feasting for a .450 slugging percentage against Miller’s heater last year.

And so Miller’s response has been, unsurprisingly, to throw fewer four-seamers. He still relies on the pitch heavily, but it now represents 45% of his offerings, making him less predictable. He’s increased his sinker usage from 8% to 18%, and ditched his curveball and changeup for a splitter, which has quickly become his most-used secondary pitch (19%). With that splitter, he’s now actually running reverse splits in the early going, with lefties batting just .121/.205/.288 against it, and righties at .196/.262/.339. That said, he is striking out more and walking fewer righties than he is lefties, so I’d expect that trend to shift at least a bit. He’s kept lefties in check with his fastball this season, as his xwOBA allowed to them on that pitch has decreased from .406 to .333, but the splitter appears to be most effective tool to neutralize the platoon advantage. Lefties are 3-for-21 against that pitch with eight strikeouts and a 31.3% whiff rate. His continued emergence could give the Mariners a fourth great starter to go with Luis Castillo, George Kirby, and Logan Gilbert.

Jack Flaherty Shoves Against His Former Team

It wasn’t hard to imagine that Jack Flaherty would have a strong season. He’s still just 28, his velocity hasn’t dipped, and he has the pedigree of a fourth-place Cy Young finish in 2019. But back in December, when he signed a one-year, $14 million pillow contract with the Tigers, I certainly didn’t expect him to look as good as he did on Tuesday afternoon.

Facing the Cardinals — the team that drafted and developed him — for the first time since they traded him to the Orioles last summer, Flaherty allowed just two hits and one walk with a career-high 14 strikeouts on 93 pitches over 6.2 scoreless innings. All five of his pitches, even the few sinkers and changeups he threw, had whiff rates of at least 44%. Maybe he was amped facing his former club, or maybe he started to find his groove in his sixth start of the season; either way, all of his pitches had at least an extra tick of velocity from his rest-of-season averages. Despite his efforts, though, the Tigers allowed two runs in the top of the ninth inning and the Cardinals took the first game of Tuesday’s doubleheader, 2-1. (The Tigers won the night cap, 11-6.)

Flaherty’s excellent start could be quite the jumping-off point for a big contract when he reaches free agency again entering his age-29 season. Aside from this one outing, there are plenty of indications that Jack is, indeed, so back. His 2.85 FIP belies his 4.00 ERA, and he’s striking out 10 batters per every walk, a league-leading ratio. Most encouragingly, he’s made every start and thrown at least five innings and 87 pitches in each of them, no small feat for a guy who hasn’t qualified for the ERA title since that breakout 2019 campaign. If the Tigers are to stick around in the race, they’ll need more than just ace Tarik Skubal pitching big innings. Flaherty looks like a more than capable no. 2.

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