Where Mike Trout Stands Out Most

If someone asked you what Mike Trout’s signature skill is, what would your answer be? You might say it’s his power, even though he’s never led his league in homers, or his elite approach, even though he still strikes out a little more often than he walks. If you watched him in person when he was much younger, you might say it isn’t even his steady hitting that defines him, but the way the 6-foot-2, 235-pound mammoth of a man moves, sprinting with top-line speed to steal bases and gliding to field balls hit to center field. The correct answer, of course, isn’t any of those things. What separates Mike Trout from the pack is that he is one of the best, if not the best, at virtually everything. He is the sum of several staggeringly impressive parts.

Still, it feels a bit odd that the player we think of as the best in the game wouldn’t have any specific skill that stands far above the rest of the competition. But while it’s true that Trout has never cruised to a batting title, or demolished the field in homers or walks, the baseball community is constantly coming up with new statistics and methods through which we can evaluate players. Trends, trials, and technology help those new tools grow and improve, and with each one that sticks, we have a new chance to discover a player’s distinctive traits.

In recent years, many of those new revelations have come along because of Statcast, which has introduced an increasing number of statistics into even the casual fan’s lexicon, a technology that gives us a peek into data and visuals we didn’t previously have access to. One of the more recent additions to Statcast’s suite of tools is Swing/Take value, which sorts each pitch into four attack zones based on where it crosses the plate — the heart of the plate, the shadow of the plate, chase pitches, and waste pitches — as well as whether the hitter swung or took the pitch, and uses Tom Tango’s RE288 table to assign the result of each pitch a run value. The result is sort of a hybrid set of data, a glimpse at the particulars of a hitter’s plate approach, as well as his impact when he does decide to swing.

Take, for example, the Swing/Take profile of Anthony Rendon, who led all hitters in Statcast’s Swing/Take runs metric, at +65.

Anthony Rendon Swing/Take Profile
Attack Zone Swing Rate League Avg. Swing Runs Take Runs Total
Heart 76% 73% 35 -10 25
Shadow 48% 53% -4 1 -3
Chase 15% 24% -8 36 28
Waste 2% 7% -1 15 14
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Swinging at pitches in the heart of the plate is good, because those pitches are always strikes, and they are the easiest pitches to do damage with. Rendon swings at an above-average rate on those pitches, and he often produces good results with those swings, giving him a ton of Swing Runs. Conversely, swinging at pitches in the chase and waste areas is never a good idea, since those pitches are always called balls, and it is highly unlikely that you will make solid contact. Would you look at that, Rendon’s swing rate is well below-average on those two classes of pitches, helping him rack up a bunch of Take Runs.

You’ll notice, though, Rendon isn’t in the positive everywhere. In the shadow area of the plate, he cost his team three runs — +1 on takes, -4 on swings. This isn’t an indictment of Rendon, though. Unlike the other three classifications, shadow pitches aren’t automatic balls, and nor are they meatballs cooked and ready for consumption. They are 50% balls and 50% strikes, and those strikes are well-located ones — strikes most likely to break out of the zone at any moment, strikes that present a shorter window for timing and are more difficult to get a barrel to. This is where pitchers level the playing field. More than 40% of all pitches are thrown into the shadow of the plate. Of the 430 hitters who saw at least 500 pitches in 2019, only 19 — less than 5% — finished with a positive run value on offerings in the shadow zone.

That brings us back to Trout. Trout, as you might imagine, grades out pretty well in the Swing/Take metric, finishing at +58 in 2019, second only to Rendon. The thing about Trout, though, is that he didn’t simply pad his total by not swinging at junk and letting loose on hangers. No, Trout hit pitchers hardest when they least saw it coming.

2019 Statcast Swing/Take Leaderboard
Rk. Player Team PA Pitches Heart Shadow Chase Waste All
1 Mike Trout Angels 561 2458 -3 18 28 14 58
2 Miguel Cabrera Tigers 539 2021 -16 8 9 8 8
3 Yordan Alvarez Astros 422 1736 6 8 13 5 32
4 Josh Phegley Athletics 332 1254 -9 6 3 3 3
5 José Altuve Astros 612 2188 -13 6 19 10 22
6 Nelson Cruz Twins 519 2164 18 5 15 8 46
7 Edwin Encarnación Yankees 500 2252 2 4 14 12 32
8 Whit Merrifield Royals 724 2750 -18 3 18 10 14
9 Gio Urshela Yankees 502 1898 4 3 7 6 20
10 David Peralta D-backs 415 1556 -7 2 11 5 10
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

The “Shadow” column is where you should direct your attention. Trout was +18 on pitches in the shadow of the plate, more than twice as good as the next-best hitter, and some 28 runs better than the median hitter. It’s a staggering number, and one that is as illustrative as any about what a difficult task it is to pitch to Trout. And it isn’t a one-year blip, either. He was +4 and +3 in the shadow zone in 2017 and ’18, respectively, was right at zero in 2016, and was +9 in 2015. That means Trout has been in the top couple of percentiles of baseball for every year Statcast has data. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a big surprise for someone who is already considered one of the very best players of all time, but considering how few players perform like this in any given season, it should still strike you as wildly impressive. And a look at his Swing/Take profile shows he isn’t even doing it the way you may think he is.

Mike Trout Swing/Take Profile
Attack Zone Swing Rate League Avg. Swing Runs Take Runs Total
Heart 66% 73% 10 -13 -3
Shadow 41% 53% 14 4 18
Chase 13% 24% -8 36 28
Waste 2% 7% -1 15 14
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

We know Trout is a master of the strike zone. He led the majors in walk rate last year, and posted the third-lowest chase rate. Unsurprisingly, that’s where he accumulated a substantial amount of his value in 2019 —  he swung at automatic balls at a fraction of the league average rate. Because of that, you’d think his value in the shadow of the plate would come from having a keen eye for balls and strikes, but that isn’t necessarily the case. To be clear, his +4 Take Runs are still much better than what most guys do. On plate appearances that ended with Trout taking a pitch in the shadow of the zone, he had a wOBA of .384, placing him in the 79th percentile of all hitters. Trout isn’t costing himself much with takes. The terrifying thing for pitchers is that Trout is doing most of his damage when swinging at pitches they would love to see any other hitter offer at.

When Trout swings at pitches in the shadow of the plate, he bats .332 with a .726 slugging percentage and .432 wOBA. The last two numbers are the best in the majors, and the distance between Trout and second place isn’t small in either case. Again, these are situations in which the pitcher is supposed to have a significant leg up. It isn’t as though it’s a lost cause to try and square up a pitch in the shadow of the plate — half of them are strikes, after all. But they aren’t pitches that batters are supposed to be able to handle well. In 2019, the league-wide wOBA was .320, while the slugging percentage was .435. When batters swung at pitches in the shadow of the zone, however, those numbers dropped to .275 and .404, respectively. Locating a pitch in this part of the plate usually means a pitcher has done his job, and a good chunk of the time, he’s rewarded for it. When Trout is at the plate, this happens:

Or this:

Or this:

Or this:

This is where Trout separates himself, the aspect of his game that no one else came close to matching last season. If someone wants to know what Trout’s standout skill is, then, all you have to do is tell them he is more than twice as good at hitting pitches that are in the shadow of the strike zone as any other hitter in baseball. Tell them about how tough it is for hitters to hit pitches in the shadow of the zone, and how most of them cost their team piles of runs in those situations over the course of a season, and that Trout adds more value in what are supposed to be his least-advantageous situations than most hitters do in any situation, period. Maybe tell them about run expectancy, and how we’re not necessarily measuring Trout’s value in actual runs, but in perceived runs added in a context-neural, all-things-equal situation.

Wait, that’s way too clunky. How many times are you gonna use the word “situation,” buddy? Sheesh. Instead, say Trout’s standout skill is dread. Say that there is a cliché that athletes and coaches often use about how if you come up with the right game plan and execute it, then you’ll be successful, only Trout is impervious to game plans. He succeeds against the types of pitches hitters are expected to succeed at, but he also succeeds where hitters are supposed to fail, and does so to an extent that is not replicated by anyone. Because of that, pitchers have nowhere to turn. Baseball is a zero-sum game; if Trout is never at a disadvantage, then the pitcher always is.

Or you can just say he’s the best player in baseball. That stands out pretty well, too.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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Sonny Lmember
3 years ago

Love this. Great piece.

Could watch Trout hammer paint all day

3 years ago
Reply to  Sonny L

I’m fascinated to learn more on the Miggy data. Great everywhere except the heart of the plate?

3 years ago
Reply to  DBA455

Probably worse than average, but it’s still not a good idea to throw him the ball there. Same for Trout.

It’s all relative to league average, not pure production.

Matthew Prowant
3 years ago
Reply to  DBA455

Haven’t looked into it, but my first thought is maybe difficulty catching up to fastballs? Between age and injuries, would be reasonable that the best approach is to try and blow him away with ++ heat, location be damned. Agree it would be interesting to look into.

3 years ago

You get punished for taking pitches in the heart of the plate. Trout has a tendency to take first pitches down the heart, so that is likely the cause of his -3.

Did Miggy also have a tendency to take pitches on certain counts (0-0, 3-0, 3-1)?

3 years ago
Reply to  Sonny L

Right? It was a great read, and then I got to the clips and just sat there dumbfounded. It’s one thing to see it in numbers. When you see it in real life, it’s staggering.