Can Mike Trout Be Stopped?
In baseball, we hear about prospects all the time. Prospects are a big part of the game. All major league baseball players were prospects at one point or another to varying degrees. They were scouted and evaluated and at some point selected to be promoted from a team’s farm system to the big league club. Somewhere along the way some scout smoked a cigarette, threw around some swear words, and talked about the prospect’s best tools, or his ceiling, or squinted and painted a picture of the best case scenario for that player. Very few humans are professional baseball players. Even fewer become major league baseball players. Drill down several more layers and you find the select group of athletes who actually reach their ceiling. Mike Trout is doing all of those things, and it’s his rookie year.
The Los Angeles Angels selected Mike Trout with the 25th overall pick in the 2009 draft. Trout has now played 127 games in his professional career, and is already the fifth-most valuable 25th pick in history. This year, Trout was not called up from Triple-A to join the Angels until 20 games had already been played in the season. Now, he leads the American League in batting average (.348), runs scored (86), stolen bases (36 on 39 attempts), and fWAR (6.7). In Monday night’s game against the Oakland Athletics, he came to the plate five times. He singled twice, walked once, and was hit by a pitch. The A’s were able to get Trout out one time. It seems that any time Mike Trout plays, that is the kind of night that he has. On top of all of that, he does things like this:
There are 134 video highlights of Mike Trout on MLB.com.
Trout has American League Rookie of the Year locked up. Even if he were to suffer a season-ending injury tomorrow, there would be little debate that he should still win that trophy. He is also the leader in the clubhouse to be the league’s MVP. Since Trout joined the Angels on April 28th, the Angels have been the best team in the American League.
Mike Trout may be the best player in baseball this year, and he may wind up having the best season ever for a twenty-year old (though he just turned twenty-one on Tuesday), but that doesn’t mean that he is invulnerable to MLB teams exploiting his weaknesses and adjusting to slow him down. The trick is to find those weaknesses. With Trout, right now there aren’t many, and certainly once pitchers adjust to Trout, Trout will likely be able to adjust back. He is talented enough and has the right makeup that he will likely be the best player in baseball for many years to come, but there will always be attempts to find a way to slow him down. This is one such attempt.
Using the hitter profile feature from Baseball Prospectus and Brooks Baseball, we can attempt to locate where Mike Trout may actually have a flaw. It’s not easy, which is why he has continued to pillage MLB pitching the entire season. Below is Trout’s True Average (TaV) this season by hitting zone:
There are only a couple of blue zones that suggest Trout doesn’t hit well there, and those are all surrounded by red zones, so if you look at this table, there isn’t one place that you can pick out that you would be comfortable attacking Trout. However, we can dig deeper.
Trout has been very good against right-handers in 2012, posting a 1.022 OPS, which is actually better than his .958 OPS against left-handers. Yet, it appears there may be two points of attack for right-handed pitchers. The below chart shows Trout’s performance against right-handers on hard pitches (fastballs/sinkers/cutters):
And this next chart is against right-handers on breaking pitches (sliders/curveballs):
Against right-handers, there is an opportunity to minimize the damage that Mike Trout can do by trying to fist him inside with fastballs, and feeding him breaking balls low and outside. This isn’t a groundbreaking game plan, as that is a good strategy and is an effective combination against most right-handed hitters. It is easier said than done, but it appears those are the best options for keeping Trout off the bases.
For left-handed pitchers, the sample size is smaller, as 80% of Trout’s at-bats have been against right-handers. However, so far, Trout has not hit well against left-handers throwing fastballs on the outside corner, as this table shows:
The success of Mike Trout has been almost unprecedented. It would seem unsustainable, considering his well above average (.400) batting average on balls in play and his young age. Yet, Trout has actually improved his OPS each month in 2012. If pitchers are making adjustments to do something differently to get Mike Trout out, he is staying one step ahead. At some point, that trend will likely reverse, even if it’s becoming more difficult to imagine a day when Mike Trout isn’t making baseball look like an easy game. These suggestions may not work, but right now, it appears the best shot at slowing down Mike Trout is by firing arm-side fastballs, and trying to get him to chase breaking balls low and away. It may not be possible to stop Mike Trout, but there may be a way to contain him.
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