In his two-plus years in the big leagues, nary a bad thing has been said about Mike Trout, and there's a reason for that. The Los Angeles Angels superstar has made a name for himself as arguably the best player in the game, causing a firestorm in coming up short of the American League Most Valuable Player award for two consecutive years. This year, he's off to another strong start.
The numbers for Mike Trout are down a bit, but for the most part, they're exactly what we've come to expect from the young Halos superstar:
Again, numbers down just a touch from what he's done in the two previous years, but we're working with a smaller sample size just over a month into 2014—what Trout is doing can still be considered elite. He's demonstrating an ability to hit for extra bases and generate runs, and his WAR is among the best in baseball. Yet, there's something of a cloud being cast over his 2014 season that we haven't really seen from him prior to this year: his declining ability to make contact.
Now, when one refers to his "decline", that is in a pure numbers context, from one year to the next. That's not to say that Mike Trout as a player is regressing or already declining. Rather, his numbers from one year to the next indicate that he's putting balls in play less and striking out more. Regardless of what you're doing on the rest of the stat sheet, that's a trend you hope to avoid as a ballplayer.
Trout's walk rate is down almost four points from where it was last season, but it's the strikeout rate that has drawn some eyeballs here in the middle of May. To date, Trout's strikeout percentage has jumped up to 27.6%, which is almost nine points higher than it was last season. He's hacking and missing at 8.3% of pitches this season, which is a career mark, while experiencing a decline in his ability to make contact at pitches both in and out of the zone.
For the most part, pitchers are continuing to attack him in the same fashion that they have been. They're keeping the ball low and away, attempting to avoid Trout punishing a pitch into the outfield bleachers. The approach hasn't changed, so why have the strikeout numbers?
For one, Trout is being more aggressive. He's swinging at pitches at a higher rate than ever before in his career, both inside and out of the zone. Which has led to more swings and misses. This was especially true in April, when he was hacking at nearly 60 percent of all off-speed pitches. His swing tendencies throughout his career are portrayed here:
The tail end of what we've seen this season in the form of the small sample size in May paints a prettier picture for him, as he's managed to rein it in some. For comparison's sake, this is what Trout is actually swinging and missing across three years:
When you look at the breakdown, it's really difficult to discern just what is causing Mike Trout to struggle to make contact. And of course, we use "struggle" in a sense that relates to his previous numbers, not in the way that a normal human would struggle to make contact. Given the relatively small sample size being worked with and what we've seen to date, it can really just be chalked up to aggressiveness. Perhaps if we get into the later summer months of the season and Trout is still in a situation where the strikeouts are coming at a higher-than-normal rate, then something can be made of this.
At the end of the day, Trout is still on pace for a career high in WAR and continues to post eye-popping numbers across the board. His tendency to swing and miss at the off-speed stuff has dipped significantly, while the rest of his tendencies have fit right in with his career averages. There isn't any reason to be concerned about the overall performance of Mike Trout, but it would be surprising to see these strikeout trends continue for the rest of the season.