clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The unbroken Mike Trout is still here

Mike Trout was struggling last month, until he wasn't. Maybe it's time to change the way we think about him.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Being a good, original baseball writer is difficult (I assume, at least; I wouldn't know.). Coming up with something new and interesting to write about, and writing about it in an eloquent and intelligent fashion, is hard, whether the writer needs to do it on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis. Fortunately, when all else fails, there's Mike Trout.

Mr. Trout is, by dint of being the unequivocal best player in baseball over his career to date, always interesting. When he's great, there's lots to write about, and when he's anything less than great, it's interesting to delve into why he's departing from his normal dominance. In August, Mike Trout was less than great. Amusingly, he was almost precisely average offensively, with a .215/.352/.337 triple slash that corresponded to a 101 wRC+, but given that he owns a career wRC+ of 166, it qualifies as underperformance.

That led to a bunch of articles. Here's the always great Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs, talking about a wrist injury and lack of balls pulled with authority in the month. If you're looking for something a little more traditional, here's an LA Times calling the month "startling" and "cold", and here's another newspaper story describing it as "dismal" and "meager". There were a few things at play here -- Trout's downturn in production coincided almost perfectly with the start of August, making this slump stick out on his stat page where previous slumps have hidden themselves in the calendar -- but it was clear that Trout was struggling.

Amusingly, Jeff's article was published precisely on September 1st. That night, Trout went 1-for-3 with a single and two walks in a win over the A's, starting a resurgent month. From that game through Monday, he's hit at a .258/.385/.613 clip, good for a 167 wRC+, almost precisely equal to his career average.

As Jeff identified, Trout wasn't pulling the ball. Wrist injuries are complicated, and it's not a simple "A therefore B" relationship between them and pull power, but it's a reasonable inference to make (Here's a Hardball Times article that goes into some depth on that topic, if you're interested). Here are three spray charts of Trout's balls in play for March through July, August, and September thus far.

The difference between the first and the second is obvious, but just as obvious is that something has returned in September. With six home runs, four of which were hit to left field and five of which came in the last ten days, it's not difficult to conclude that Trout merely needed some time to recuperate and regain some wrist strength, and once he did his power returned. They haven't been cheap dingers either; they've averaged 402.7 feet of true distance, per ESPN's, just below a season average of 408.7.

A zone-based breakdown tells a slightly different story. The following are breakdowns of Trout's slugging percentage over the same time frames, from Brooks Baseball.

His production was down everywhere in August, but focus on the inside half of the first two charts in the zone and out. He went from destroying anything over the plate, and getting good contact on the stuff out of the zone, to not much inside the zone and virtually nothing outside it. These rates are based off only a few balls in play for some of the sections, however. A better idea might be to look at how pitchers have approached him. If he has a new weakness due to this supposed injury, it seems very likely pitchers would do their best to exploit it.

Not too much of a difference between March-July and August. It looks like there might be a few more balls on the inside half, but the overall rate went up by about two percentage points, so it's not as if pitchers suddenly began preying on a hole in his swing. Similarly, the September rates look pretty much the same, so pitchers aren't retreating in the face of a healthy Trout. Maybe that's because he was never truly injured; maybe that's because he's not fully recovered; most likely it's something else entirely.

So Trout's results suggest an injured August and a healthy September; a more process-oriented look presents a murkier picture, as it often does. I'm not sure if he was broken, if he's fixed now, or what. I do know that I expect him to be a force of nature going forward, because he's Mike Trout.

That sounds flippant, but it gets at the ultimate point I want to make. As I said, it seems that anytime Trout goes through anything resembling a slump for a few weeks, there's an article written about it. Almost always, they lead up to a big declaration of What's Wrong, and there's a sense that this has to be the one. This has to be the weak link in Trout's armor that turns him from an unprecedented ballplayer into a merely great one. It's entirely possible I'm projecting onto all these authors; I don't mean to insult anyone. But I know I felt this most around the end of the 2014 season, when it seemed every other article written was about Trout's vulnerability to high heat that wasn't going away.

It went away, of course, like the slight weakness against low and away pitches that followed, or any of the other proximate causes of the various slumps he's endured between long stretches of smashing baseballs. Whether I'm projecting onto other authors or not, I think it's clear now that the default assumption has to be that any Trout weakness will soon be corrected.

One does not simply become one of the top 50 baseball players in the world (or, in this case, one of the top 50 players of all time, and that's being generous to about 40 others) without being able to adjust nearly constantly. I watch more Red Sox games than any other team, and so for me, the go-to example of this is Will Middlebrooks, but you can insert your favorite flash-in-the-pan who hit well as a rookie before cratering the first time a pitcher found a vulnerability. There are tons of them, probably because adjusting like this is really hard! Mike Trout has, at this point, demonstrated that to be yet another exemplary part of his game. It could be that it's more obvious in him than most players, since not everyone gets an article for every slump, but adjusting is clearly a strength.

Mike Trout is a great baseball player. He got to that point via incredible amounts of natural athleticism but also by making constant adjustments, big and small, to the way he approaches a plate appearance. When he's off his game, it absolutely should be written about, since that is notable and interesting, and the manner in which it has happened should also be noted. It shouldn't, however, be portrayed as the flaw that will finally bring him down, because the only way to sustain such otherworldly production over almost four years is to be extremely adaptable as well as extremely talented.

. . .

Henry Druschel is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score and has possibly been described as "the Mike Trout of baseball writing." You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.