In their quest to hit all of the home runs, the Baltimore Orioles grabbed Mark Trumbo from the Seattle Mariners. Being a statuesque right fielder with troublesome on-base skills, Trumbo's value has always been limited despite prodigious power. The troublesome on-base skills are related to Trumbo's lack of contact skills, shown in his strikeout rate. His strikeout rate has not changed much, but there are some things going on under the surface that could help explain why Trumbo is suddenly putting even more of a charge into the ball.
Trumbo's always been both a chaser and a misser. So far, however, Trumbo is chasing a lot less. By FanGraphs BIS numbers, Trumbo's decreased his O-swing rate from 36.8 percent last year to 31.3 percent this year. By PITCHf/x numbers, the rate has decreased from 36.9 to 33.9 percent. Either system shows a career low rate of swinging at pitches outside the strike zone.
Compounded with that is a drastic decrease in Trumbo's rate of contact on pitches outside the zone. He is missing a LOT more when he swings outside the zone.
What is balancing this trend out somewhat is that Trumbo has increased his rate of swinging inside the strike zone, though the increase is only about a percent and a half by either system. Trumbo has also increased his rate of contact against pitches in the zone (as measured by either system).
Overall, then, Trumbo is missing more pitches (his overall contact rate is down), but his distribution of swings has swung much more toward good pitches to hit.
The results are that Trumbo is doing a lot more with the pitches he has hit. His .293 ISO and 165 wRC+ would be career highs by far. Interestingly, the overall trends noted here were noted almost a month ago by Alex Chamberlain at FanGraphs. It was an extremely small sample size then, but Trumbo's plate discipline has held up with more data this season.
It looks like there are two process-related things going on. From David Laurila interviewing Mark Trumbo:
"I especially try to limit the amount of balls I chase that are down. The ones I tend to go after more often are the balls that are up, especially if they’re offspeed pitches. Those balls can go a long way."
Remember the rate of cutting down on his O-swing rate? Well, he's done a fantastic job of making that cut on pitches that are low. Consider the two following zone profiles of his swing rate comparing 2015 to 2016.
Focus on the lowest row of squares. Trumbo's swing rate is definitely quite a bit lower in 2016 in that row compared to 2015. That has allowed his batted ball distribution to shift more toward fly balls, which Trumbo can make go a long way.
Another part of Trumbo's process that may be slightly modified relates to timing. Some people are definitely making the connection between Nelson Cruz and Trumbo. Cruz, a member of the Orioles in 2014, is one of the big sluggers who also has a little bit lower walk rate and higher strikeout rate. Cruz later became a member of the Mariners, where Trumbo spent some time as well. According to Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun, Trumbo picked up some things from Cruz:
"I think I got more from just watching him. As far as his hitting, I think more than anything, his timing and how he's always on time. I guess he's always on time to hit the fastball. It's something that I've tried to do a better job of. It seems like he's always in a really good position to hit, and he capitalizes on the mistakes because he is on time."
That timing might be manifesting in his leg kick. The two following screenshots compare Trumbombs from 2015 and 2016.
Dallas Keuchel has nearly released the ball as Trumbo is beginning his leg kick. Keuchel's pitch came in at only 79 mph, so most hitters probably would not have trouble catching up to that pitch. Nevertheless, a relatively late leg kick compared to this 2016 bomb.
Phil Hughes' front foot has not even made contact with the ground before Trumbo's leg kick begins. This pitch came in at 89 mph.
Looking at a home run hit later in 2015, Trumbo has made more changes than just a potential slight difference in timing. There wasn't even a leg kick in this one; there was a toe tap.
Clearly, Trumbo has been experimenting with his timing.
Theoretically, if Trumbo is starting his swing earlier, he could catch up easier to fastballs and pull the ball more. Indeed, Trumbo's pull rate of 41.7 percent is much higher than his pull rate from 2013-2015. Interestingly, this increased pull rate is not affecting him adversely. Trumbo's increase in pull rate is exclusive to line drives and fly balls, not grounders, which means he is not terribly vulnerable to the shift.
The increased production has not really followed on line drives, but he has not hit many of those according to the batted ball classifications on FanGraphs. It's on fly balls where Trumbo is seeing the biggest increase.
Last year, Trumbo hit .232 / .728 on fly balls. .301 / .882 in 2014. Pretty good, really. Not as good as this year. Trumbo's hitting .381 / 1.286 on fly balls and has a 26.2 HR/FB. According to Statcast data, Trumbo's average exit velocity on fly balls has increased from 92.6 mph to 97 mph. His average distance on balls hit in the air (HR, LD, FB from Baseball Heat Maps) increased from about 284 ft last year to 288 ft this year. Though he moved to a hitter-friendly park, his home runs have not been cheapies. In fact, he has hit more homers away from Camden than at Camden.
The theory is holding up on production against fastballs as well. Trumbo hit .301 / .525 against four-seam fastballs last year; that's up to .400 / .844 this year. Trumbo has never been this good against fastballs.
Naturally, if Trumbo's timing is optimized for fastballs, he'll be vulnerable to offspeed stuff. He has crushed changeups so far, but he's been vulnerable to sliders and curveballs, more so than last year.
Let's pull it all together. Trumbo appears to have made conscious decisions to avoid swinging at low pitches and to have better timing optimized for fastballs. The peripherals are that Trumbo is making a little less contact overall, but the pitches with which he is making contact are those he can pull for power and put in the air. He is also able to crush fastballs even more.
The final results are likely exactly what he wants. Trumbombs. Lots and lots of Trumbombs. It'll be interesting to see if/how pitchers adjust.
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