Let’s not get off on the wrong foot here. Hitting ability is far and away the biggest reason Mike Trout is the best player in baseball. His bat is most of what makes him special.
It’s not just the bat that makes Mike Trout Mike Trout, however. It’s the ability to do so many other things well that inspires the many breathless blog posts that I and so many others are guilty of. There is no great outrage at the 2012 MVP results if it weren’t for the things Trout does besides hit well. He (167 wRC+) and Miguel Cabrera (166 wRC+) were basically equals that year as hitters, and nobody — the saber-inclined or otherwise — would’ve had much of an issue with those results if Trout, like Cabrera, was only a two-tool player.
But because he can run, field and throw in addition to hitting like one of the great sluggers of his generation, baseball Twitter had a collective conniption when those results came in. “Baseball isn’t just about hitting!” we screamed into the echo chamber. “Look at the difference in WAR!”
That difference in WAR, obviously, came from those skills we tend to focus on less. Unless the guy dives, we just don’t care about someone’s ability to run a ball down in the gap or go first-to-third on a single. Dingers. Dingers are what the people like, and Miggy had a whole bunch of them.
Despite the fact that those arguments for Trout were as correct then as they are now, it’s still difficult to precisely quantify a player’s value away from the plate. There are just so many hard-to-measure variables at play that despite the many strides that have been made, we still have to use a fair amount of the eye test to determine who’s the best baserunner or the best defensive second baseman. Stolen base totals and fielding percentage aren’t good enough.
For the purposes of this article, I’d like to focus on defense. And since we’re talking about Trout, I’d like to specifically key in on outfield defense. Fortunately, thanks to Baseball Savant, that is the first area where we’re beginning to see new forms of defensive measurement emerge. It’s brand new, and certainly not the be-all, end-all metric we might hope to achieve one day, but it’s a start.
And what better place to begin than the best player in the world? Do these numbers align themselves with some of the more advanced defensive metrics we already have, which have typically identified Trout as a slightly above-average defender? Let’s take a look.
First, let’s note what those advanced metrics have said about Trout in the past. We’ll use Defensive Runs Saved, which encompasses a number of defensive metrics, all relative to a player’s position. Here are Trout’s Defensive Runs Saved since he debuted in 2012, as well as where that ranked him among players with at least 800 innings in center field each season:
Mike Trout DRS 2012-16
*Minimum of 2000 innings in center field since 2012
Unlike his incredible consistency with the bat, Trout’s defensive ability has fluctuated a lot since he debuted, at least when looking at DRS. He was amazing in his rookie season, then was pretty bad for a couple years, and has now settled in as average to above-average these last two years. Overall, he’s been slightly better than the average center fielder.
That last sentence is important. You might read the title of this post, then read the previous paragraph and say, “Hey idiot, slightly better than average doesn’t mean he’s actually good.” To that I would respond: 1) That’s a very mean way to express your disagreement; and 2) Being an average-ish center fielder is not the same thing as being an average defender overall. There’s a reason middle-of-the-diamond players are valued so highly, and it’s because manning those positions is really hard. Move Trout — or any average center fielder — to either corner, and they’re likely to be one of the best defenders in the league at that position.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s look at the previously promised Statcast data and compare Trout to some of his peers. First, we’ll start with some charts of Trout himself:
Those are all of the balls hit in Trout’s direction in 2016. There’s a lot there to take in, but it’s a good starting point to get a feel for his range, and possibly where he struggles.
And here are all of the base hits that fell in Trout’s area in 2016. Again, as you would expect, they’re mostly tough to impossible to record for an out, but there are a few easy plays that Trout probably should have made as well. He’s not perfect. There are a lot more charts in Trout’s Baseball Savant profile if you’d like to take a look at them, but this will serve as a good jumping off point.
It’s understandably hard to look at those charts and determine how they relate to center fielders at large. Since we already know that DRS marked Trout as about an average center fielder in 2016, let’s look at the extreme ends of that spectrum to give you a better idea of what makes for a superb center fielder, as well as a lousy one. To represent those two extremes, we’ll place the best center fielder, per DRS, Kevin Kiermaier and the worst, Andrew McCutchen, alongside Trout.
To give you the best idea of the differences between the three players, we’ll look at Savant’s charts that track only balls hit in their direction with an average catch rate between 25 and 75 percent. These are the in between plays that separate the good defenders from the bad, and the differences in quality between these three is obvious from these charts:
As you can see, Kiermaier kind of broke the whole thing, particularly when going to his left, as his outs recorded far overlap his hits allowed. McCutchen, meanwhile, played center field with the range of the leash kid at the mall, with should-be outs dropping in all around him. Trout, obviously, fell in between those two extremes, but if you’re ever poking around these charts on Savant for yourself, you’ll now have a better understanding of what good, bad and average looks like.
As for Trout himself, it appears he’s better coming in on a ball than he is going back. In particular, he seems to struggle relative to other center fielders going back to his glove side. Here’s an example:
Because we value process over results, this isn’t a poor play just because Trout dropped the ball, though that certainly adds insult to injury. Look at the route Trout takes off the bat:
Trout was shading Justin Turner slightly towards right field before the pitch, so this is him running almost straight backward. Now, remember where the Bank of America sign is at this moment as you look at this next shot of Trout’s location when the ball hits his glove:
He’s almost in the middle of that ad, three lawnmower streaks away from the direction he started running. Don’t blame that drop on poor hands. Blame it on a poor route.
Perhaps including those clips undermines the premise of this article, but that’s not my intention. I include it only to show that as good as he is, this is a specific area where Trout can improve his overall steady defense. Because he’s a crazy athlete, he can still make plays in that area of the field even when he doesn’t take the most efficient path to the ball:
Range and route running are just part of what determines a good or bad defender, of course. Having a weak or strong arm is also a big part of a player’s defensive value, and as Jeff Sullivan covered at FanGraphs a couple months ago, Trout’s arm is much improved after being a liability early in his career. Because Jeff covered Trout’s arm so thoroughly in that article, I won’t go into it much here, but I would encourage you to read that post because it does explain, in part, why Trout’s defensive numbers have recovered after dipping in 2013-14.
Regardless, even with this new Statcast data, we still don’t know everything there is to know about defense. We’re not even close, really. But it’s yet another tool at our disposal and offers a valuable, alternative way of viewing outfield defense in context. In Trout’s case, and McCutchen’s and Kiermaier’s, it should tell us that metrics like DRS are pretty good and generally align with what we can see with our eyes and what Statcast can measure. That’s a good thing in and of itself.
For Trout, this new data backs up what we already suspected: He’s a good, if unspectacular, center fielder. And as we’ve already discussed, using those adjectives to describe an up-the-middle player is not the same as using them for a corner guy.
Average in center is incredibly, incredibly valuable. There aren’t many people who can do it, even in professional baseball. Combine that exceptionalism with the rarity that is Trout’s once-in-a-generation offense, and you end up with a player essentially without flaws. No wonder he’s the best player in the game.
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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.