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How Mike Trout has improved in 2020

Trout is hitting the ball harder than ever.

Toronto Blue Jays v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

What more is there to say about Mike Trout?

Actually, a lot. Trout is constantly evolving and improving; it’s truly fascinating to watch the different versions of the same player continue to put up the consistently great results. Since Trout’s first full season in 2012, he has never posted a wRC+ below 167 or above 190 (like that’s even really possible).

In 2020, there were some concerns that Trout was having a “down year.” On August 25, Trout was running a .255/.333/.564 slash line, good for “just” a 137 wRC+ over 126 plate appearances. Pitchers were challenging him in the zone — his walk and strikeout rates of 9.5 percent and 27.0 percent, respectively, looked far from Troutian. This season is highlighted in gray here:

At the time, calls were made for Trout to be less patient to counter the pitchers’ new propensity to pour in strikes. But he hasn’t been:

Yet, in the time since, Trout has been scorching hot. Into games on Sunday, he has slashed .408/.538/.878 with six home runs and a 264 wRC+ in 65 plate appearances since August 28. This 14-game period represents the best 14-game stretch Trout has had in the last two seasons, not long after his cold spell represented his worst:

Now, with this recent hot swing, Trout’s numbers look just like normal. He is slashing .302/.403/.660 with 16 home runs and a 179 wRC+ in 191 plate appearances. Into Sunday, his 2.3 WAR ranks sixth in the majors among position players. He figures to compete for the American League MVP once again — he’s currently third in the league in WAR overall, behind Shane Bieber (2.7) and teammate Anthony Rendon (2.4). There’s still plenty of season left for Trout to capture the award for the fourth time.

What’s remarkable about Trout, though, is that he manages to succeed at the same level even given different underlying numbers. Last year, Trout had a 180 wRC+ on the back of an 18.3 percent walk rate and a 20.0 percent strikeout rate. While Trout’s season-long discipline numbers are much better than they were just a few weeks ago, they still seem out of character: He’s currently running a 14.1 percent walk rate and a 23.6 percent strikeout rate. If it holds, his 0.60 walk-to-strikeout ratio would represent his worst mark since 2015. Trout’s strikeout rate hasn’t dipped below 18.6 percent in any 15-game stretch this season.

Is this cause for concern? Well, no, not really. Trout’s choosiness has continued to work to his advantage. He is hitting the ball harder than ever, with his 94.2 mph average exit velocity on batted balls ranking third among qualified batters. (Last year, Trout was 52nd.) His hard-hit rate, or percentage of batted balls with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph, is 57.3 percent, ranking fifth. (Last year, Trout was 49th.) Recently, Trout has been hitting the cover off the ball, with an average exit velocity of 99.0 mph (!!) over his last 20 batted balls.

What’s particularly notable here is that Trout’s uptick in exit velocity has come in the heart of the strike zone, where pitchers have challenged him more often. The percent of pitches Trout has seen in the heart zone has jumped by five percentage points year-over-year, and among the 373 hitters to see at least 200 pitches this year, his 29.1 percent heart-of-zone rate puts him in the 93rd percentile. (He ranked in the 33rd percentile last year.) And though he isn’t necessarily swinging any more often than he was at the beginning of the year, Trout is making extraordinarily good contact, with his average exit velocity in the heart of the zone jumping from 91.5 mph in 2019 to 96.6 mph in 2020.

So even though Trout’s plate discipline numbers look worse than they typically do, I’d argue that Trout has improved yet again in 2020. He continues to use his selectivity to his advantage, somehow generating even better contact than he has at any point during his career in the Statcast Era. Trout’s .579 expected wOBA on contact represents a 34-point (!!!) year-over-year improvement and is the third-best mark in baseball. This is probably why we’re beginning to see pitchers start to get cute and throw fewer pitches in the zone once again.

Could there be a day when Trout combines this new level of batted ball prowess with his already-fantastic plate discipline? That’s what we’ve been seeing over the last 15 games or so. As mentioned, pitchers have stopped throwing him as many strikes, and Trout has walked more than he has struck out. But he’s also posted an average exit velocity of 96.4 mph during this stretch. And there may be evidence to suggest that his increase in exit velocity isn’t just the result of some recent hot hitting. Even in the 10 late-August games when he posted a 76 wRC+, Trout was still running an average exit velocity higher than his 2019 average. There may be something legitimately better here.

Or, of course, it could just be another locked-in Trout stretch. We’ve seen insane hot spells from him before, and given all of the wonkiness this year, it’s possible that this is just noise. But Trout’s numbers remain Trout-level numbers, and there could be a legitimate argument that he’s somehow better at baseball once again in 2020.

Devan Fink is a sophomore at Dartmouth College and a Contributor at Beyond The Box Score. Previous work of his can be found at FanGraphs and his own personal blog, Cover Those Bases. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.