Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout is putting together another MVP-caliber season while shoring up the remaining holes in his swing.
Since his first full season in the big leagues back in 2012, the 25-year-old phenom has averaged a 171 wRC+ and .975 OPS, both of which rank first in all of baseball during that span. More impressively, Trout’s five-tool skill set has led to him owning 13.9 more Wins Above Replacement than Josh Donaldson, the next highest player on the list.
Although WAR has its flaws, it is the preeminent way to determine a player’s overall value, and Trout is on pace to surpass Ty Cobb for the most WAR by any player through the age-25 season. As ESPN reporter Jayson Stark revealed in his piece from a few weeks ago, Trout has a chance to join Babe Ruth as the only two players in history to lead the majors in WAR five consecutive years. Any time you’re mentioned in the same conversation as the Great Bambino, well, you know you’re doing something right.
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Unsurprisingly, Trout has finished in the top two in MVP voting every season he’s been in the league. That likely won’t change in 2016, as Trout has posted a .319/.436/.562 slash line while amassing at least 25 home runs and 100 runs scored for the fifth straight year. As typical as his numbers may look like, Trout is actually exhibiting signs of growth, starting with his newfound success against pitches in the upper third of the strike zone.
Trout has always been regarded as a low-ball hitter, which Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale can certainly attest to. Back in 2014, Sale threw what looked to be a well-located changeup – a pitch in which hitters have slugged just .312 against it in his career – to get a much-needed punch out in a bases loaded, no-out situation late in the game. Instead, Trout lifted the pitch out towards the rockpile in centerfield for a game-tying grand slam:
One moment obviously doesn’t prove that Trout has always had success when swinging at pitches down around his knees, but when you look at his zone profile provided by Brooks Baseball you’ll see that has indeed been the case. Trout has crushed the ball belt high or lower throughout his career, even against pitches out of the zone like the one Sale threw him.
What you also notice from that graphic is that Trout has struggled against pitches in the upper third of the zone in the past, hitting a meager .227. This year, however, he’s far less vulnerable when pitchers climb the ladder, hitting a robust .381 on those high pitches. There’s simply no location where you can exploit Trout and generate weak contact, leaving opposing pitchers no choice but to pitch around him – a sound strategy given the Angels’ lack of protection behind him. Trout leads the league in walk rate at 16.3 percent, which is the highest mark of his career.
There’s also no pitch that Trout can’t handle. The curveball has long been his nemesis, but it appears those days are over. Trout has a higher batting average (.386) against curveballs in 2016 than he did slugging percentage (.363) in the years prior to this one. He’s slugging .772 versus the pitch this season, while his five home runs are just as many as he hit in the previous four seasons combined.
Considering the bulk of curveballs come primarily with two-strike counts, it’s no coincidence that Trout has a league-leading .922 OPS when he falls behind 0-2. It also helps that he’s chasing fewer pitches out of the zone – 23.2 percent O-Swing percent is the lowest of his career – resulting in his strikeout rate falling from 24.7 percent the previous two years to 20.2 percent this year.
As imposing as he has been, Trout is actually getting better by addressing his weaknesses and making the necessary adjustments. We could very well be looking at the greatest player of all time when it’s all said and done.