How MLB Superstar Mike Trout Can Become Even More Dominant in 2014

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How MLB Superstar Mike Trout Can Become Even More Dominant in 2014
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If we take WAR's word for it, there's never been a better player through the age of 21 than Angels superstar Mike Trout. Whether you consult Baseball-Reference.com WAR or FanGraphs WAR doesn't matter.

In light of that, yeah, part of me does feel silly in inviting you guys in for a conversation about how Trout can get even better. But this is a conversation worth having anyway, for two reasons:

  1. Talking about Mike Trout is fun, darn it. 
  2. There actually are reasons to believe we haven't seen Trout at his most dominant yet.

At the least, we can look to how Trout improved in his sophomore season for guidance. Here are some number-y numbers from FanGraphs:

Mike Trout's Progressing Awesomeness
Year PA HR SB BB% K% AVG OBP ISO wOBA wRC+ WAR
2012 639 30 49 10.5 21.8 .326 .399 .238 .409 166 10.0
2013 716 27 33 15.4 19.0 .323 .432 .234 .423 176 10.4

FanGraphs

Trout was outstanding in 2012 but slightly better in 2013. He wasn't head-and-shoulders better in that WAR column mainly because his defense slipped a bit from where it was in '12. Now that he'll be back in center field full-time in 2014, he should be able to turn that particular page.

We can also grant that, sure, maybe Trout can be better on the basepaths in 2014. But the really interesting stuff involves what Trout does at the plate. There are many things he does well, but there are three things in particular that he can do even better.

Starting with... 

 

Right-Handed Curveballs: You're Getting There, Mike

One cool thing about Trout is that he's one of the best at hitting right-handed pitching. The .425 wOBA he has against righty pitching over the last two seasons ranks fourth among qualified hitters.

Note: That's not qualified right-handed hitters. That's all qualified hitters. Lefties and righties.

The why for Trout's dominance against same-side pitching? It's complicated, but one super-simple answer is that right-handed pitchers don't have anything to beat him with.

If we take a look at some data from Brooks Baseball, we see that Trout has had all the main right-handed weapons covered over the last two seasons:

Mike Trout vs. RHP Weapons
Pitch Type Count AVG ISO
Four-Seam 1653 .300 .264
Sinker 804 .420 .238
Changeup 159 .327 .473
Slider 699 .320 .211
Curveball 311 .298 .088
Cutter 200 .313 .292
Splitter 85 .375 .167

Brooks Baseball

Amazing this, amazing that. Yadda yadda yadda. Yeah, there's a lot to geek out over here.

But for our purposes, that highlighted column is where it's at. Curveballs represent the only right-handed weapon against which Trout doesn't have a .300 average over the last two seasons, and he's hit them for significantly less power as well.

This isn't the worst black mark a hitter can have on his record; curveballs are tough to hit. They're liable to freeze batters. And even if a batter gets a swing off, he's likely to be off-balance and, therefore, unable to put much oomph into the effort.

So to a certain extent, what we have here is evidence that Trout is human...at least until you notice that he actually did get better against right-handed hooks in 2013:

Mike Trout vs. RHP Curveballs
Year Seen Swing% Whiff/Swing% AVG ISO
2012 114 29.0 27.3 .308 .000
2013 196 14.5 20.8 .290 .161

Brooks Baseball

Trout didn't bite on as many right-handed curves in 2013. He made contact more often when he did swing, and he hit them for about the same average but with more power. 

When I asked Trout about this when I talked to him last October, he didn't really have an explanation for it. He did, however, consent that simply having more big league experience was "definitely" a factor.

Well, Trout has two full years under his belt now rather than one. If one year of experience could help him improve against right-handed curveballs, then further improvement could be in the cards for 2014.

Which, you know, isn't a nice thought for right-handed pitchers. If Trout gets better against their curveballs, then he'll have established himself as a lethal force against all the pitches they can throw. They'll be doomed. Doomed as in dooooooooooooooomed.

Maybe this will be the easy part for Trout in 2014. Strangely, the hard part could be getting better against left-handers.

 

Hitting Lefties: You're Getting There Too, Mike

Since Trout is one of the game's best right-handed hitters, you'd think he'd have southpaws figured out.

Well, you'd be surprised. Trout is a long way from being weak against lefties, but he actually has a reverse platoon split. Here are some more FanGraphs numbers:

Mike Trout's Odd Reverse Split
Season Split PA BB% K% AVG OBP ISO wOBA
2012 vs R 468 9.2 22.2 .346 .410 .242 .424
2013 vs R 523 14.0 18.5 .327 .428 .245 .425
2012 vs L 171 14.0 20.5 .267 .368 .226 .367
2013 vs L 193 19.2 20.2 .309 .440 .204 .416

FanGraphs

Encapsulated nicely in the wOBA column is the reality that Trout has been equally awesome against righties. But while he did get better against southpaws in 2013, he was still best against righties.

So...what gives?

Let's see if we can find the answer in some more data from Brooks Baseball, presented in table form like the one above:

Mike Trout vs. LHP Weapons
Pitch Type Count AVG ISO
Four-Seam 643 .212 .121
Sinker 309 .326 .196
Changeup 232 .324 .353
Slider 141 .310 .241
Curveball 129 .273 .046
Cutter 111 .310 .276

Brooks Baseball

The numbers against curveballs are once again unspectacular, but that's not the big concern. That would be those highlighted numbers against four-seam fastballs. That's the simplest pitch there is, yet lefties have been able to keep Trout down with it.  

But it's not all bad. Like there was above, there's an encouraging trend at work. Here's more Brooks Baseball data:

Mike Trout vs. LHP Four-Seamers
Year Seen Swing% Whiff/Swing% AVG ISO
2012 307 34.5 23.6 .200 .100
2013 336 28.3 16.8 .240 .140

Brooks Baseball

Like with righty curveballs, 2013 saw Trout get more selective, better at making contact and better in general at hitting lefty four-seamers.

And when I say "more selective," that goes beyond the fact that Trout didn't swing at as many left-handed four-seamers. He swung at better ones too.

That's something we can tell by comparing his swing rate against lefty four-seamers in 2012...

Courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net

...to his swing rate against lefty four-seamers in 2013:

Courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net

The difference should stand out. Trout clearly got better about keeping his cuts against left-handed four-seamers confined to the strike zone in 2013. We shouldn't be surprised, therefore, that he made contact more consistently and improved his results.

If Trout continues to improve against right-handed curveballs and left-handed four-seamers in 2014, he'll be good enough. After all, his two outstanding weaknesses will be all taken care of.

But this most recent point led me to another observation. This observation led me to a point that, while not quite a demand, is at least a solid suggestion.

 

Plate Discipline: Being More Aggressive Can't Hurt

Don't worry, there's nothing actually wrong with Trout's plate discipline. In fact, I'd like to begin by demonstrating just how fantastic it is compared to the average MLB hitter:

Mike Trout's Discipline
Split Contact% O-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Swing% Z-Contact% SwStr%
Trout 2012 81.8 26.5 71.0 55.1 87.6 7.1
Trout 2013 82.3 24.2 70.3 55.6 89.0 6.4
MLB Hitters, 2012-2013 79.9 30.8 67.1 65.4 87.3 9.1

FanGraphs

These are things Trout is better at than the average hitter: making contact, not chasing outside the zone, making contact outside the zone, making contact inside the zone and, as a result of all of the above, not swinging through the ball.

But then there's the one thing Trout doesn't do quite as well as the average hitter: swing at pitches inside the strike zone. That's not a vice, mind you, but it does show that Trout hasn't quite found the perfect balance between being ultra-picky on pitches outside the strike zone and ultra-aggressive on pitches inside the strike zone.

This is a balance that's rare, but it does exist. Look no further than Joey Votto, who has just a 20.5 O-Swing% over the last two seasons but also a 65.1 Z-Swing%. He's the most selective hitter in the league in two ways: both in the pitches he takes and in the pitches at which he swings.

Now, sure, telling a hitter to be more like Votto is sort of like telling a guitarist to be more like Jimi Hendrix. But since Trout's O-Swing% declined while his Z-Swing% experienced a slight uptick in 2013, hey, he's already headed in that direction.

Plus, it's not like Trout shouldn't want to swing at more pitches in the zone. He hits those pitches better. That comes across when looking at yet another Brooks Baseball zone profile that shows his batting averages at various pitch locations:

Courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net

Trout, obviously, is quite good at racking up hits on balls down and in. But elsewhere outside the zone, not as much. If you add up all the numbers, what you get is:

  • .274 average on balls outside the zone
  • .357 average on balls inside the zone

That right there will do for a green light for Trout to be more aggressive when he sees a pitch he likes in the zone. But even better is his Isolated Power profile:

Courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net

Trout can pick up hits on pitches outside the strike zone well enough. But inside the strike zone? That's where his power lies. No question about it.

Here's where I reiterate that Trout doesn't have to do anything to be an amazing player. He already is. He can go the rest of his career without changing a thing and still be an all-time great.

But if Trout gets better against right-handed curveballs and left-handed fastballs while also being generally more aggressive on pitches inside the strike zone?

Man, I don't even know. We might all be best off averting our eyes, lest we go blind from non-worthiness.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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