What Is Behind Mike Trout's Ballooning Strikeout Rate in 2014?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 21, 2014

AP Images

It's a heck of a thing to look up and see Mike Trout channeling Adam Dunn at the plate. You want to believe it's just a bad dream. You know, like the one with the cobras

But it's not. The young Los Angeles Angels superstar really did enter Tuesday night's contest against the Houston Astros with 56 strikeouts to his name. That led the American League, which is not a distinction one who plays baseball for a living wants.

The bright side is that Trout is still awesome. His May slump has knocked his numbers down some, but he still entered Tuesday's game with a solid .867 OPS. Per FanGraphs, that put him in the top 15 in the AL. Elsewhere, Trout was still leading the AL in WAR. Because, of course.

Still, when a guy like Trout goes from striking out roughly 20 percent of the time in 2012 and 2013 to darn near 30 percent of the time in 2014, you want answers. Nay, we must have answers.

And there are answers. Quite a few of them, in fact, each of which is interesting in its own way.

One thing that's easy to notice is that Trout is swinging the bat more often this year than he did in 2013, when he did the opposite of what he's doing this year by leading the league in walks. Beyond that, it's also easy to notice that Trout is swinging and missing more often than, well, ever.

Courtesy of FanGraphs, here are the need-to-know numbers:

Mike Trout's Swings and Swinging Strikes, 2011-2014

First things first. Let's talk about the additional swings.

Interestingly enough, Trout teased they were coming. Back in March, he hinted to Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com that he was planning on being more aggressive in 2014.

"I think the biggest thing, for me, is being aggressive early," Trout said. "A lot of counts last year, I'd be taking, seeing pitches. But I'm going to be aggressive this year. Instead of just flipping one over for strike one, or 2-0 strike one, I'm going to be up there hacking, I'm going to be up there swinging."

Not exactly the worst idea in the world, but it was easy to hear Trout say this and then have one concern: Would his heightened aggressiveness result in him swinging at more bad pitches?

That Trout is swinging and missing more often suggests that this has indeed been the case. 

The weird part, though, is that it actually hasn't been the case.

FanGraphs tracks the percentages of pitches that batters swing at both outside the strike zone (O-Swing%) and inside the strike zone (Z-Swing%). If we take a closer look at Trout's swings, we see that his elevated aggression swinging the bat has occurred mainly within the strike zone:

Mike Trout's Swings Outside and Inside Strike Zone, 2011-2014

To put Trout's 2014 O-Swing% in perspective, that put him among the 30 most disciplined hitters in the American League entering Tuesday's action. His plate discipline is still top-notch. Hooray.

That Trout is swinging at more pitches inside the strike zone, meanwhile, is the kind of thing that shouldn't be a bad habit. Heck, it's something that I openly encouraged him to do earlier this year, as it seemed like something that could result in him doing more damage.

The opposite has happened. Rather than productive swings, Trout's increased aggressiveness in the zone has resulted in more wasted swings.

We've already seen how Trout is whiffing more often. What should also be noted is that he's fouling off more pitches. Per Baseball-Reference.com, Trout's foul strike percentage is at a career-high 28.3.

These figures from FanGraphs and BaseballSavant.com indicate that a good percentage of these whiffs and fouls are happening inside the zone:

Mike Trout's Contact and Fouls In the Strike Zone, 2011-2014
FanGraphs and BaseballSavant.com

What you would hope is that Trout's increased aggressiveness inside the strike zone would lead to more contact and, thus, more balls in play and more hits.

But between the whiffs and the fouls it's produced, what's happened instead is that Trout's increased aggressiveness in the zone has led to a whole bunch of strikes.

Also, not surprisingly, more strikeouts. 

That's the gospel according to BaseballSavant.com, anyway. It says that of the 56 strikeouts Trout entered Tuesday night's game with, 30 have come on pitches inside the strike zone. That's an unwelcome change of pace after only 54 of Trout's 136 strikeouts in 2013 happened in the zone.

Long story short: Yeah, the strike zone has become a danger area for Trout. That's where more of his swings are taking place, and this new habit has led to an increase in both strikes and strikeouts.

This, however, is just us scratching the tip of the proverbial iceberg's surface. 

Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press

When you think of the easiest pitches for pitchers to throw in the strike zone, you think fastballs. Four-seamers and sinkers mainly, but also cutters. 

Since Trout has been struggling so much on pitches inside the strike zone, you have to assume: Maybe he's struggling mainly against these sorts of pitches.


According to Brooks Baseball, Trout hasn't been so great against the hard stuff in 2014. He came into the year as a .312 hitter against four-seamers, sinkers and cutters, but he was batting a much more modest .281 against them heading into Tuesday night's action.

Here's where we turn back to BaseballSavant.com for a look at how much of what's ailing Trout against these pitches is going on inside the strike zone:

Mike Trout vs. Hard Stuff in the Strike Zone, 2011-2014

Nothing on that bottom row is particularly good-looking, but it's the strikeouts that stand out. Relative to Trout's standards, that's an awful lot of strikeouts on hard stuff in the zone.

There are multiple explanations for this, one of which is that Trout's swing is just plain out of whack.

Which it is, according to a piece by Baseball Prospectus' Ryan Parker for Deadspin. Among the things Parker noticed is how Trout's hands have been more "busy" than usual in 2014, and how that makes him more susceptible to the hard stuff.

But there's something else at work in 2014, and it has to do with a weakness that was already in place.

A search on BaseballSavant.com found that nine of the 21 strikeouts Trout has against hard stuff in the zone this year have come at the top of the zone. That's almost half of them, and it's reflective of something that used to be a secret of Trout's:

He's not a very good high-ball hitter.

Brooks Baseball shows that the top of the strike zone is where Trout fared the worst from a batting-average perspective between 2011 and 2013, and it was the place in the zone he was most likely to swing and miss. Especially against hard stuff.

Nothing has changed in 2014. We can see that Trout is still struggling to get hits on pitches up:

Courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net (h/t Baseball Prospectus).

And that he's having a very hard time making contact on hard pitches up:

Courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net (h/t Baseball Prospectus).

This, admittedly, is something that others noticed before I did. Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Information highlighted Trout's struggles on pitches up back on May 13, and Jay Jaffe of SI.com noted it a day later.

Not surprisingly, pitchers have noticed it, too. Whereas BaseballSavant.com says that only 7.25 percent of the pitches Trout saw between 2011 and 2013 were located up in the zone, this year, a little over 10 percent of the pitches he's seen have been located up in the zone.

If ever there was a case of pitchers trying to exploit a weakness, well, there it is.

All told, Trout's struggles with strikeouts in 2014 can mainly be traced back to three things: more aggressiveness in the zone, some faulty swing mechanics and a preexisting susceptibility to high pitches.

Were I a less optimistic man, I'd say Trout is doomed.

But nah. I won't say that.

That Trout is still having an excellent year despite his strikeouts shows that he can get by just fine even if he does keep whiffing on a regular basis. And lest anyone bring up Trout's horrid May slump, I'll note that it's happening with a strikeout rate only a tick higher (28.6 to 27.4) than the one he had when he was a one-man wrecking crew in April.

Then there's always the possibility that Trout will adjust. He can do that by fixing his swing and by realizing that he has a weakness that pitchers are trying to exploit. Given that this is not some wild swinger that we're talking about, I'd say Trout is deserving of a little optimism in these regards.

Watching Trout strike out so much in 2014 hasn't been especially fun, nor is it something that can be chalked up to mere chance. However, here's guessing that the strikeouts will not be the end of him.


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

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