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March 18, 2013

Pebble Hunting

Eight Predictions About Mike Trout

by Sam Miller

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Everyone knows you can’t predict baseball. What this article presupposes is... maybe you can?

The first key to getting forecasts right is simply stating them in terms of likelihoods, and hoping nobody does the math on the long-term accuracy of such forecasts. As long as I give each prediction a greater than zero percent chance of happening and less than 100 percent chance of happening, I can’t be wrong. So let's go make some correct predictions!

50 percent confident that: Trout will outperform his PECOTA projection. 

Which is, for the record, .288/.354/.467, with 21 home runs, 45 stolen bases, a .300 True Average and 5.2 WARP.

30 percent confident that: Mike Trout will be worse than he was in 2012, Miguel Cabrera will be better than he was in 2012, and Trout will still finish higher than Cabrera in MVP voting.

The first clause is probably uncontroversial. The second should be: Cabrera’s .332 True Average in 2012 is a perfect match for his True Average over the past five seasons, and is considerably worse than it was in 2010 (.353) and 2011 (.355). PECOTA projects a very similar season (.327 TAv) for him. But if he repeats his 2012 performance—even if he tops it by a bit—he’s nearly as likely to lead the league in no Triple Crown categories as he is to win the Triple Crown again. Meanwhile, Trout will close sportswriters’ Clubhouse Chemistry gap simply by being a year older, perhaps benefiting from a narrative about his role in the Angels’ post-Torii Hunter clubhouse. And the Angels are unlikely to miss the postseason again.

85 percent confident that: Mike Trout won’t go 40/40.

This might be underconfident, since I’m essentially saying with 15 percent confidence that Trout will go 40/40. Trout hit 30 home runs in 2012 (plus one in Triple-A). There were 32 players who hit 29, 30, or 31 homers in a season from 2009 to 2011, and only one of them hit 40 in the following season. Jumps from 30 to 40 are a pretty big deal. 

PECOTA isn’t expecting anything close to 40 from Trout, which is rational enough: before 2012, Trout had never hit more than 11 at a level or 16 in a season. But the question is whether Trout’s power is like most outliers—a product of a variety of circumstances but likely to regress—or one of the rare ones that signifies a trend. Bet against the trend, in most cases. But bet on uncertainty for Trout.

There are 15 other players in baseball history who have hit at least 20 home runs in a major-league season while at least 20 years young. Of those 15, perhaps two could be said to have seen their power show up all at once in the big leagues:

Player Total Previous High
Ott 42 18
Robinson 38 25
ARod 36 21
Conigliaro 32 24
Conigliaro 24 24
Williams 31 43
Al Kaline 27 4
Orlando Cepeda 25 26
Eddie Matthews 25 32
Bob Horner 23 N/A
Mickey Mantle 23 26
Bryce Harper 22 17
Stanton 22 39
Griffey 22 16
Pinson 20 20
Mays 20 4

These hitters were playing at a wide variety of levels when they hit their previous career highs, from Class C to the major leagues, but the unsurprising conclusion is that most hitters with power have demonstrated power before. No big shock. Among the seeming exceptions: 

Ott’s 18 came as a 19-year-old big leaguer, so his power was obviously there. Horner didn’t play in the minors. Kaline, like those two, didn’t play in the minors, but his power showed up in the majors late. As a 19-year-old rookie he had slugged just .347 (and somehow finished 23rd in MVP voting). His age-20 breakout was about as impressive as Trout’s and, from a power angle, even more unexpected; he would match the 27 the following season, but wouldn’t top it until his age-27 season, and he never hit 30 home runs in a season.

Willie Mays is the most interesting comp. As a 19-year-old playing in the minors for the Trenton Giants, he hit .353 and slugged .510, with just four home runs and a .157 isolated power. Trout, as a 19-year-old, hit .326 and slugged .544, with 11 home runs and .218 isolated power. In his age-20 season, Mays bettered his career high by 16 homers; Trout bettered his by 15.

Mays spent his age-21 and age-22 seasons in the military, so even if one-to-one comps were useful, this one wouldn’t be. Trout has the body to hit 40; he puts on a 5 o’clock show; and he hit the sixth-most home runs ever by a 20-year-old. It’s certainly possible that he does it this year. Just not likely.

Of course, there’s also the possibility that he hits 40 home runs but doesn’t steal 40 bases. In the 2011 Annual, we wrote that “by the time he arrives in The Show, the center fielder may have slowed slightly, but he’ll likely have compensated by heaping additional home runs atop his ample helpings of doubles and triples.” Underlying that forecast was the idea that it’s hard to balance Trout’s size and speed, and adding to one might come at the expense of the other. Trout has added size this winter. It remains to be seen whether that costs him even a small percentage of his speed, enough to keep him from stealing 40 bases. For what it’s worth, of the 23 players who stole 40 or more in a season from 2009 to 2011, about half of them saw their totals drop by more than 10 the next season. Trout had 49 in 2012.

1 percent confident that: Trout will get a hit off Henderson Alvarez.

Trout faced 32 different pitchers at least five times in 2012. Against Yu Darvish, whom he faced the most times, he hit .353/.476/.765. Against Felix Hernandez, whom he faced the second-most times, he hit .529/.526/.882. He reached base against each of those 32 pitchers, except one: Henderson Alvarez. Who is terrible.

He also struck out three times in seven trips against Alvarez. Alvarez had the third-lowest strikeout rate in baseball. He has thrown Trout 24 pitches, and 19 of them were strikes or put in play (three groundouts, one flyout). If Henderson Alvarez—Henderson Alvarez!—didn’t exist, Trout would have hit .3297 on the season, topping Miguel Cabrera’s .3295, winning the batting title, thwarting the Triple Crown, winning the MVP award, etc.

(They also faced each other in the 2010 Futures Game. Trout reached on an error.)

Anyway, I’m pretty confident that Trout would get lots of hits off Henderson Alvarez this year except that Alvarez is on the Marlins now, and the Angels don’t play the Marlins.

40 percent confident that: Mike Trout will stop doing that thing he does with punctuation. 

Since he was a prospect, and probably before that, Mike Trout has put a space between the last letter of a sentence and the punctuation at the end of the sentence. Like this
 

or

or

well, I’m trying to find a tweet that ends with a period instead of a question mark or exclamation point(s), and I have gone back nearly a year without finding one, so we’ll just stop there. It’s cool that he’s got his quirk; it’s cool with me if he sticks with it for the rest of his life. We all need a little variety from our athletes, especially when that variety doesn’t involve facial hair. But sometimes fame and attention turn people weird, like young Angelina Jolie, and sometimes fame and attention turn people calm and serious, like now Angelina Jolie. There’s a not-insignificant chance that Mike Trout this year really works hard at making his public self boring, predictable, and scandal-proof, starting with his idiosyncratic punctuation.

20 percent confident that: Bryce Harper will be better than Mike Trout this year.

PECOTA thinks Trout is about twice as valuable as Harper right now, which is fair enough; Trout was more than twice as valuable as Harper last year, and they’re both at an age where one year matters a great deal. But just as Trout had the best year ever for a 20-year-old, Harper arguably had the best year ever for a 19-year-old. Both facts lead to big error bars, and if we toy around with PECOTA’s (in progress) percentile projections, we can get some idea of how likely it is Harper will top Trout.

Roughly speaking, if Trout hits his

  • 10th percentile projection, Harper will be better 60 percent of the time
  • 30th percentile projection, Harper will be better 30 percent of the time
  • 50th percentile projection, Harper will be better 10 percent of the time
  • 70th percentile projection or higher, Harper will be better very seldomly.

Even more roughly speaking, add up the various configurations and the chances that Harper tops Trout this year are around 15 or 20 percent, which seems about right to me.

70 percent confident that: Mike Trout won't have a reverse platoon split again. 

In 2012, Trout hit .267/.368/.493 against lefties and, counterintuitively, .346/.410/.588 against righties. We know from our experience with just about every major leaguer in history that this reverse split isn't likely to continue, and that the hitter's true talent against each type of pitcher will emerge in a fairly predictable pattern. My secret wish is that, in fact, Trout has already displayed his true talent against righties, and that the inferior line against lefties is the only fluke. And that he'll simply get better against lefties, and bat about .360/.430/.620 every year, and ESPN the Magazine will keep putting him on its cover.

100 percent confident that: Trout won’t pitch.
It’s not as easy as you’d think to come up with something non-farcical that merits a 100 percent tag. This seems as safe as anything: Mike Scioscia has never used a position player to pitch, and even if he does this year, it’s almost impossible to imagine he’ll risk the best player he’s ever managed. Furthermore, Trout’s arm is his weakest feature. On the other hand,

"He hit the scene as a pitcher and was dominant as a sophomore," Hallenbeck said.

Trout earned his first All-State honor last year for his exploits on the mound. He was 8-2 with a 1.77 ERA in 2008, striking out 124 and walking just 40 in 70 innings.

"Mike never really projected as a pitcher," Hallenbeck said. That was mostly because the scouts saw the raw speed, developing size and athleticism in Trout and envisioned him in the outfield.

"I'm not a pitcher," Trout, who, nonetheless, has a fastball that's been clocked at 90-91 mph, said.

Is it impossible, totally impossible, to imagine that Trout could be the Angels’ best option in the 23rd inning of a game against a division rival, and that Scioscia could go to him? Yes.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  Mike Trout,  Predictions

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