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March 3, 2014

Pebble Hunting

Mike Trout and the Meaning of $140 Million

by Sam Miller


Back in the summer of 2012, when it became clear that Mike Trout was doing something we had never seen from a player his age, the word of the day was “adjustments.” Yes, Trout was accomplishing amazing things, and there was little doubt that he would be a phenomenal player, probably a Hall of Famer. But his legacy—would he be a Hall of Famer like Willie Mays, or a Hall of Famer like Andre Dawson?—would come down to adjustments.

“Everybody’s trying to find a way to get him out right now,” said Keith Johnson, Trout’s manager at High-A in 2010 and Triple-A in 2012. “You know the major leagues, it’s a matter of adjustments. Everybody adjusts. Pitchers adjust, hitters adjust, and the next day pitchers adjust again. Everybody is searching and trying to find (Trout’s) hole, whether it’s not being able to hit sinkers or cutters or whatever it is. Something might work.”

What we don’t appreciate is what an adjustment really is, from the pitcher’s perspective. It is not merely exchanging one weapon for another. It’s really a compromise. Just by forcing the league to adjust to him, the batter has already made his opponents compromise; he has prevented them from throwing what they really want to throw. To some degree, once the batter forces the league to adjust, he’s already won.

So this is how adjustments have worked in Trout’s career so far. Trout’s hole was not sinkers—he’s hitting .404 in his career on sinkers, with a .644 slugging percentage—and it was not cutters, against which he has hit .303 and slugged .584. It’s not pitches up, down, in, or out. This zone profile shows how Trout’s BABIP in each pitch location compares to the league average in the same location—110 percent means he’s 10 percent better than the rest of the league on the same pitches, for instance. Of the 13 squares where he has put at least 25 balls in play, he’s above average in 13.

(Lower the threshold to five, which is a pointlessly small number—shoot, so is 25—but which at least combats the cherry picking, and he’s above average in 18 of 21.)

So the closest thing to a successful adjustment is this: First-pitch curveballs. In 2012, right-handers started him out with curveballs four percent of the time. In 2013, they tried it 13 percent, reducing first-pitch fastballs by the same amount.

And this worked! Trout didn't swing at a single one of those 66 curveballs. Time after time, he let a get-it-over curve drop into the strike zone, unharmed. Dozens of pitchers got freebie 0-1 counts.

But did they adjust, or did they just compromise? Pitchers don’t actually want to throw curveballs on the first pitch. Curveballs are harder to throw for strikes than fastballs—and, notably, half of the first-pitch curves that Trout took were called balls, giving Trout dozens of freebie 1-0 counts. Further, pitchers had now shown Trout their curveball, reducing its effectiveness as a putaway pitch later in the at-bat. And, of course, a get-it-over curveball works only as long as Trout is taking it. In any other context, another word for get-it-over is “bad.”

So we can conclude that, yes, the pitchers did adjust. They adjusted in a way that made them worse, that took them out of their game plan in the hope that by avoiding their own strengths they might avoid Trout’s strengths even more. This is really what adjusting is about. It’s about figuring out who is better when everybody is doing something they don’t prefer to do.

***

Trout’s legacy will be determined by how well he plays. But we find all sorts of reasons to kill our idols, and his legacy will also be determined by the way he dodges land mines: How he handles fame, how he handles politics, how he handles criticism, how he handles women, how he handles money. It’s awful, but eventually we end up hating almost everybody. The ones we don’t—Mariano Rivera, Jim Thome, [no other names found]—keep our affection because they manage to seem above all the drama. Maybe not even above it. Outside it. Separate from it. They exist in a world where drama wouldn’t even occur to them, like all those unfathomable dimensions that mathematicians can prove but nobody can see.

Trout, of course, is a contemporary of Bryce Harper, and the two will be linked and compared for 20 years the way Mantle and Mays, Manning and Brady, and the Beatles and the Stones are. Both are young, both are amazing, but they are on totally different public image trajectories. Harper seems like a guy who wants it all, who will do anything it takes to get it all, who will advocate for himself, who won’t let an insult go, who wants to be cool, who wants to be rich, who runs into a wall and wants credit for it.

A few notes here: There’s nothing wrong with most of this stuff—Who doesn’t want to be cool? Who doesn’t want to be rich? We should all advocate for ourselves because sure as heck nobody else will, etc.. Further, these impressions for Harper are quite possible inaccurate and unfair. We’re talking about the public image of each player, and public image is partially out of the player’s control and often misleading. Players are victims of the public image machine, including Harper. And, fair or not, Harper feels like controversy waiting to happen.

Trout, meanwhile. What’s Trout’s public image? He’s no drama. He has the same career WARP as Paul Konerko yet has managed to maintain the Just-A-Kid character. Virtually every one of his tweets falls into at least one of three categories:

1. Retweeting his family
2. Multiple exclamation points
3. Can you believe I’m about to FLY on a PLANE!?

The only commercial you’ve ever seen him in is for Subway. Subway! The least cool sandwich shop. Subway is the subway of sandwich shops. He hunts, but you never see him with a gun. He listens to music, but you don’t even know what kind. He gives quotes, but they’re neither interesting nor the sort of banal Cap’n quotes that put the expectation of leadership on him. You’ve never had the sense he wanted attention, that he wanted you to think he was cool, or that he had any ambition besides baseball. What do you know about Trout, besides the exclamation points and the smiles?

And he has managed to avoid having his public image tied in any way to money. Here’s the story, recounted by Ben Reiter in Sports Illustrated, of Trout’s signing bonus:

The Angels' scouts' second worry was whether they would be able to sign Trout. The franchise did not pay picks bonuses higher than those recommended by MLB's slotting system. At dinner three weeks earlier, Jeff Trout had told Bane that his son would agree to his slot amount, but later Bane was hearing whispers that he would demand more. "Eddie called me about three hours before the draft, because the numbers were flying on Mike, and he wanted me to reach out to Jeff," says Morhardt. Morhardt called his old teammate, and reported back to his boss: "He's ready to go."

This, Morhardt reveals now, was not exactly true.

In fact, when Morhardt reached Trout's father, he could tell that "people had been getting at him" —that is, trying to convince him to hold out for more money. "I said, 'Trouter, what's going on?'" Morhardt recalls. "Trouter was terrific, like he always is, telling me as much as he could. His main interest is his son and his family. So I told him, 'Trouter, if he gets there, we're going to take your boy. Six years from now, he's going to be getting $20 million a year.' Then I hung up the phone and called Eddie."

[Morhardt] had put his career on the line for Trout based on a split-second decision he had made, born from a 15 year-old friendship, that Trout's father would do what he said and have his son sign for slot.

"All the arrows were pointing toward this being a very special athlete, a very special person raised by two terrific people, and I'm going to put all my chips in there."

About a week later, Jeff Trout called Eddie Bane. "Can we just get this done?" Jeff asked. "I need to get him out of the house and back on the baseball field, because he's driving us crazy." Within a month, the Angels had signed him, for his slot-suggested bonus of $1.215 million.

Six years later, he’s going to be getting $20 million a year. And to this, Trout manages to give the Troutiest quote, neither making news nor deflecting with cliche. He reacts like a kid: “It’s pretty funny.”

At first, you think he’s mocking reporters who get things wrong, but Trout never mocks anybody. Bill Shaikin asks him to clarify and you realize he just meant that it’s crazy to think about himself having that much money: "It's crazy what people are saying, and throwing out numbers like that. I'm in a spot where I wouldn't have thought I would be before my career was over."

***

The Angels have never felt comfortable talking about money. They have a strange way of negotiating with big free agents, for instance. Here’s Torii Hunter describing it to me once:

”I told my agent, get ahold of Tony Reagins, let them know I wanted to play there. They were at Del Taco having lunch. The next day they called me. … They gave me an offer. Arte, he was like: ‘You have three hours.’”

After that, the offer would be pulled. The same tactic—under a new front office, but the same owner—reportedly cost the Angels a shot at Matt Garza this winter, when they offered him more than he would ultimately sign (with Milwaukee) for:

”I was on vacation with my wife and I didn't want to be disturbed, and it was like, ‘Here it is, we'll pull it in a certain amount of hours.' I didn't have a chance to respond, so I just said, ‘Whatever. It is what it is.'”

“It was an offer and I said, ‘I'm on vacation. I'm not thinking about baseball, Dude. Me and my wife are enjoying ourselves.'"

When they pursued Carl Crawford in 2010, they made a big deal out of pursuing him as their no. 1 target but offered him barely three-quarters of what he signed for. (And a month later spent nearly as much on Vernon Wells.) Before that, in 2009, they took the very unusual step of publicly withdrawing an offer to Mark Teixeira. “We’re out,” the club’s top spokesman told reporters.

It’s not that Moreno won’t spend money. For Josh Hamilton, for Wells, he’ll commit fortunes without a blink. But the way Moreno does business—or, at least, the way it’s reported that he does—money is a weapon that players are using against him. Everybody is trying to get his money, or to use him to get more money from other people, to leverage his money for more money. Money is where things get ugly.

But to some people, it’s just like, dude. My wife and I are enjoying ourselves.

***

When it comes to the trend toward early extensions, the Angels have lagged. According to MLB Trade Rumors’ extension tracker, they have never signed a pre-arb player to a deal that bought out free agent years. The closest they came was inking Ervin Santana, who had three years of service time, to a four-year deal with a club option. They’ll be the 25th team to sign a pre-arb extension, despite having just produced a swarm of homegrown talent in the past decade—Weaver, Kendrick, Aybar, Morales, Santana, Napoli, Figgins, Saunders, not to mention top prospects/extension candidates Casey Kotchman, Dallas McPherson, and Jeff Mathis.

There were some in the front office who wanted to extend Trout early in the 2012 season, when he was still years away from arbitration and, some felt, likely to accept a more discounted deal, as other young stars have done. No offer was made, though, and you could argue that at this point Trout would be better off going year by year.

“Our view is you never turn down your first fortune,” Paul Cohen, Evan Longoria’s agent, told the LA Times’ Mike DiGiovanna. But at this point there’s very, very little chance that Trout’s first fortune isn’t secure. He’d be arbitration eligible in a year. In the worst-case scenario—let’s say he’s a zero-win player this year, that he’s either hurt all year or he somehow performs like Chris Getz—he will still rank eighth all-time in wins above replacement through age 22. In a terrible scenario—say, he drops 70 percent of his value—he’ll still be in line to break or approach arbitration records. That’s the first fortune, and barring something that ends his career, it’s secure. One year ago? Sure, sign an extension. Now? He’s the ideal case for going year by year, doing the union right by setting new arbitration thresholds, hitting free agency after his age-25 season and in line to make, what, a half billion dollars?

But if we’ve learned anything about the Angels, it’s that conversations about money are never just about money, and they often turn…uncomfortable. Trout, in signing an extension now, will probably give the Angels a discount that his economic security doesn’t really require. You’ve seen plenty of breakdowns of what he’s “worth,” and even discounting for the risk the Angels absorb, he’s probably “worth” considerably more than the $140 million he's rumored to be receiving over the next six years: at $15 million, $20 million, and $25 million for his three arbitration years, that’s only $80 million for his first three years of free agency—years in which he’ll be 25, 26, and 27. But this extension sure saves a lot of potential ugliness down the line. And, frankly, it might not be the worst thing for his popularity if he spends six more years not being the highest-paid player in the game. A player shouldn’t have to take a discount to be liked, and a player who gets every dime he’s worth shouldn’t ever be judged for it. But there’s something about holding out for $50 million that seems so unlike Trout, and there’s something about being a little bit underpaid that seems so very Trout.

***

“Not until I was 27 did I start to guess,” says Scott Servais, the Angels Assistant GM. “I was hitting .225. I had this coach at the Cubs say ‘Scott, you’re a smart guy, call a good game, you know what you’re doing, but feel for hitting is not real good. Are you looking fastball every pitch and reacting to breaking balls?’ Yeah, that’s what I was told, what I was taught. Why? He hands me an article with quotes from Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, and they say they sat on pitches. Says ‘Read this, come back to me.’ I talked to some veteran players, and it’s like an unwritten rule, you don’t talk about it, but if you’re right on right, you gotta guess. Talking to Buddy Bell, said how much did you look breaking ball and he said 85 percent of the time.

“We’re in New York, in Shea, and I say ‘worth a shot.’ I tried it and it worked. Opened up a whole new realm for me. You have to be willing to take a fastball if you’re wrong and not jump off and change—you have to ride it out. But until you get two strikes, guess every pitch. And when you’re right, hit a gapper. I hit like 11 home runs and took off in like 100 at-bats. It worked for a while. Then the league figured out what I was doing.”

Right now, the league can’t figure out what Trout is doing; on no pitch is he weaker than the opposing pitcher is. For Trout, it’s just about figuring out what the league is doing. If they throw him 66 first-pitch breaking balls this year, I’d bet a dollar he swings at some; I’d bet he hits a couple out. Trout just never misses his chance.

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:  Los Angeles Angels,  Mike Trout

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