April 28, 2014
Mike Trout Striking Out, Albert Pujols Plantar Update
A couple tidbits from a trip to the Angels clubhouse on Sunday evening in New York:
Mike Trout Striking Out
And that was when things got weird. Reigning Best Player in Baseball Mike Trout, batting behind Shuck, struck out on five pitches, going down swinging on a slider/four-seamer combo. Trout subsequently struck out looking in the third, swinging in the sixth, and looking again in the ninth for his first-ever four-strikeout day. If some combination of pitchers was going to give Trout his first sombrero, it makes sense that it would be last season’s American League strikeout rate leader, with a ninth-inning assist from Joe Nathan. But that no-contact performance was part of what looks like a trend for Trout this year.
Trout struck out in 19.0 percent of his plate appearances last season, and 20.5 percent from 2011–13. After two more K’s against Masahiro Takana on Sunday, however, his 2014 strikeout rate stands at 27.9 percent, the 27th-highest mark among 190 qualified hitters, despite the fact that he’s faced below-average pitching. The lack of contact hasn’t hurt him any: thanks to a higher Isolated Slugging (ISO, or SLG-BA) and a slightly higher BABIP, Trout has approximated his 2013 production at the plate, and he’s again leading the major leagues in WARP (1.8). Still, given the internet’s interest in all things Trout, even a net-neutral change would be worth noting.
We know that batter strikeout rate “stabilizes”—or reaches the threshold at which at which the player’s observed performance is half signal and half noise—at 60 plate appearances, and Trout has made nearly twice that many. So while the increased K rate may not be a good or a bad thing, it’s fair to wonder whether it’s a real thing. Add up Trout’s relative lack of contact, his elevated ISO, and the fact that he’s pulled more balls toward left field so far this season, and you can start to paint a picture of a hitter who’s altered his approach. Has Trout decided that selling out for power—if one can be said to be “selling out” for power while batting .320—is the best way he can contribute to the Angels, as well as a more foolproof way to win MVP awards?
I asked him on Sunday, and he said no. “I’m going up there to barrel balls, I’m not trying to hit home runs,” Trout said. “They’re making some good pitches on me, and sometimes you’ve got to tip your cap.” (Yes, Trout’s cliché tool is as good as the rest of his game.)
Trout isn’t seeing significantly fewer pitches in the strike zone than he did last season, and his pitch-type distribution has barely budged. Nor is he swinging or chasing much more often. The only real difference is a decreased contact rate, mostly on pitches in the zone. Of the 44 hitters who saw at least 1000 pitches in 2013 and have seen at least 400 in 2014, Trout’s contact-rate drop-off of 5.5 percentage points rates as the fourth-largest decline.
However, Trout has had even lower contact rates over previous stretches of equivalent length—from last June 19 through July 4, he had a 74.1 percent contact rate over 492 pitches, the same number he’s seen this season—and the results seem even less significant when you consider that the league as a whole has seen its contact rate dip and strikeout rate rise. On Saturday, Angels manager Mike Scioscia dismissed Trout’s inflated strikeout rate as the product of a small sample, and in the absence of any confirmation of a conscious change from Trout, we probably should, too.
Albert Pujols Plantar Update
“[A full recovery] is my goal,” Pujols said. “That’s what I hope, to do therapy and rehab just to make sure that it heals where I don’t have to worry about it. I think for the rest of the year I’ll still be doing rehab and therapy. All my career. Obviously, the older you get, the more injuries that come along.”
There’s no specific way in which healing has helped him at the plate—catching up to inside pitches, say, or staying back on breaking balls. It’s simpler than that: before, he was in too much pain to be Pujols. Now, he’s free to be Prince Albert again.
“Just to be able to be healthy and have your legs underneath, that’s the most important thing,” he said. “I didn’t forget how to hit. I continue to say, this game is tough when you’re 100 percent—imagine when you’re playing hurt. It’s no fun. There was a moment in my career last year where I was like, ‘Man, I don’t really want to do this,’ because it was so tough hurting, playing in pain. Not to be able to do things that you’re capable of doing, it’s tough.”