August 18, 2017
The Best Failure in Baseball
Sometime soon, Mike Trout will again etch his name atop one of those through age 20-something leaderboards—swallowing up another distinction like baseball prodigy kudzu. This one, though, isn’t going on his eventual Hall of Fame plaque. He’s seven strikeouts away from racking up his 856th K, which would surpass Justin Upton for the most by any hitter through his age-25 season.
Even while posting perhaps the most successful out-of-the-chute baseball career ever, Trout has experienced much failure. The circumstances of his existence—reaching and dominating the majors before his 20th birthday, being the obvious best player on the field, being fast, hitting for power in the 2010s—have conspired in such a way that the strikeouts have piled up despite his rates being below the contemporary league average.
In the larger sense, Trout is succeeding, to put it mildly. He is playing as well as anyone ever has, but in baseball that only means failures make up a somewhat smaller majority of the events in his play log. Elite talent allows the best players to get to the majors earlier, get more plate appearances and accrue more statistics. As a weird sort of collateral damage, they also accrue more failures. Albert Pujols has grounded into more double plays than anyone, ever. The all-time strikeout record has been passed directly from Babe Ruth to Mickey Mantle to Willie Stargell to Reggie Jackson.
Leading one of those lists, then, doesn’t reveal a flaw so much as a choice. When every trip to the plate has a 60 percent chance of ending poorly, how do elite competitors want to go down, if they must? Pujols, for instance, ramps up his already startling ability to put the ball in play when men are on base. He has a 9.4 percent career strikeout rate with runners on—like Dustin Pedroia but with a .565 slugging percentage.
Failure is a construct of each individual mind. Because Trout is perpetually, wordlessly Trout, we don’t have many (read: any) ruminations on the subject, but evidence surfaced early in his career that suggested his failures just ... escape him. Poof. As Trout overtakes this particular list, it’s time we consider how the best player in the world grapples with the game’s most ubiquitous experience, or whether he grapples with it at all.
It seems ludicrous. Of course Trout remembers his mistakes and his bad swings and the times he got fooled by an offspeed pitch. But let’s think for just a second about the benefits of forgetting. Assuming you’re among the athletically ungifted majority, try to envision—nay, try to feel—what it would be like to throw a baseball 95 miles per hour. Release it at warp speed from your puny hand. Try to mind zap yourself into a YouTube clip where your bat collides with a major-league pitch just so, and sends the booming, emphatic announcer of your mind’s eye (crossing my fingers for Gary Thorne) into hysterics over the extreme trajectory and distance of your incredible home run. Go on. I’ll try, too.
*Closes eyes tightly* … (Long, hissing exhale)
Didn’t work. I merely summoned my recent attempt to hit a wiffle ball in the middle of my office. A playing-it-cool attempt at a Nomar Garciaparra stance unwound into a halting check swing, the handle merely clipping the bottom of the ball as it whizzed by at a speed of, oh, you know, 25 mph? Come to think of it, all my mental moments of potential baseball glory end with some version of me getting jammed and popping up. Gary Thorne’s bellowing baritone doesn’t materialize.
Trout’s positive visualization warehouse is better stocked, but any major leaguer also has those teeth-clenching memories of frustration. Silence-inducing whiffs with two runners on base in the bottom of the ninth inning. That last turn against the dominant reliever who spun them around with a slider in the dirt. Those things don’t just vanish.
Unless we consider the tale Pedro Moura relayed in April. For the sake of dramatic irony, let’s get this out of the way: The Astros and Angels played a four-game set. On Monday, Astros relief weapon Chris Devenski whiffed Trout on three pitches. On Thursday, Trout took his devastating changeup out of the park. But by the time he reaches the clubhouse after the homer, Trout can’t recall the earlier battle, the one he lost. We don’t have anything to prove he ever dedicated it to memory at all.
In that Monday tilt, the first of a four-game series against the Astros, Trout faced Devenski in the seventh inning. None on, two outs. And Devenski came right at him, his strategy—you’d think!—shaped by his two times facing Trout in 2016, when he got to two strikes both times but failed to convince his otherworldly opponent to chase one of his out pitches.
Fastball for a strike. Slider fouled off. Fastball on the same low, outside corner as the slider, foul tipped into the mitt. Trout’s 798th career strikeout, accomplished in three pitches.
Now, what happened then?
Thursday. Here comes Trout. Devenski is ready, maybe remembering Monday’s triumph, thinking he has that little foothold in Trout’s head. He doesn’t know about the Neuralyzer, naturally.
Fastball, fouled off. Fastball, fouled off. Trout’s down 0-2 again—which is a little failure in itself. It overwhelmingly portends larger failure against major-league pitching. Usually. Over the past two seasons, Trout’s line in plate appearances that go to two-strike counts overall (.239/.380/.434) roughly mirrors 2017 Matt Carpenter. In those dreaded 0-2 counts, his line (.267/.337/.480) has approximated 2017 Yasiel Puig, while most hitters flail like above-average pitchers.
And this is where fantasy inches closer to something like magical realism. Devenski turns to that changeup, traveling a full 10 mph slower than either of the first two pitches. He hasn’t thrown Trout the changeup since September 24, 2016. Trout has never had occasion to swing at Devenski’s changeup. Even if he had, we’ve established that he didn’t know he had faced this guy three days earlier.
Out goes the baseball.
This is, alas, also a data point that can be used to disprove the negative-event-mindwipe theory.
We know that Trout will get to that 856th strikeout and take his place atop that aforementioned leaderboard, destined to be taken out of context by and for dumb people wherever silly sports arguments are found. But he’s striking out less frequently than he was last year, when he struck out less frequently than in 2015, when he struck out less frequently than in 2014.
That 2014 season was the peak of Trout’s struggles with the “hole” in his swing that made him susceptible to high fastballs. In 2015, Trout changed something and before long it became evident that the up-and-in fastball was no longer a way to make him human. It was 2016, however, when everything came together. Up until last season, Trout had never been truly Trout-ian on two-strike heaters and offspeed pitches at the same time. Whether because of a focus on one or the other, or a natural tendency in his approach, he’d always displayed a preference when his back was against the wall.
Now, though? Come one, come all, Trout will obliterate your two-strike offerings at any speed.
It’s hard to take that as anything but learning. Dig deep enough into the tidbits of information that the beat writers get out of him, and you’ll find that Trout’s other changes mostly come with logical reasons, also, and of his own volition. Like his arm. He asked Kole Calhoun to throw with him to strengthen that part of his game. Since he asked the question, he presumably had to recall a time his arm let him down.
So, most likely, it’s not that Trout forgets his lesser moments. He is just better at letting them be beaten down by the next moment, the next homer, the next question about tomorrow. Instead of allowing those moments to activate the sweat glands in his palms, or push him toward natural but counterproductive means of compensating for a weakness, he up and decides he should be the best at that thing, too—as if he’d simply never thought of it before.
Maybe, in addition to everything else, Trout is the best player in baseball at failing. Life’s not fair.
If we are to believe this rare candid-seeming conversation with Derek Jeter, the longtime Yankees shortstop did not shake off failures quickly. Quite the opposite, it sounds more like he was one flick of a butterfly’s wing away from turning Pepcid AC into Microsoft (it was the ’90s, people).
That’s not aimed at comparing how a different great player dealt with the minefield of the majors, but to ask how Trout’s experience thus far might shape the rest of his career. In addition to employing what sabermetrically inclined fans might see as a higher-risk, higher-reward approach to hitting, and the additional small disappointments that could bring, Trout has dealt with far, far more team-level failure. Saddled with poorly conceived veteran contracts, the Angels have mustered only one truly good team in Trout’s time, and it was dispatched quickly by the Royals.
We could hypothesize that this type of early career path would have driven Jeter to drink, or worse. But it’s also possible he would have turned out a somewhat different player. If his defense had declined as it did before he won a ring, or even before he won his second, or third, would he have been willing to make way for a young, spry replacement? Will Trout handle things differently if his center field coverage drops below his standards?
If Trout’s time in the relative limbo of this Angels team proves anything, it’s that Jeter’s stress is misplaced, if admirable—that it’s probably best put out of mind when possible. It’s an individual game of maximizing performance, played simultaneously by 25 people who share a clubhouse and an airplane. We’re still discovering new ways of achieving those highest levels, and Trout is climbing faster than anyone.
Zoom out, and it’s astounding how many of the sport’s recent strategic shifts addressed habits borne of failure avoidance. Or, really, the need to dodge the feeling of abject defeat. If you sacrifice your at-bat to move a runner, your out can’t be totally futile. Right? If you don’t challenge that close play, you can’t lose. If you don’t shift, your shift can’t be beaten. If you don’t swing for the fences, you (probably) can’t strike out 30 percent of the time. Even the teardown rebuilding trend could be seen as an outcrop of this broader, Trout-like philosophy.
Recent developments say the hell with hedging your bets. Be liberated from the quotidian pangs of your fifth-inning strikeout, that two-out single your pitcher allowed because your third baseman was in shallow right field, or the cellar-dwelling season that got you that draft pick. Think not of the elevated heart rate you experienced navigating the highway. Rejoice in your record time and superb gas mileage.
There is an unmistakable optimism in letting go.
Failing a lot is a product of trying a lot, and when you’re as gifted as Mike Trout, it’s rapidly replaced in the collective record by more highlights, more numbers, more greatness. With every double-speed wave of his bat and every pounding step, Trout is trying to be the best baseball player ever. The fruit of his efforts, Jeter would agree, won’t be found in those details along the way that put the outcome in doubt. It will be in the hulking, smiling bundle of muscle standing there at the end, unburdened by the bumps in the road.