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June 1, 2012

Pebble Hunting

Twitter, Mike Trout, and Mark Trumbo

by Sam Miller

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I keep thinking about this tweet.

There’s so much in that tweet. Not capitalization. There is not capitalization, and there is not a named source, so those are things that are not in that tweet. But otherwise there is so much in that tweet. In that tweet, we learn that:

1. A general manager in the major leagues says that Mike Trout is better than Albert Pujols, right now. Not the more valuable property, or the guy with the brighter future, but is, right now, already better.

2. A general manager says that Mark Trumbo, a player whose flaws you are aware of, is roughly as good as Mike Trout.

3. A general manager says that Mark Trumbo, a player whose flaws you are aware of, is better than Albert Pujols. That the Angels just gave a 10-year contract to a first baseman who is, at best, his team’s second-best first baseman. That Mark Trumbo is better than Albert Pujols.


Those are three amazing statements, or at least one amazing statement, one slightly surprising statement that is amazing when you put it in the context of the first statement, and another amazing statement. A GM thinks Mark Trumbo is better than Albert Pujols. Two days since I saw that, and I’m still speechless. Do you see me stalling right now? That’s because I’m speechless. C’mon, words. C’mon.

Quick looks at the first two, then a longer look at the third.

Mike Trout is better than Albert Pujols.
Our updated PECOTA projections say Mike Trout will produce 1.8 WARP this year; he’s at 1.2 now. It sees 5.3 WARP for Albert Pujols, who has produced just 0.5 so far. So if you go by those projections, Pujols should be much better than Trout for the rest of the year. But who knows. There is absolutely nothing you know about Albert Pujols’ future or Mike Trout’s future. So maybe Trout is better, and maybe he’s the best player on the Angels. If he is, what does it mean?

Since 1950, five players have led their teams in WARP at age 20. They are Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Alex Rodriguez. If Trout, as a 20-year-old, can manage to produce more WARP than Pujols—and Trumbo, and Kendrick, whom he trails thus far—it would be about the finest thing you could ever say about a kid.

Mark Trumbo is as good as Mike Trout
Trumbo—who leads the Angels in WARP—might be the perfect test for the idea that a player can (or can’t) be taught plate discipline after he makes the majors. By one measure, he had the widest swing zone in baseball last year. But he’s totally aware of the need to improve his eye: “I don’t think I was blessed with the greatest eye,” he said last year. “It’s something I’m really having to work on, but it’s hard.” He’s a smart player who has shown the ability to adapt repeatedly in his career, as a hitter (he was primarily a pitcher in high school) and as a defender who was considered awful in Low-A.  He has pressure on him to improve, as he fights for playing time in an organization run by walk-junkie Jerry Dipoto. And he’s scary enough as a hitter that he should be able to force pitchers to nibble against him.  

So we’ll see. So far, he has been noticeably more patient. At the most basic level, he drew 19 unintentional walks last year, and he is already at 12 this year. That’s not that many, but 19 in a full season. At a slightly more advanced level, he is swinging at 37 percent of pitches out of the zone this year, compared to 44 percent last year, according to StatCorner’s figures. That’s not just taking pitches to take pitches, either; his swing rate in the zone has gone almost identically in reverse, from 38 percent last year to 44 percent this year.

On the other hand, the pitches he most struggles against—those out of the zone away—have been just as tempting. He saw 328 pitches in 2011 that were a foot away from the center of the plate, which is to say, outside. He swung at 82, exactly one in four. He has seen 86 such pitches in 2012 and swung at 21. Why, that’s almost exactly …

Still. If it were easy to stop swinging at balls, there would be a lot more Pedro Feliz in the majors right now. Mark Trumbo has stopped swinging at a lot of balls, and it’ll be one of the more interesting parts of the next few seasons to see whether he can go all the way and turn into a late-blooming Paul Konerko.

Mark Trumbo is better than Albert Pujols.
Writing about Mark Trumbo is, for me, one of the hardest parts of writing about baseball. This tweet about a GM who thinks he is better than Albert Pujols is a pretty good example of why.

When I wrote about the Angels for the Orange County Register, I went into the clubhouse a couple times each homestand. Covering a game involves two tasks: A game story, with post-game quotes and the like, and a notes column. The notes column itself usually involves two subtasks: condensing the manager’s comments to the press, and enterprising some sort of short feature about a player, coach, or something associated with the team. The post-game quotes are easy; everybody moves in a pack. The manager’s press availability is easy; there’s a group of five to 15 reporters asking questions. The enterprising thing is the one part that requires some initiative and one-on-one conversation.

That kind of reporting never really gets comfortable, or it never got comfortable for me after 10 years of doing it in a variety of sports and non-sports beats. At the end of the day, nobody has to talk to a reporter, and everybody involved knows this. So asking a player, or any person, to answer questions is asking for a gift. And answering those questions is an act of grace. It’s easy to judge reporters who seem too close to their sources, but appreciate what the working reporter has without those acts of grace: nothing.

The first time I talked to Trumbo I was, as always, a bit nervous. I had written him off as a prospect in 2008 or 2009. I doubt Trumbo would have ever seen me write him off, but I knew I was asking a favor of a guy I had criticized based on, to be honest, not much expertise or investigation. I had said nice things about him, too, especially after he put together a 12-month hot streak that carried him through the PCL, the Venezuelan Winter League and spring training in 2011. But it’s weird to ask for something from somebody after, essentially, insulting him. Trumbo was great to me, though. He had hit his first big-league home run the day before. It was a very quick interview. I got what I needed.

As the year went on, I routinely heard the Angels coaches rave about Trumbo. He took early batting practice just about every day I was at the park. During games he watches the action as closely as anybody, observing. If he were 5-foot-10, he’d be called scrappy. He’s not, so he’s just a guy who has more infield hits and stolen bases than a guy his size and speed really ought to. I once heard that Trumbo had been poor at taking instruction when he was in the low minors. This was hard to imagine. I found out later what the problem was, and it was sort of hysterically innocuous. When Angels coaches would tell him something, he would nod. Later, he realized that he should nod and say “yes” so they appreciated that he was listening. That’s the extent of the problems when you’re dealing with Mark Trumbo.

Trumbo is just a wonderfully nice person, so far as I can tell. (He’s also a friend of a friend.) He makes eye contact when he answers questions. He pauses a beat before he does, considering the question because, to him, it seems like an important question. He’s honest and candid, but not candid in a way that suggests he’s just trying to get attention. He’s generous with praise for his teammates and his coaches. He’s honest about his limitations. “I’m not a terribly gifted athlete in a lot of regards,” he said when they talked about moving him to third. He never, in my experience, was anything less than realistic about his chances of staying as a third baseman. It would be incredibly hard to make the transition. It would be uncomfortable. But he would try hard, because he wanted to play, and because the men who sign his checks had asked him to. I recognize that this is standard sportswriter stuff, praising an athlete I barely know based on the extremely limited exposure I have had to him. Totally fair point. But I believe what I’m saying, and I actually came to believe it matters. I wasn’t sure how it mattered, but how could making right decisions not matter?  

And this is why I don’t know what to do about tweets about Mark Trumbo. I like Mark Trumbo. More importantly, I think Mark Trumbo is a good ballplayer! He has had a maddeningly wide strike zone in his career, and I certainly didn’t expect him to become a star, but he has enough power that he’s a legit major-league first baseman, even if his OBP drops to nearly unacceptable levels.

I just don’t think Mark Trumbo is better than Albert Pujols. To be honest, I don’t think that that GM in Heyman’s tweet actually believes it. I do think he’s a tremendously improved player, way, way, way better than prospect hounds expected him to be four years ago, similarly better than I ever expected. Better than I expected before last year, and better than I expected this year. Mark Trumbo is better at baseball than I am at anything, and he has become one heck of a baseball player, and that GM who said he is better than Albert Pujols was merely complimenting him. Does it need to be strictly, literally true for it to tell us something? No, not really. What it tells us is that a smart guy in a front office thinks Mark Trumbo has become a heck of a ballplayer. Done.

But it’s hard to leave it at that. It’s always hard to leave it at that. Mike Scioscia said last summer than Mark Trumbo was not just a Rookie of the Year candidate, but an MVP candidate. Well, no. The truth of the moment—Mike Scioscia thinks Mark Trumbo has become a heck of a ballplayer—gets lost in the not-truth of the moment. Mark Trumbo wasn’t an MVP candidate by any measure I would want people voting on. This isn’t meant as an insult to Mark Trumbo, but it feels like an insult to say it, and I hate insulting Mark Trumbo. I really like Mark Trumbo. He’s a heck of a ballplayer!

It felt this way when the Angels said they were going to try Trumbo at third base, a statement of just how much he has improved his defense and agility overall, and how valuable they see him to the lineup, but also not (it seemed to me) a very good idea. It felt this way when he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, and first in the player’s vote: a compliment, but not one that I totally agreed with, which wasn’t something I could state without feeling like I was bashing Mark Trumbo, a ballplayer I think a lot of. It felt this way when I said over the offseason that the Angels should trade him, because he was too good not to be starting but probably not quite good enough to start on the Angels. But but but I meant that in the nicest possible way.

Opinions are uncomfortably binary, especially when we’re all just strangers on the internet. Things get simplified into either good or bad, and arguing that a player is not quite as good as the standard set for him inevitably involves marshalling evidence of his flaws. So what I’m saying is this: it’s grand to see Mark Trumbo is having a great year. It’s really no fun pointing out the flaws in a player I like. The first two months of this year suggest a player who, through sheer will, might just be becoming a player without flaws.

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

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