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March 31, 2014
Mike Trout vs. Felix Hernandez
In 2011, when Mike Trout made his major-league debut, it was at home against the Seattle Mariners. In the final game of the series he had to face Felix Hernandez, and it didn’t go well. Twice he got ahead in the count but tapped back to the pitcher on 2-1 sliders. In his only other at-bat that day, he struck out looking on three consecutive pitches.
They’ll face again tonight, a common event. Trout has faced no pitcher as much as he has faced Felix. The two have matched up 42 times, and since that first game Trout has won the series decisively. He has a .395/.405/.632 line against Hernandez, which includes seven overmatched appearances in his rookie season, when Trout wasn’t yet the Trout we see now. From 2012 on, in 35 plate appearances, he’s hitting .452/.457/.742.
When head-to-head matchup stats come up, it’s usually a manager citing small and/or outdated samples to justify putting Don Kelly in the lineup. In that context, it’s easy to mock the way such stats are used—as though a batter’s BABIP over 25 plate appearances spread out over a decade could really be telling enough to base strategic decisions on. With Trout and Hernandez, it’s a different conversation. Nobody’s going to use these numbers to justify putting Trout in the lineup; he’s already in. And the stats—at least the 35 since last year—aren’t outdated, as Felix and Trout haven’t changed much in the past two years. But the sample is still small. Too small? Is there anything we can learn about this matchup from 35 plate appearances?
Or, more directly: Do these 35 plate appearances tell us what to expect tonight when they meet again? Having watched each of them this week, here’s what I found.
Is there a clear pattern to the way that Hernandez attacks Trout?
Fastball, Fastball, Fastball, Fastball, Fastball, Slider, Fastball, Fastball, Curve, Slider, Fastball, Fastball, Fastball, Fastball, Fastball, Fastball, Fastball, Curve, Fastball.
Which isn’t super convincing—and, of course, there are different kinds of fastballs—but which is more convincing when paired with this: The target for every one of those fastballs was away, and generally low and away.