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April 28, 2014

BP Unfiltered

Mike Trout Striking Out, Albert Pujols Plantar Update

by Ben Lindbergh


A couple tidbits from a trip to the Angels clubhouse on Sunday evening in New York:

Mike Trout Striking Out
It took only six pitches to establish that the Saturday, April 19 matchup between the Angels and Tigers would be packed with low-probability events. On that sixth offering, one of the least powerful players in the majors, the Angels’ J.B. Shuck, led off the game by driving a 92-mile-per-hour four-seam fastball from reigning American League Cy Young winner Max Scherzer over the right-field wall for his fourth home run in 605 career plate appearances. As Shuck rounded third, the mobile cameraman assigned to secure the all-important shot of the third-base-coach butt slap took a tumble, briefly making himself the star of the telecast.

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.

Name

2013 Contact RT

2014 Contact RT

Diff

Brandon Belt

79.7

68.4

-11.3

Ian Desmond

75.3

67.3

-8.1

Jose Bautista

84.6

79.1

-5.6

Mike Trout

82.1

76.6

-5.5

Carlos Gomez

74.2

70.0

-4.3

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
Last November, Albert Pujols reported that the foot that had hobbled him and ended his season in late July was feeling “99.9 percent” healthy. He’s hit like a man with two healthy feet so far in 2014, but the foot still hasn’t recovered that last tenth of a percent subtracted last season by a partially torn plantar fascia. In fact, Pujols put the percentage at 85–90, though he said that the foot is “right where I want it to be right now” and that it “feels pretty good.” He hopes it will hit 100, but it’s going to take time and attention.

“[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.”

(To see some of those moments, click here and here.)

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

2 comments have been left for this article.

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