There is nothing average about Mike Trout. People built like Brian Urlacher shouldn’t be able to scale walls, run like a scared deer, all while squarely hitting a round ball with a round bat. The 2014 season has seen Mike Trout put up a slightly more earthbound line than usual. The question is why? The sample size is rapidly getting too large for the saber community to claim this is all due to a small sample of games.
As Rob Neyer and Jay Jaffe have pointed out, the data backs up the notion that Trout is not merely a victim of bad luck. If it’s not bad luck or a small sample, then what the heck has gone (relatively) wrong with baseball’s wunderkind? When in doubt look at the swing that is putting up the numbers.
Before I get too carried away I need to frame this article correctly. This is not me saying Mike Trout is in long-term trouble, or that his only hope for salvation is reading this article. This article is more of an exploration of a great hitter going through a rough stretch, hitting .161/.286/.355 in May. Trout will get his swing back and put up the regular numbers we are used to, but times like these serve to remind us that even the best at the craft can have times where they are slightly less than elite. All the notes I make in this article are merely capturing snapshots.
Here’s a front view of Trout 2014 vs 2013. Both of these swings produced home runs, but there are small but highly important differences between these two swings. From the front we can see two small differences before he even makes a move.
In 2014 he stands more upright at the plate with less initial bend in his knees. He also starts his hands just a bit lower this year. I tend not to care how a hitter sets up his stance but I do care how he moves from the stance into the rest of the swing. This is where these differences take on importance.
When he was dialed in 2013, Trout started his hands higher and simply used his bottom hand to cock his barrel at an angle. One move. Hands high, bottom hand cocks barrel and go. But 2014 sees his hands start lower, then both hands move the bat back up, then back down slightly again before the bottom hand finally takes over to cock the barrel. Three moves. Bat up, then down a bit, then cock the barrel and go.
The differences with the hands are more obvious but should be easier to correct. The hands move in a vacuum before the swing launches. Trout doesn’t have to change any other part of his body to get his hands back to his 2013 pre-swing movement pattern.
Watching game footage from this year I saw Trout get beat by more average fastballs than I ever had before. The “busy’ hands would help explain this phenomenon, but the real giveaway comes from his meaty lower half. Look at his front foot after contact. Trout’s front foot always moves a bit after contact but this year it has been much more blatant than in prior seasons. Watch the frames after contact and zero in on his front foot. See how in 2014 the ankle seems to roll forward. The same thing happens in 2013, but much later in the process and to a smaller extent. This could mean Trout has a bum ankle but it is also indicative of a mechanical change.
His back foot is moving differently as well. Pause the videos right at contact and look at the position of his back foot.
In 2013 Trout’s back foot is very pointed. If his foot is even touching the ground at all it’s on the very tip of his shoe. The next year is a different picture. His back foot is angled and touching the ground awkwardly on the side of his foot. Proceed a few frames forward when Trout’s arms are fully extended and you will see that his ankle is fairly close to the ground, contrary to his 2013 position.
The differences in the hands can be fixed by altering the hands. The differences in the lower body need to be corrected by something other than the feet. The ending position of the feet is the product of the hips.
Simply put, Trout is not using his hips as efficiently as he was. He is not generating the same force and he is late when he does engage his hips. Everyone knows the hips rotate during the course of a swing to help supply power to a hitter. How this power is created in the hips happens during the stride or gather phase of a swing (depending on the hitter’s style). For some hitters, this begins as they lift their leg; for others, as they stride out. To spot this coil look for a small internal rotation of the hips independent of the shoulders, during or after weight has begun to transfer forward. In plain speak, the hips move toward the pitcher while slightly turning inward. It’s a small movement but vitally important. (Hitting coach Steve Carter (@SteveCarterPP) first showed me this movement and explained its importance.)
Trout hasn’t gotten the same drive out of his hips this year thanks in part to his new stance. There's nothing wrong with an upright stance, but Trout is used to moving with more bend in his knee. In 2013 he picks his front knee up, loads into his back hip and then unleashes his swing. In 2014 he picks up the front knee, loads into the hip, then a very slight delay as his lower half works down before driving forward. Watch his back foot: in 2013, it moves as he drives his lower half forward; in 2014, it moves, and then he drives his lower half forward.
The new stance is also playing a part in how Trout’s front leg is behaving during his swing. To best examine how a hitter’s front leg moves during a swing a view from the side is helpful. Luckily enough the swings used earlier also have side shots. The angles of the shot are slightly different but still provide useful information.
Let’s look at when his front leg straightens out. In 2013 his front leg wasn’t straight (or stiff) until after contact. We can see that at contact there is a slight bend in his front knee.
In 2014 his front leg is stiff several frames before contact:
After contact his front leg is unstable in 2014. Trout has always had a fun little hop step to get out of the box but this season he spins on his heel before the hop. If you watch his 2014 swing from the front, pay attention to how his leg stiffens and then appears to lock out even further to the point where his front leg looks bowed. In 2014, his front foot is sliding toward third base after contact. In 2013 his front foot is completely stable and stationary and doesn’t move until he hops out of the box.
Locking out the front leg before contact isn’t an inherently bad thing. Miguel Cabrera does it and he is pretty decent at hitting baseballs. The difference is how stable Cabrera is after contact. All the force he built up in his swing has been thoroughly laid into the baseball. Instead of the force going into the baseball you can see the unapplied force reverberate back through Trout, especially in his legs.
Big league hitters have .3 seconds to hit an average big-league fastball. It is an exercise in timing. If the timing of your own swing is off, good luck timing up big-league pitching. This is what Trout is dealing with at the moment. He can’t properly time when his hips fire. Don’t get me wrong—they still fire, but instead of putting all that energy created by the hips into the ball it leaks out into his swing following contact. The early rolling and sliding of his front foot? Poor hip timing. The inefficient movement of his back foot? Poor hip timing. Why is he missing fastballs? Why are his batted ball metrics down? I bet you know the answer.
Recently, Trout hit a walkoff home run that seemed like it might bust him out of his slump. This swing shows he is starting to make some small but positive changes. His hands are much calmer. There is more bend in his legs at the start of the swing. When he launches, he is back to not locking out his front leg before contact. His front leg is more stable after contact. His front foot is still sliding, but overall the leg moves less at the end of his swing. It appears that Trout might be on the right track.
Trout can fix this. He will get his hips moving at the right time and eliminate any hiccups in his lower half. He may also just go back to his older stance. Trout is a special player. He wouldn’t have even sniffed the level of success he has had without the ability to make adjustments. Once he does make some adjustments, he will go back to wrecking baseballs like the Trout we know and love.