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BALTIMORE ORIOLES
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Signed OF-R Mark Trumbo to a three-year, $37.5 million contract. [1/19]

You can pretty much tell the quality of a Mark Trumbo season by counting the balls he pulls in the air. Here are the number of times he’s done that in each of his six big-league seasons, according to FanGraphs split tool:

Season

FB Pulled

2011

42

2012

52

2013

35

2014

19

2015

30

2016

52

It’s a simple heuristic, but it works. Trumbo needs to turn on the ball and elevate in order to succeed. Even when he’s doing that his strikeout and walk rates are ugly and he’s neither a line-drive hitter nor a top-shelf athlete, so his BABIP will never be that strong. In other words, even when he’s a great slugger Trumbo is just a slightly above-average overall hitter. He needs volume in order to provide value as a designated hitter (and you don’t want him playing anywhere but DH, if you can help it).

Trumbo’s two best seasons, from a purely offensive perspective, have been 2012 and 2016, because those were the years in which he gave himself the best chance to hit dingers and did so at the highest rates. Obviously the magnitude of that success (i.e., the number of dingers) was considerably larger last season than in 2012. Just as obviously, the rest of the league enjoyed a similar spike in homers. That’s why you won’t see a True Average spike corresponding to Trumbo’s leap into Chris Davis Country.

His TAv figures by season mark him as a staggeringly consistent hitter, despite the fluctuations in raw stats: .274, .287, .274, .254, .276, .276. Finally finding a (as it turned out, permanent) home in a ballpark friendly to right-handed power inevitably augmented Trumbo’s numbers. So did whatever macro-level effect blasted home run rates through the roof last year. The question around this deal is whether that league-wide power surge was the primary driver of the forward leap in Trumbo’s home run rate on those pulled flies (48.1 percent, up from a previous career mark of 38.0 percent), and if so whether it’s going to suddenly dissipate.

On that point, while both Baseball Reference and FanGraphs marked significant improvements by Trumbo last year (which might indicate that they aren’t capturing the league’s sea change), TAv reckons that his added power came mostly from the move to Baltimore (his Batter Park Factor was 98 for 2015 and 108 for 2016). If that’s true the value delivered by those home runs doesn’t exactly belong totally to Trumbo, but the Orioles can at least expect it not to erode tremendously—no more, that is, than we would ordinarily expect the value of a one-dimensional slugger to erode as he enters his mid-30s.

The risk here is that that value does erode, either because Trumbo’s skill set (which studies suggest does age worse than some others) declines unexpectedly quickly or because the home run spike turns out to be some kind of correctable historical blip, a juiced ball the league unjuices. Still, it’s a risk worth taking, especially at a price that typically buys just 1.5 wins or so on today’s free agent market.

Trumbo adds stability and depth to the Baltimore lineup. If they can better keep him out of the outfield this year (Seth Smith is no Jason Heyward, but he’s better than Trumbo), they should be able to keep him relatively healthy and enjoy the value of his above-average offense. Over all of this, and over everything the Orioles do right now, ticks a gigantic countdown clock. They have two years of control over Manny Machado remaining. Ditto for Zach Britton and Adam Jones. Chris Davis will be around longer, but that might well not be a good thing within a couple of years.

The Baltimore farm system is lousy, and their owner too penurious to permit the kind of aggressiveness that might change that. The team with the best record in the AL over the last five years is seeing its window close, fast and inexorably, and Trumbo might help that window stay open for a while. By every account, he’s also the kind of clubhouse presence that helps a team pushing for the playoffs stay sane, focused, and happy.