I’ve had something of an obsession. I feel like it’s an understandable one, but that’s the way everyone feels about his/her own obsessions, so let me explain a little bit. Mike Trout’s the best player in baseball, right? I mean, even if you don’t think he’s No. 1, he’s one of the top two or four or five. And he’s probably been No. 1. He’s done silly things to our WAR statistic. Trout makes people think about Mickey Mantle, and not in a way where it’s like, "Mike Trout is good, but he’s no Mickey Mantle." He might really be the new Mickey Mantle. He’s great. OK. You know that.
Trout’s been amazing, but last year it became apparent he had a weakness. It became increasingly apparent to everyone, and it was ultimately exploited in the playoffs by the Royals. On the off chance you don’t remember what I’m talking about, Trout was incredibly vulnerable against high fastballs, and particularly high, inside fastballs. There was no mystery. Teams would face the best player in baseball, and they knew what they had to do to get him out.
Not that they were able to consistently pull it off. But my obsession was tracking how opponents were pitching to Trout because there was so much to gain from attacking his weakness. He was like an otherwise unbeatable video-game boss with a flashing red rectangle under the chin where he could be felled were he struck just so. Every team had the report, and as more time passed, Trout saw more elevated, inside fastballs. It seemed like something would eventually have to give. Either Trout would make an adjustment, or the major leagues would defeat him and knock him from his perch.
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Over the winter, Trout talked from time to time about the hole in his swing. His typical line was that he’d just have to lay off the high-and-tight fastballs, because he said they were usually out of the zone. In reality, a lot of them were in the zone, so Trout’s response was incomplete. He had to know the pitches he’d be seeing, so he had to try to get himself ready for those. And, sure enough, in the early going of the 2015 season, Trout was a high-inside-fastball magnet. Teams hadn’t forgotten what they’d learned the previous summer.
But there’s a funny thing about the best players in baseball. They know how to adjust, especially when they’re young. During the offseason, Trout had a goal. And it became pretty clear early that Trout had fixed his weakness. Gone was the vulnerability. Trout improved his contact against those high, inside fastballs, and he improved his ability to hit them hard. There were loud hits and loud outs. All of them warnings. Trout had adjusted to the adjustment. Which meant it was up to the pitchers again to make an adjustment. How, now, would they work with the league MVP?
If you’re wondering whether the pitchers are doing something different, the answer is a resounding yes. Opponents are now trying to get Trout out in a different way. Much of the following data comes from Baseball Savant. And I wrote the article above on May 13, so let’s use that as a dividing point. Conveniently, it’s just about in the middle of Trout’s season so far.
The theory seems to be: Trout has prepared himself to turn around inside pitches, so maybe he’s vulnerable against more outside pitches? And the idea there would be no hitter can cover the whole hitting area at once. In the following image, you’ll see all the pitches thrown to Trout through May 13, and then all the pitches thrown to Trout since the next game. The difference is stark.
Numbers might help, in case you’re relatively unaccustomed to heat maps. The big swing is from inside to outside, so let’s focus on the rate of inside pitches seen. Through May 13, among right-handed hitters, Trout’s rate of inside pitches seen ranked in the highest 2 percent. Since May 14, among righties, Trout’s rate of inside pitches seen ranks in the lowest 12 percent. He went from ranking second to ranking 120th. The average pitch to Trout is now further away, horizontally, by about four inches.
That covers all the pitches. Now let’s just isolate the fastballs. It’s the fastballs, after all, that had been giving Trout such fits.
Through May 13, among right-handed hitters, Trout’s rate of inside fastballs seen ranked in the highest 2 percent. Since May 14, his rate of inside fastballs seen ranks in the lowest 15 percent. He went from ranking second to ranking 149th. The average fastball to Trout is now further away, horizontally, by nearly six inches. That’s a hell of a difference, considering the width of home plate. Used to be, the average fastball was over the inner half. Now it’s over the outer half. Pitchers are hoping that Trout is so geared up for stuff in that he can’t protect against stuff away.
Let’s look at another comparison of through-May-13 to since-May-14 data. Here are all the right-handed hitters, with their rates of inside pitches seen. I’ve highlighted Trout, and as you can see, the shift with him has been unusual.
There’s a decent relationship between these points for the average hitter, because the average hitter isn’t rapidly changing, so neither is the scouting report. Trout’s an exception. He went from one of every two pitches being inside to one of every three pitches being inside. The only hitter with a comparable change in the sample is Michael Taylor. After Trout and Taylor, the hitter with the third-biggest change is separated by about five percentage points. The change in approach to Trout has been dramatic, and it happened almost overnight. On the fly, pitchers gave up trying to retire Trout inside and high, and now they’re working the outer half.
It’s fascinating. At least *I* think it’s fascinating. They say baseball’s a game of constant adjustments, even for the superstars. Here we see pitchers adjusting to Trout, and then Trout adjusting to the pitchers, and then the pitchers adjusting to Trout adjusting to the pitchers. It’s all happened very fast. So how has this most recent adjustment worked out for the opponents? Has Trout indeed become vulnerable away?
Through May 13: .958 OPS
Since May 14: .949 OPS
If you squint, you see a higher strikeout rate. If you keep squinting, you see a lower walk rate. But if you don’t squint at all, you see the exact same level of production. Trout hasn’t been exposed, not in any meaningful way, not yet. He owns a career-high slugging percentage against inside fastballs. He also owns a career-high slugging percentage against outside fastballs. Trout is good for a high slugging percentage.
Because Mike Trout is good. Pitchers have a new way of trying to get him out, but to this point, it hasn’t worked, meaning either they aren’t executing well enough or they need to adjust to their own adjustment. The high, inside fastballs stopped working. It seemed then like maybe pitches away could do the trick. But maybe that’s not the answer. Evidence suggests it’s not the answer. Maybe there isn’t an answer. I don’t know how to retire Mike Trout. Thankfully, it isn’t my job.