Not so fast: Has best player in baseball become mortal?

Mike Trout is striking out more, walking less and — gasp — not stealing bases. What's up with that?

OK, so it was maybe like three seconds ago that I anointed Mike Trout not just the best player in the majors — and thus on Earth! — but the best player in the majors (and Earth!) by a whole lot.

A funny thing happened on the way to brilliantly obvious baseball analysis, though — Trout stopped hitting. In his last 13 games, Trout has just seven hits, his batting average plummeting from .327 to .270.

“Thirteen games means nothing!” you’re saying (or yelling).

You’re right! There’s less analytical substance in 13 games than in a political party’s press conference. Here’s the thing, though: Even before those 13 games, there were warning signs in Trout’s performance, warning signs I should have at least mentioned while anointing him the new Mickey Mantle.

I’m mentioning this because it’s yet one more warning about taking a few weeks in April too seriously. After Trout’s first two seasons, it seemed almost impossible for him to get even better … if only because better basically meant becoming Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth or big-head Barry Bonds. I mean, Trout’s already done some things that nobody’s ever done before. But could he really compile 30-some Wins Above Replacement in his first three seasons? I don’t believe that any player has done that. For the sake of comparison, it took Alex Rodriguez four seasons to reach 30, and Barry Bonds five seasons. Averaging 10 Wins+ in three early-20s seasons … well, you know. It’s just not done. Not often, anyway. Ted Williams probably would have done it, absent World War II. Ty Cobb did it.

But those are the sorts of players we’re talking about.

AROUND THE HORN

Looking at Trout’s Baseball-Reference.com page, though, I noticed something highly … intriguing. For some decades, it’s been traditional among the various baseball encyclopedias, both on the Internet and on “paper,” to highlight a player’s league-leading statistics with boldness. And I believe it was Bill James who dubbed that boldness “black ink.”

Trout, for all his splendid talents, doesn’t have a great deal of black ink. In his first two full seasons, he did lead the American League in runs scored. In his second season, he also finished with the most walks (oh, and in case you missed the big news in the 1980s, there’s a strong relationship between drawing walks and scoring runs).

This season’s black ink is scant and it’s negative, as Trout leads his league in one category: strikeouts. You probably do know that while many good players have led their league in strikeouts, few of the greatest players have done that. Trout finished last season with 110 walks and 136 strikeouts; this season he’s on pace for 85 walks and 205 strikeouts. I did some maths. Such numbers would represent a 95-percent decline in Trout’s strikeout-to-walk ratio. Which does seem worthy of discussion, nearly a fourth of the way into this season.

Ten days ago, Mike DiGiovanna of the LA Times wrote about Trout’s strikeouts:

The fact that Trout has been caught looking 14 times and often takes first-pitch strikes suggests he is too passive. If he’s going to strike out, the Angels prefer he go down swinging.

“Mike works counts, and when you work counts, you’re going to add some walks, you’re going to add some strikeouts,” (manager Mike) Scioscia said. “He’s taken a called third strike at times. It happened last year, and it’s happened this year.

“It’s still a small sample size. His last 25 at-bats or so, he’s trying to find a comfort zone. I don’t think it’s anything you’re going to put a lot of weight on right now.”

Now it’s a less-small sample size. And while it’s true that working counts (if done well) means both strikeouts and walks, the problem is that Trout isn’t just adding some strikeouts, he’s also losing some walks. Trout’s so talented that he can still be an outstanding player with 200 strikeouts, and in fact he currently ranks among the American League’s very best players, even with all those strikeouts (and fewer walks).

Which doesn’t mean we have to act like striking out 200 times won’t make him a somewhat lesser player than we’ve become used to, and expected more of. As you know, striking out 200 times imposes a general limit on a player’s batting average. Trout’s hitting nearly .350 on balls in play this season, which is almost exactly what we would expect, considering a) how hard he hits the ball, generally, and b) his history. But with all these strikeouts, you get a .270 batting average rather than .320.

I should also point out that a great deal of Trout’s value has come from his fielding metrics … which of course are notoriously sketchy without having two or seven seasons of them. As opposed to six weeks. While Trout’s been the “best” player in the American League, he’s been (roughly speaking!) just the eighth-best hitter.

Tuesday night, ESPN’s Manny Acta said Trout’s got “mechanical issues.” Parsing Trout’s swing data, I don’t see much out of the ordinary except he’s making somewhat less contact when he swings at pitches, and swinging at somewhat more pitches generally. Which is exactly what you would expect, considering all those strikeouts.

There’s yet one more thing, which I hesitate to mention because somebody’s going to freak out … but Trout has stolen four bases this season. He stole 49 in 2012, 33 in 2013, and now, just four.

I know it doesn’t mean Trout’s not still fast; he does have three triples already, and there are those pretty fielding stats. But his baserunning value is way, way down this season, and I can’t help thinking that Trout is becoming a less interesting player — more strikeouts, fewer walks, less élan on the bases — right before our eyes. Which wouldn’t bother me except Trout’s still only 22 years old. I figured this would happen. I just didn’t figure it would happen so soon.