Let's put this feature series to bed, shall we?
First, by way of explanation, I went AWOL these past few weeks for the best of reasons: I now have two healthy, precocious little daughters, both of whom are doing great. They were born two months early, but after a long stay in the hospital they're finally home.
Another cause for delay - and all-around-annoyance - is that some kid broke into my classroom and stole my laptop, which not only had a month's worth of otherwise un-backed-up baby pictures saved to it, but all of my baseball-related databases. That means that my WAR calculations and batted ball data from July onward are gone, so I'm going to have to go off memory below.
Four years of teaching in an inner city school in Boston, and the only thing that ever disappeared from my classroom were a few snickers bars. Three months in Portland, and this.
The obvious lesson here? Skaters can bite me.
2) Mike Trout, 8/07/91 - CF, AA & MLB
.326/.414/.544 with 11 HR and 33 SB. +32 run bat*, +5 run glove, ~5 WAR
What can I say about Mike Trout that hasn't already been said? Present consensus ranks him the second best prospect in the game. That's down a notch from last year due to fixation on Harper's otherworldly power, but regardless of his slip to #2 status, the outlook on Trout is probably more positive now than at this time in 2010.
He does everything. He hits, mashes for power, has a great approach at the plate, plays a mean centerfield, and runs circles around the opposition. Literally, he runs circles around them. I've pasted this link here half a dozen times at least, but watching Trout glide through the A's s Midwest League affiliate as if they were a bunch of little leaguers still makes me feel giddy.
Folks are universally cutting Trout slack for his disappointing .245/.279/.321 showing in the 2011 Arizona Fall League. The common refrain is that the kid was exhausted following his second full season of pro baseball and his major league debut. That's fair - Trout was on quite the roller coaster for months - but, for lack of other things to talk about, let's examine the batted ball data a bit more closely to see if there's more reason for concern.
After raving about his speed, the next thing most every analyst observes about Mike Trout is that he uses the opposite field well. It's predictable as Portland rain, and it's also absolutely true. In 2010, he went the opposite way about 4% more of the time than the average Angels' prospect - barely statistically significant - but his BABIP in that direction was about 80 points higher than average. In 2011, his batted ball profile in Arkansas shifted to his pull side, increasing in that direction and away from the right field by about 5% of his balls in play. He was learning to turn on the ball more often, and with good results in the power department.
In 2010, he hit more balls in the air than the average player. That showed up mostly in flyballs, which contributed to his slugging, and a slightly above average pop-up rate, which contributed to a few extra outs. Given how productive he was with that batted ball distribution, I can't imagine anyone wanting to tweak with that approach.
In 2011, he hit the ball in the air even more often. His pop-up rate crept up a few more notches above average, and more of his batted balls to the right side turned into lazy fly outs. As mentioned above, he pulled the ball more often too, so the increased power production to left field made up for the knocks he was otherwise taking to his BABIP.
In the Arizona Fall League, his batted ball distribution changed dramatically. For the first time in his pro career, he hit more balls on the ground than in the air, and a statistically-significant higher percentage of his balls in play went to the opposite field (I wish I still had the hard numbers for that data!). His patience also disappeared. The result was that crummy .245/.279/.321 batting line.
So here's the question: was that new, less productive batted ball distribution the result of exhaustion, small sample size, or Trout's efforts to implement a new approach? Were the Angels actively coaching him to emphasize those cliché "small ball" skills, i.e., hitting the ball on the ground, slapping to the opposite field, etc.? Are the Angels' attempting to mold perhaps the best prospect of the game to fit some rigid idea of what a leadoff hitter should do?
Ok, to be fair, we're playing on two massive assumptions here. The first is that the Angels really would rather see their leadoff hitter slap groundballs to the opposite field rather than working pitchers for walks and mistakes to pull for power. The second is that they are unsatisfied with Trout's approach, and want to see him change it. We have no direct evidence to support the first assumption. We do know that they tweaked with Trout's swing back in August, opening the door to the second assumption, but no reference was made to hitting more balls on the ground. I'm on shaky ground, to be sure.
But this offseason has brought nothing but good news so far, and it's a slow news week, so let's indulge in a little paranoia. Here's some video of Trout taking BP in the Arizona Fall League:
Note how tall Trout remains in his swing, and the narrow separation between his feet. We've seen him use this approach before, both in predraft footage and early on in the Midwest League. Standing that tall helps him to get his hands inside the ball and shoot pitches to the opposite field more easily; it also could help him to stay on top of balls with his swing, contributing to more grounders.
On the other hand, here's some ESPN footage of what Trout looked like in Arkansas:
Trout plants his feet wider apart at the point of contact, especially in the game footage. He still has a pronounced stride, but the swing looks less "effortful." Keeping his weight back also helps him to loft the ball more, and tap more into his growing strength. Could the Angels be trying to move him away from that, and all because of a few 2011 pop-ups and a new-found inclination to pull ball?
I don't know if I'm convinced. Guys will sometimes shorten up their base in batting practice a little, and we only have one cameo from his time in the AFL. The statistical evidence may just be the result of small sample size. And, most importantly, who in their right mind would screw with Mike Trout's approach? I mean, there's no way they'd try to make Trout into some small-ball slap hitter! This has got be an unfair insinuation that I've leveled at the Halos, right? Right?
The door of doubt has opened for me. Maybe it remains closed for you.
Lastly, just for reference: Trout's batted ball distribution in the majors was similar to his Arkansas distribution. Fewer line drives and a couple more pop-ups, but he hit approximately the same percentage of balls to each field. The extra K's and poor BABIP, both of which are likely to regress with more MLB experience, were responsible for his disappointing numbers in the show.
* Due to that little shit stealing my computer, I fell back on Fangraphs' run values here, not my own calculations that were consistent with the rest of performance rankings. At any rate, my total must have been within 4-5 runs of what I got.