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The Evolution of Trout

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You cannot stop him, you can only hope to contain him

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

I love the summer for a multitude of reasons. Baseball season’s in full swing, there is usually no class— I’m currently enrolled in three summer courses —which means summer vacation, the NBA offseason and draft, and, what a lot of people don’t know about me unless they’re my family or close friends, Shark Week.

Sharks are absolutely fascinating to me. Particularly, Great White Sharks. For instance, did you know these real-life monsters have an extra sense that detects electromagnetism that emits from animals when they move in the water (even from miles away!?)? Or about their adaptation of “rete mirabile”? This allows the shark to control their own internal body temperature above certain water temperatures whenever they venture into colder waters for hunting. What about the recent discovery that they’ve built up a defense to heavy metal poisoning as oceans continue to get more and more littered?

The point is, these creatures continue to adapt after being around for an estimated 16 million years. They have evolved into absolute killing machines, the ultimate predator of the ocean over time. The pinnacle of evolution.

Mike Trout is the Great White Shark of Major League Baseball.


Plate Discipline:

It’s hard to fathom, really. Trout has been terrorizing the sport ever since he came up for his first full season in 2012. You’d be hard pressed to find a player as consistent as Trout has been since then. You would also be hard pressed asking him to improve his game, yet, here we are. Ever since his “down” season in 2014 (which led to an MVP), he has steadily increased his on-base percentage from .377 to his current .462, which leads the entire sport.

That stat alone is merely scratching the surface, there’s so much that goes into it. Trout has increased his BB% every season since (11.8%, 13.5%, 17%, 18.5%, 20.1%, to 20.4% currently), while dropping his K% from a career high 26.1% his MVP season, to 17.3%. That number is in the neighborhood of more well-known contact hitters like Adam Eaton, Starling Marte, and Whit Merrifield.

Another important aspect to the improvement in his plate discipline goes even further than that. H.T. Ennis covered this hitting philosophy the other day that has spread throughout the team, but the way Trout is making more contact is staggering and gives us a better idea of his overall improvement. His O-Swing%, the number of pitches he swings at outside of the zone, Z-Swing%, the number of pitches he swings at inside the zone, Swing%, O-Contact%, Z-Contact%, Contact%, Zone%, the number of pitches he sees inside the zone, and swinging strike percentage, SwStr%, are all trending in the right direction. I put, in bold, the career highs he’s achieving in these categories this year.

Trout’s discipline

He’s swinging at pitches outside of the zone less than he ever has, 19.2%, while making more contact when he does (72.5%). He’s been as selective as ever, only swinging 34.9% of the time. He’s making more contact on pitches inside of the zone, 93.1%, along with more contact in total (86.3%). He’s seeing the fewest pitches in the zone, 40.2%, and he’s very rarely swinging and missing (4.6%).

This would certainly help explain why Trout’s BB% and K% are getting better, the already selective and patient Trout, is more selective and patient whenever. Whenever he does swing, he’s making more contact than ever.


Adjustments:

Trout’s ability to fix his weaknesses is basically the equivalent of sharks building up an immune system to the toxicity in the water and their food supply. Sharks adapt to a weakness, Trout adapts to his.

The high fastball became Trout’s crux, it made him seemingly mortal. The more it was mentioned, the more it stuck out. This was evident through his career-high 26.1% K% his MVP season. His contact rate on fastballs high in 2014 was 74%, tied for this lowest since his rookie year. His SLG% on those pitches was .356, with a minuscule .244 SLG% when they were high and inside.

Here’s a screenshot of the contact percentage for Trout during 2014, then one of 2019, courtesy of FanGraphs.

2014
2019

As you can see from the heatmap this season, Trout is making contact with...everything. His one Achilles heel is the pitch down-and-in. Even then, he has eliminated virtually any sort of weakness inside the strike zone. There’s nowhere for pitchers to go.

Here’s his grand slam earlier this season against Drew Smyly, most likely a pitch that gives him fits in previous years.

Trout’s evolution doesn’t stop with his improved plate discipline or ability to seamlessly adjust on the fly.


Power:

2017 might have been a career-high in homeruns for Trout if his season wasn’t cut short due to a thumb sprain. He ended up only playing 114 games (507 plate appearances), but still managed to hit 33 bombs. In only 318 plate appearances this year, 71 games, he’s already at 22. His SLG% is a career-high, .651, while his ISO (isolated power = SLG% minus batting average), is easily a career-high of .353.

The new heights of Trout’s power stem from a few things. His Barrel%, self-explanatory, is a career-high and elite 21.8%, the Major League average is 6.3%(!!). That 21.8% equates to 41 out of 188 batted balls he’s squared up. The average exit velocity off of his bat is 91.8 mph, the second highest since the introduction of Statcast in 2015 (which was 92.9 mph). 4.4 mph harder than Major League average. His overall Hard Hit percentage of 46.7% makes the league average, 34.3%, look laughable. He’s also seen a slight uptick in his launch angle, going from an average of 15.9 degrees, to 20.2 degrees in 2019.

The mind-bending part about all of this, is that this all suggests Trout is under-performing. Because of how hard and how frequently he’s squaring up the baseball, Trout’s “expected” slashline looks it comes from another planet and some alien baseball league.

His slashline at the time of writing this: .299/.462/.651

His expected slashline: .323/.482/.685

That 1.167 OPS would put him right in between Larry Walker and Jimmie Foxx for the 36th highest OPS in baseball history. The only names higher on that list have been linked to PED’s or their pictures are in black-and-white on Baseball Reference (other than Frank Thomas during the strike-shortened 1994 season).

There’s one last thing to consider when looking at the amazing year Trout has had, it comes courtesy of our favorite Japanese sensation. That’s right, Ippei Mizuhara’s...employer.


Lineup Protection:

This was actually brought to my attention by fellow Halos Heaven member, The Cheetah. So shout out to you first and foremost!

Trout’s production has really taken off since Shohei Ohtani returned in May. Teams haven’t been able to pitch around him anymore, they have to go right at him, and he’s making them pay...dearly. I’ll let the tweets do the talking.


There you have it, folks. Trout continues to adjust and get better over time, which is horrible news for pitchers around the league. There’s still no real ceiling for his skill set seeing as he’s still only 27-years old. You can think, as a fan, what we’re already seeing is amazing. However, Trout just keeps evolving and makes us reconsider what’s even humanely possible in the sport. Every summer, we can now look forward to seeing the latest and greatest adaptations of not one, but two types of fish. But with Trout, we get the treat of it being much longer than a week.