Human after all: A closer look into Mike Trout's May slump
Bryce Harper is out for months, Jose Fernandez is down for the remainder of the season and now Mike Trout is slumping. Is this proof we can't have nice things? Evidence of the dreaded Sports Illustrated cover jinx? One way or another, just as Trout is basking in the limelight of a homecoming with the Angels' trip to Philadelphia — the closest team to his Millville, N.J., roots — he's in the midst of the roughest stretch of his brief major league career.
Trout has excelled with such regularity — at the plate, on the basepaths and in the field — while putting up superhuman numbers over the past two years that it comes as a shock to see the 22-year-old phenom struggle. Fresh off signing a six-year, $144.5 million extension in late March, he homered off Felix Hernandez in his first plate appearance of the 2014 season and finished April with six dingers and a .321/.403/.596 line, a performance approximating the .324/.416/.560 he hit over the previous two years.
Since the calendar turned to May, however, Trout has fallen into a funk, and not the Mothership Connection kind. In 11 May games totaling 51 plate appearances — and yes, all small-sample caveats apply throughout this piece — he's hitting .140/.235/.302 with just one home run, zero steals and 14 strikeouts to drop his season line to .270/.354/.513. He went hitless over a three-game span from May 3 to May 5, something he did just three times last year and once during his 40-game 2011 introduction; that year also produced his career-worst four-game hitless stint. If May ended today, his monthly OPS would be the worst since that pre-rookie campaign. Here are the bottom five, excluding his three games in April 2012 after returning from the minors:
These are all small sample sizes, but… wow. Pause for a moment to appreciate that Trout's fourth-worst month, April 2013 — his worst with at least 100 PA — is 56 points of OPS above the current major league average, and his fifth-worst would be an All-Star caliber season for most players. Again, this is not a man accustomed to struggling at the major league level for any extended period of time.
Underlying Trout's performance this month are his lowest batting average on balls in play and his second-highest strikeout rate, underscoring the depth of his slump. He's suddenly making far less contact (his career K-rate is 21.2 percent) and reaching base less than half as often when he puts the ball in play (his career BABIP is .364). Dive even deeper into his batted ball rate splits (via FanGraphs) and we find that his line-drive rate in May is less than half of normal, while his flyball and popup rates are way up:
It is perhaps comforting to see that Trout's April was business as usual; his slide has been confined to the past two weeks, and to a sample that consists of 31 balls in play. Change a few flyballs to line drives and odds are, we're not having this conversation.
Trout's spike in strikeout rate is more alarming, as it's virtually unchanged from April (27.4 percent). Project this year's rate across last year's total of 716 plate appearances and it comes to 196 whiffs, a whopping increase of 60. His PITCHf/x-based plate discipline stats from FanGraphs don't reveal much difference; he's swinging at 25.1 percent of balls outside the strike zone, up from a career rate of 24.5 percent. The most drastic change there is his dip in zone contact rate (82.4 percent, down from a career 86.7 percent), resulting in an overall increase in swinging-strike rate (8.3 percent, up from a career 6.9 percent).
So he's missing more pitches in the zone — apparently fastballs. Via the data at BrooksBaseball.net, which bunches his performance against hard (all fastballs), breaking (curves and sliders) and offspeed (changeup) stuff, his percentage of hard stuff is up by one point (to 68.6 percent) at the expense of breaking stuff (to 23.0 percent). His whiffs per swing on those pitches is up to 20.6 percent, up from 14.7 percent last year and from 16.9 percent overall from 2011-13. From an outcome perspective, Trout is hitting just .287 against hard stuff, down from .314 from 2011-13. He's also hitting just .235 against breaking stuff, down from .299. Most of the former has to do with contact rate (his BABIP against hard stuff has dropped just 22 points, from .369 to .347 prior), while most of the latter has to do with BABIP (a drop from .392 to .333).
Zone-wise, Trout's woes are primarily on the upper and inner thirds of the strike zone. Contrast his 2011-13 batting averages by location with those from 2014, keeping in mind that these plots are from the catcher's perspective, so the righty-swinging Trout is to the left (click on the image to enlarge):
For whiffs per swing, things within the zone haven't changed a great deal for 2014 except for the cell that I've circled, where he's doing so at twice the frequency of his previous career rate (57.4 percent, up from 28.7 percent).
On Tuesday, ESPN Stats and Info's Justin Havens published a similar batting average heat map and noted, "Perhaps the most telling stat of his 'up-and-in' struggles is this: No hitter is producing hard contact less often against pitches in the upper half this season than Trout." The entire piece is worth a read, though the numbers there (presumably based on a different data set than Brooks) are every bit as small-sample based as the ones I've cited above.
Either way, the data suggests that pitchers have recognized that Trout has been troubled by pitches up and in and that they've thrown there with increasing frequency. Also, within the context of a limited number of outcomes, he's failed to produce hard contact against them the way he so often does. Whaddaya know, he may be human after all. Chances are, this isn't the end of Mike Trout, Superhero. The pitcher-hitter battle is one of ongoing adjustments, and whether it's two weeks of Trout nosediving in May or six weeks of him showing signs of weakness, it appears that pitchers have found a spot of vulnerability across his spectrum of incredible talent. It's on him to counter that with his own adjustments in terms of mechanics and approach. The bet here is that he will.