- There is no debate that Mike Trout is baseball's best player, and there hasn't been for some time. So it's hard to imagine drastic improvements for a player already this good. But that's exactly what he's done in 2019.
Mike Trout’s reign as the best player in baseball has been characterized by a stability that borders on tedium. There has been no drama, little debate, hardly any disturbance. Do a Google News analysis of “Mike Trout best player baseball”—perhaps as close as you can get to an objective history of the concept—and see that the idea first came up in 2012, his rookie year, when the question was simply if he had been the best in this specific season. (Ultimately, baseball decided that he had not, instead giving the AL MVP to Miguel Cabrera.) By 2013, the scope of the question had broadened a little bit; in July, Cabrera himself called Trout “the best player in baseball right now.” By 2014, people began to shed the qualifier at the end. By 2015, people stopped asking the question. Trout was the best player in baseball; it was clear, there was no sense in picking at it, any effort to split the title was necessarily temporary, heavily caveated or just silly.
Trout, of course, has developed as a player over the last six years. He’s made adjustments. Yet none of these has been too major, because, well, how could they be? When you start out this high, there’s only so much space to build up. By and large, his tweaks have looked like simple variations instead of significant changes—sure, he pulls the ball more frequently now, and he hits fewer grounders, but modifications like these haven’t directly made any marked impact on his basic production. So Trout’s performance in 2019 has stood out. With his plate discipline, he’s altered his approach more drastically than he’s ever done before.
And, really, you don’t even need numbers for this one. Just look at this:
That’s a huge spike! That’s Trout doing more than 50% better than his previous best. (Until Wednesday night, a rare slip for him in this department, it was nearly double his previous best.) Here’s a guy who’s traditionally struck out more than he’s walked—only once had he previously done the opposite, in 2017, and only by a smidge—and he’s suddenly drawing almost twice as many free passes as K’s. Trout’s walk-to-strikeout ratio is close to the highest in baseball, which is an unusual position for him. (He’s never finished higher than third on a league leaderboard here, and he’s only finished in the top ten twice.) His 1.74 BB/K is more than four times higher than the league average of 0.39, which, for what it’s worth, has only barely changed from last year’s 0.38; Trout’s spike isn’t part of a larger league-wide trend. Across baseball, both strikeouts and walks are increasing, in almost equal proportion. What Trout’s doing here, then, is unique in terms of both the game and Trout, himself.
So… how’s he been doing it?
Well, exactly how you’d expect—walking more and striking out less. His 22.8% walk rate isn’t too extreme in context—it’s a personal best, and currently the highest in baseball, but he also topped 20% in 2018. It’s a definite improvement, yes, but it doesn’t feel crazy. Instead, it feels like a continuation of what he’s been doing here over the last few years: steadily improving, on his way to becoming the best in baseball in yet another category. What does feel crazy? The K%. By a long shot. Trout is striking out far less than he ever has before (13.1%), at less than two-thirds the rate of his previous career average (21.4%). And this is happening as strikeouts are generally on the rise, with the biggest year-over-year league-wide spike in at least two decades.
Okay, you might look at these numbers and think, he’s swinging less. And you’d be right. But only barely! Trout’s swung at just over a third of pitches this year, which is less than he has traditionally, though not by too much. Until 2019, his swing rate had hovered between 37.5% and 39.6%; this year, it’s 34.8%. It’s a change, but it’s not a drastic one. Instead, the change is in his selectivity. He’s swinging almost as much. He’s just picking his spots much, much, much better. (Which, to be clear, is crazy. He was already picking his spots as Mike Trout.)
Historically, Trout’s swings have made contact at a rate somewhere between 80% and 84%. This year? 91%. Of course, a high rate of contact doesn’t necessarily equate to a high rate of good contact—Trout, however, hasn’t seen his quality slip here. No, he isn’t showing quite as much power as he has in previous years, but he’s still hitting like, well, himself. (1.004 OPS, or 173 OPS+, in other words.) Out of the zone, he’s cut down on the pitches he’s willing to chase. In the zone, he’s made contact with almost everything that he’s chosen to swing at (96%).
Perhaps most interesting here is that he’s been doing this across the board. It isn’t the result of adjusting to a particular type of pitch. No, Trout’s cut down on his whiff rate for every single pitch type—he’s cut down for fourseamers, cutters, and changeups by more than half. Most impressive? What he’s done with the curveball. This is Trout’s heat map for whiffs on the curve before 2019...
...and this is his heat map from 2019:
It’s not even a heat map anymore. It’s a frozen tundra (which is a good thing, in this case). No, Trout has not whiffed on a single curveball yet in 2019. Not one! He’s not simply getting more selective. He’s getting near freakishly so. This is another level. It’s the biggest adjustment yet by the best player in baseball; long may he reign.