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Mike Trout, Baseball’s Best Hitter (Again)

In this week’s Five-Tool Newsletter, we examine Mike Trout’s season and a 44-mph pitch.

Matt Martell is off today to jump into a much-deserved long weekend for Memorial Day. Emma Baccellieri has you covered in his stead.

There is a line that former ESPN writer Sam Miller used to say, in podcasts and in conversation, about when you could trust small-sample-size noise had disappeared from baseball statistics at the beginning of the season: The year had really started when Mike Trout was back on top of the leaderboards.

It was a joke, but then again, was it? For a few seasons, this seemed as reliable a measure as anything. Of course Trout could safely be assumed to be the best player in baseball year in and year out. It was not that his greatness was taken for granted so much as it was a sign of basic stability—as close to a natural law of the universe as anything modern baseball could provide. And then it got slightly more complicated. Trout was still Trout. But injuries sidelined him for the majority of 2021, after he posted the weakest hitting performance of his career during the shortened pandemic season of ’20, and, while none of that clouded his greatness, it at least shook the idea of his talent as a guaranteed, superhuman force. Trout turned 30 last August. It became easier to imagine a future version of him as simply very, very good, rather than unfailingly and incomprehensibly great.

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But right now? Pull up a leaderboard, sort by OPS+ and see that the best hitter in baseball is (once again!) Mike Trout—on track for the best he’s ever been.

Trout’s 210 OPS+ would be a career high for a player who has led the league in the stat four times. (His previous record was 198 in 2018.) Yes, it’s still early in the season. No, it’s not entirely reasonable to expect him to stay at exactly this pace for the rest of the year. (And it’s worth pointing out that he’s able to claim the mantle of the best hitter in baseball right now only because his red-hot teammate, Taylor Ward, fell below the qualified threshold for plate appearances after being sidelined this week with a shoulder injury.) But you can take those caveats into account and still have plenty of room to marvel—plenty!—at what Trout is doing in ’22.

Perhaps the most enchanting feature of Trout’s career statistics on Baseball Reference is that it has never been quite the same hitter from one year to the next. He’s been consistently incredible. (Duh.) But he’s varied his approach throughout. If he’s been the best hitter in baseball throughout all the seasons, he has almost never been the same hitter, always tinkering with what he does to be great. The guy who led baseball in stolen bases as a rookie led in strikeouts two years later and led in walks two years after that. And this season is no different.

There are two key changes in Trout’s performance so far this year. First, he’s hitting more fly balls than he ever has: For the first time, more than half of his batted balls are in the air (51.5%). And second, he’s swinging more (40% of pitches). The latter means that he’s walking less. But the former has helped him post his highest slugging percentage ever, on track for what would be a career-best 46 HR.

In other words? This version of Trout is slightly different from any we’ve seen before. Yet he’s also just the same. And thank goodness for that.

Have any questions for our team? Send a note to mlb@si.com.

1. THE OPENER

“It’s a move you see often enough in Little League. No one with Baltimore can remember seeing it in professional baseball. And no one is entirely sure what Rutschman says out there, including the pitchers he is addressing. But they like it.”

As Adley Rutschman eases into the big leagues, Stephanie Apstein breaks down some of what makes him special—including the way he talks to his pitchers after the end of an inning.

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With Adley Rutschman, the Orioles Can Hold On to Hope for a Brighter Future by Stephanie Apstein

2. ICYMI

Let’s run through some of our other great SI baseball stories from this week.

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Brett Phillips Is MLB’s Master of Fun by Emma Baccellieri
After a few years of watching Rays outfielder Brett Phillips look as if he’s having the time of his life, all the time, I figured: Surely no one can be that happy always. So I went to find out, and as it turns out, he really is.

Roger Angell’s Lessons of a Life Well Lived by Tom Verducci
After New Yorker baseball writer Roger Angell died last week at 101, Tom offered this beautiful remembrance of the icon, whom he knew simply as his friend.

The Twins Are Teaching MLB Teams How to Avoid a Teardown by Nick Selbe
Nick broke down how the Twins decided to bounce back from last season’s last-place finish—and what other teams can learn from that.

3. WORTH NOTING from Emma Baccellieri

When Andrelton Simmons took the mound for the Cubs this week in a blowout loss to the Reds, he got a whiff from Kyle Farmer on this 44-mph floater. (Hey, hitting is timing, and if that doesn’t mess with your timing, what will?) It will surely not shock you to know that is the slowest pitch recorded ever to result in a swing and a miss. But if you want some more context?

Since Pitch F/X started tracking in 2008, there have been 23 pitches that made the hitter whiff with a recorded velo of 55 mph or less. Simmons’s 44.9 mph pitch took the all-time-slow-whiff crown from a fellow position player, Stevie Wilkerson, who made Joey Wendle whiff on a 45.4 mph pitch last year. (Wendle homered on the next pitch he saw.) And the slowest pitch to result in a whiff from an actual pitcher? Baseball Savant says that Zack Wheeler got Adam LaRoche to swing on 46.9 mph toss on Sept. 13, 2014… but given that the data for the next pitch is missing, and that predates the pitch-by-pitch video replay for MLB Film Room, it seems fair to wonder if there was perhaps a calibration error there. The next pitcher up is Jake Peavy with a 50-mph slooow curve in ’08.

4. W2W4 from Matt Martell

In any other year, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s 2021 performance would almost certainly have netted him the MVP award. But because of Shohei Ohtani’s history-making two-way turn, Guerrero was relegated to runner-up status. The two share the field this weekend in Anaheim for three more games after Thursday night’s matchup, in which Guerrero took Ohtani deep during the sixth inning of a 6–3 Blue Jays win.

The call-up of 2019 No. 1 draft pick Adley Rutschman makes the last-place Orioles imminently more watchable than they’ve been in years. He just made his Yankee Stadium debut earlier this week and will now take the field at Fenway Park over the weekend. Elsewhere, Milwaukee’s visit to Busch Stadium to face the first-place Cardinals should be a fun series, with Brandon Woodruff set to square off against Dakota Hudson on Friday.

5. THE CLOSER from Emma Baccellieri

Please enjoy 9-year-old Charlie Springs doing his best Luis Garcia impression to copy the most delightful windup in baseball. Happy Memorial Day weekend! 

That’s all from us today. We’ll be back in your inbox next Friday. In the meantime, share this newsletter with your friends and family, and tell them to sign up at SI.com/newsletters. If you have any questions or comments, shoot us an email at mlb@si.com.