Friday, October 10, 2014

By Jonathan Northrop, Columnist - 

A Bittersweet MVP
It happens sometimes: A great player misses out on an MVP award (or, in this case, two) for whatever reason, and then has an inferior campaign the following year and wins it. A classic case was Alex Rodriguez in 2003; in the previous year he was by far the best player in the AL but lost out to Miguel Tejada. In 2003 he was still the best player in the league but didn't have as good a year as in 2002.

And so we come to Mike Trout, who after a historic first two years in which he not only led the majors in fWAR, but surpassed 10 in each year, and still finished second in MVP both times. Certainly, Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown in 2012 and then was even better in 2013, but overall Trout was the better player.

In 2014 Trout will almost certainly earn his first MVP award, and deservedly so – at least if we look at the overall numbers. Once again he led the majors in fWAR, but his overall game did not shine as brightly as in the last two years. A few things tarnished the luster of his shine: One, his already-existing propensity to strike out went through the roof. Secondly, he lost a tick on his leg speed which was clearly a factor in far fewer stolen bases (down from 49 in 2012, 33 in 2013, and 16 in 2014) and diminished defense. A third factor which is rarely mentioned is that he walked less, 27 times less to be exact, but still more than in 2012.

Mike Trout finished with a .287/.377/.561 line, including career highs in HR (36) and RBI (111), but also strikeouts (184). His WAR—according to either Baseball Reference (7.9) or Fangraphs (7.8)--was the lowest of his career, although still good enough to lead the majors. While Trout's fWAR dropped a rather startling 2.7 from 2013's 10.5, he still remained a solid 1.0 above the next best player (Andrew McCutchen, 6.8) and now, over the three years he's been a full-time player, has a rather commanding lead over the rest of the pack (28.4 to #2 McCutchen at 21.8). In other words, Trout remains the best player in the game, even if the gap in 2014 is less than it was in 2012 and 2013.

Looking a bit deeper at his numbers, there are some worrisome trends. While Trout's power was significantly up (his Isolated Power, or SLG minus AVG, was .274, up from .236 in 2012-13), it was at the expense of a higher strikeout rate (26.1% compared to 20.3% in 2012-13), and thus both a reduced BA (.287 compared to .324) and OBP (.377 compared to .416). In other words, Trout hit more HR per at-bat, but at the expense of more strikeouts and, consequently, a lower batting average.

As a hitter and hitter only, Trout took a step back in 2014 (167 OPS+) from 2013 (179 OPS+) but was similar in value to 2012 (168 OPS+), albeit in a different way. But if we factor in Trout's defense and base-running, we see further decline in 2014 from 2012-13, which may or may not be related to his drop in hitting from 2013. According to Jeff Sullivan, Trout's foot speed—while still excellent—was slower than in previous years. Couple that with his upper-cut swing, we are seeing fewer ground balls (33.9% last year, 41.4% in 2013), fewer line-drives (18.9% in 2014, 23% in 2013), more fly-balls (47.2% in 2014, 35.6% in 2013), more infield fly balls (7.4% in 2014, 3.7% in 2013), fewer infield base hits (23 in 2014, 31 in 2013) and again, plenty more strikeouts (184 in 2014, 136 in 2013). And let me put that another way: Mike Trout struck out 48 more times in 2014 than he did in 2013 in almost the same number of plate appearances (705 in 2014, 716 in 2013). A 48 strikeout increase is rather significant.

One of the qualities that has set Trout apart from the crowd in his short career is his incredible ability to adjust, even within a single game. Yet for whatever reason, this ability was lacking in 2014. While his first half numbers were great (.310/.400/.606, 186 wRC+) and spoke of a positive swapping of some average for more power, he struggled in the second half (.257/.347/.502, 141 wRC+), and his strikeouts shot through the roof – from 23.3% to 30%. For those following the Angels on a daily basis, you will remember that whenever it seemed Trout had broken out of his slump and gone on a tear for a few days, he slipped back into handfuls of multiple-strikeout and “0-for” games. Looking back on the second half, it looks less like a long slump that was adjusted to, and more like a binge-and-purge cycle. In other words, what is most worrisome of all is the fact that in the second half as pitchers realized and exploited his vulnerability for high fastballs, Trout did not adjust, and what initially seemed like a July slump turned into a rest-of-the-year downturn. 

So what lies ahead for Trout? This question is, of course, unanswerable. But we can speculate. I'd like to posit three possible outcomes, at least for the near future, with projected stats for a typical healthy season over the course of his Angels contract.

A Rosy-Colored Future
Imagine this: Trout keeps his power and dominance of the first part of 2014, but levels his swing out a bit and adjusts to high fastballs, as well as continues to improve in small ways. The net result is that he reduces his strikeouts by 20-30%, back down to a still-high but acceptable 120-140 a year, his batting average jumps back up, but he keeps most or all of his increased power. Oh yeah, in this scenario he also starts stealing bases again – maybe not 49, but certainly 30ish. We then see a nice run of 30-30 seasons, maybe even a 40-40 season or two.

In this view, Trout will end up as one of the best players in baseball history. While even in this scenario it is unlikely that he reaches the fWAR totals of Willie Mays (149.9) or Ty Cobb (149.3), he could end up somewhere between #4 Mickey Mantle (112.3) and #3 Tris Speaker (130.6). Not too shabby.

Projected Yearly Peak Stats: .320/.430/.620, 35-40 HR, 30 SB, 9-10+ WAR

The Chicken Little Scenario
Let's say Trout simply can't adjust to high heat and remains entranced by his golf-swing, and continues to strikeout at the alarming, Dunnian rate of the second half (consider that Trout's second half K-rate of 30% was worse than Dunn's career rate of 28.6%). Not only do Trout's BA and OBP not rebound, but they are revealed to be more similar to his second half numbers than his season totals. Even in this worst-case scenario he remains a very good, even semi-great ballplayer, but he isn't the same player we've seen in 2012 through the first half of 2014, but closer to the player we saw in the second half of 2014. Oh yeah, in addition he continues to focus on strength training and, in bulking up further, loses more speed, his defense worsening so that he eventually transitions to LF.

In this view, Trout is no longer the best player in baseball, although remains one of the better center fielders. He'd still have a chance at the Hall of Fame, but would end up with a career more comparable to Ken Griffey Jr (77.3 fWAR) than Mantle or Mays.

Projected Yearly Peak Stats: .270/.360/.520, 30 HR, 15 SB, 5-6 WAR

Everything in Moderation
Or there's the Middle Way, which some call the easy way out, unless you're a Buddhist and then it is simply common sense. The moderate view is closer to the optimistic one than the pessimistic one; I mean, we must remember that he's only 23 years old, and the vast majority of 23 year olds actually improve or, if they don't improve, don't get significantly worse. But the moderate view accounts for Trout being an actual mortal, and takes the perspective that he's got a serious hole in his game—his propensity to strikeout—that we simply might have to live with (even in the best-case scenario I don't see him dropping below about 120-130 Ks a year), and that some age-related decline in speed and defense is inevitable, but can be slow.

So in this view his strikeouts drop a bit, but more into the 140-160 range. 150 Ks is still a lot, but imagine if he has swapped 35 of his Ks this year for contact and kept the same overall rates. Doing some quick calculations, he would have hit about .300/.390/.570 with 39 HR and 90 walks and an fWAR around 8.5. 

In this scenario, his average rises a bit, but not back to the near-batting champion level we saw in 2012-13, ranging from .290-.310 in most seasons. He keeps most of his power, his speed stays about the same except for slight and gradual age-related decline in the second half of his 20s and 30s. He probably steals a few more bases than in 2014, but not back to 2012-13 levels. His defense levels off some and his statistics reflect the eyeball view that he's a good-but-not-Bourjosian center fielder. 

In this view, Trout remains the best player in baseball for the indefinite future, winning multiple MVP awards and going down in history as one of the greatest outfielders to ever play the game, perhaps challenging Mickey Mantle for fourth on the all-time list of center fielders in fWAR (112.3).

Projected Yearly Peak Stats: .300/.400/.570, 30-35 HR, 20-25 SB, 8-9 WAR

What's the Verdict?
The point of this article isn't as much to come up with a definitive projection, but to lay out different possibilities. If I had to  put my money down on the table, I'd speculate a 20/65/15% split for Optimistic/Moderate/Pessimistic outcomes. In other words, I'm going to chicken out and take the moderate view, with the optimistic being a tad more likely than the pessimistic future. I do think he's got a good chance of having one or several seasons more in the optimistic range, but that his norm will be more akin to the moderate view. 

I would be remiss to mention that there are many other possible futures; for instance, another option would be a combination of the skill-set in the “Chicken Little” scenario, but the value of the “Middle Way” scenario – in other words, something more like .280/.370/.550 with 35-40 HR and 15 SB.

With a talent like Mike Trout, it is really difficult to speculate. We're still talking about a player who has—according to Fangraphs—been more valuable than any player in baseball history through his age 22 season (his 29.1 career fWAR leads Cobb's 25.9, Ott's 25.1, and Williams' 24.8).  The future remains unwritten, and where Angel fans and baseball fans (with the possible exception of the most die-hard division rivals) as a whole unite is looking forward to seeing exactly how Mike Trout writes it.
Love to hear what you think!

Listen to "A Fish Like This" Tribute song to Mike Trout's Greatness

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