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Constantly evolving Trout is still as great as ever

Improvements in arm strength, plate discipline, have elevated game
June 1, 2016

We're doing it. It's happening again. We're forgetting about Mike Trout. You know how I know we're forgetting about Trout again? It's June 1, one-third of the way through the baseball season, and on FanGraphs, Trout has been tagged in exactly one post since Opening Day. It was a post

We're doing it. It's happening again. We're forgetting about Mike Trout. You know how I know we're forgetting about Trout again? It's June 1, one-third of the way through the baseball season, and on FanGraphs, Trout has been tagged in exactly one post since Opening Day. It was a post about whether Bryce Harper is better than him. Since that post, Harper has hit .207 with a 115 Weighted Runs Created Plus, where 100 is "league average." Trout has slugged .641 with a 198 wRC+.
For the year, Trout has been the most valuable position player in baseball. He's been a top-three bat mixed with a top-three baserunner. Trout is seventh in the league in on-base percentage, while also ranking among the league's top 20 power hitters. He's projected to finish the season with 9.7 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, which would give him 47.3 WAR over his first five full Major League seasons, and would be the ninth-best five-year peak of any hitter ever -- and Trout is still only 24.
• FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan investigates the success of knuckleballer Steven Wright
Since we need to pay better attention to Trout, we should be thrilled to get up-to-the-minute updates on the developments of his game. Let's now briefly discuss five things that are different about Trout.
He's more aggressive and is making more contact.
Trout is currently running both the highest swing rate and the highest contact rate of his career. The differences may seem small -- a two-point increase in swings, a three-point increase in contact -- but coupled together, it's actually a pretty substantial difference. By multiplying the two figures together, we can get an overall percentage of pitches that led to contact.
• Cast your Esurance All-Star ballot for Trout and other #ASGWorthy Angels
So, last year, Trout's "total contact percentage" was 30.5 percent. This year, with more swings and more contact, it's up to 33.6 percent. That three-point increase is the ninth-largest among 100 qualified batters from last year to next. In other words: fewer strikeouts (he's back to that 2012-13 level) and plenty more balls in play. It's important to note, too, that Trout's chase rate hasn't budged. All of the extra swings are coming against hittable pitches inside the zone. All of this, particularly for a player with Trout's speed, seems like a good thing, although it sure is weird that...
Gif: Trout HR
He's no longer reaching on infield hits.
From 2012-15 -- Trout's first four full seasons -- he recorded infield hits at a rate like no one else in baseball. A higher percentage of Trout's grounders went for infield hits than any other player in baseball during that time, leading to 96 hits. This year, he has one, as many as Miguel Cabrera; he's produced a lower percentage than Justin Bour. The league leader has 15. Trout is actually pulling more grounders than he ever has in his career, which might reasonably lead to more infield hits, so we're left with two explanations, both of which I'd wager are in play: luck and declining speed.
A big part of getting an infield hit is getting lucky -- how do you think Miggy got his? -- and I'd guess some of this is just noise. But we can't ignore the possibility of declining footspeed, toward which Jeff Sullivan presented some evidence late in the 2014 season. In that post, Sullivan recorded some home-to-first times on infield hits and double plays, watching five plays each. Though we have Statcast™ data, we didn't for the first years of his career, so to keep things consistent, I also watched five plays, and will add to Sullivan's work below:
Trout average max-effort home-to-first time
2012: 3.98 seconds
2013: 4.05 seconds
2014: 4.13 seconds
2016: 4.18 seconds
The fastest time I clocked was a 4.14, slower than the average that Sullivan observed in 2014. Trout's been a more aggressive (and efficient) basestealer this year, but stealing a base is about plenty more than just speed -- technique and the opposing battery play a huge role. Looking just at the times when Trout's really legging it out, he's lost roughly two-tenths of a second off his home-to-first time since his rookie year, and it's costing him some infield hits.
He's seeing fewer fastballs.
This one doesn't need much explaining. For his career, Trout has seen four-seamers 40 percent of the time, as high as 44 percent in in 2014. This year, it's all the way down to just 34 percent. His rate of two-seamers and sinkers seen is mostly unchanged from his career norm. Sliders, cutters, curves and changes are all at career highs. The fun part is, Trout is making more contact against breaking and offspeed pitches than he has since his rookie year.
He's becoming a... high-ball hitter?
This might be the most interesting Trout development, because it was the one covered most extensively last year. You know the story by now: Trout's one weakness was the high fastball, teams realized this in the offseason between 2014-15, Trout last year started seeing way more elevated fastballs, it didn't really matter. A logical line of thinking after the league's adjustment failed to yield positive results might be that things would just go back to normal. "Welp, that didn't work, might as well just go back to what we were all comfortable doing in the first place." Nope. Trout actually looks like he enjoys the high pitch now:
Gif: Trout Stat Gif: SLG/P vs. all pitchers
That's Trout's slugging percentage heatmap progressing from 2014-16. He's crushed the high pitch this year. And now, the location of the fastballs Trout has seen over those same four years:
Gif: Trout Heatmap of Four-seamers seen
Trout is actually getting pitched low in the zone now! How about that! It's come full circle.
He's turning his arm into a strength.
Trout's other weakness -- beyond the previously perceived weakness against elevated fastballs -- has been his arm. It's the main thing that's held down his defensive value over the years, costing the Angels roughly 10 runs since his debut. Coming into this season, Trout had registered just seven career outfield kills, as tracked by Baseball Info Solutions, and had allowed 60 percent of baserunners with an opportunity to advance to do so, with league average for a center fielder around 54 percent. This year, Trout has already registered three outfield kills, tying a career high, and has held opposing baserunners to a 50 percent advancement rate, which ranks in the upper-third of qualified center fielders.
Gif: Mike Trout makes nice throw home
Nothing more needs to be said, but everything needs to be said. Trout is just amazing, and this game is constantly changing, so watch him play baseball as often as you can, lest you miss something.
A version of this article first appeared at