Angels coaches see Trout dialing back on K's
Ebel, Baylor say minor adjustments will sharpen AL MVP's strike zone
ANAHEIM -- Amid all the impressive context surrounding Mike Trout's American League Most Valuable Player Award -- youngest unanimous MVP in history, fifth-youngest MVP ever, fourth player to finish in the top two in MVP ballots for three straight years -- came a pessimistic stat that doesn't sit well with the Angels' center fielder:
Most strikeouts ever by an MVP.
That total jumped to 184 in 2014, tops in the AL and perceivably a byproduct of two main factors: Trout being too passive early in counts, and opposing pitchers attacking him up in the strike zone. That Trout struck out so often and still managed to post a .287/377/.561 slash line, hit 36 homers, drive in 111 runs and compile a Wins Above Replacement score of 7.8, per FanGraphs.com, is a remarkable feat in its own right.
Privately, though, Trout has vowed to cut down those strikeouts.
"It's not like he's not aware of it," Angels bench coach Dino Ebel said in a phone conversation Thursday, moments after Trout was named AL MVP. "This guy's got a great eye, this guy's got lightning hands to the ball, and I really believe he's going to make adjustments and you're going to see a guy who's going to put the ball in play more."
When it comes to putting the ball in play, Trout may never be Albert Pujols, who sports a minuscule career strikeout rate of 9.8 percent. But anyone who has worked with Trout believes he should improve without the need for major adjustments, because his strike-zone recognition is good, because he's so comfortable hitting with two strikes, and because his swing is so quick and compact.
"He's good enough, smart enough that I think he can do it," Angels hitting coach Don Baylor said. "I really do."
Trout's strikeout rate jumped from 20.3 percent from 2012-13 -- a two-year span when he batted .324/.416/.560 -- to 26.1 percent in 2014. According to Pitch-f/x, he swung at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone than ever, swung at a career-high percentage of pitches within the strike zone and saw a slightly greater percentage of strikes than last season.
There are two popular theories for Trout's escalating strikeout total, the first of which is frequently mentioned by the Angels' coaching staff and the second of which is brought up mostly by the sabermetric community:
1. Trout likes to work deep counts, which is generally a good thing. But when you do that, it can also lead to strikeouts. Trout put the first pitch in play 24 times this season, fewer than 303 players even though he ranked eighth in the Majors in overall plate appearances. In 401 of those 705 plate appearances, he hit with two strikes -- second most in the Majors.
2. Trout crushes low pitches, so pitchers are attacking him up in the zone instead, and the 23-year-old needs to adjust. On pitches below his chest this season (including the playoffs), Trout batted .331 (166-for-501). On pitches near his chest and above, he batted .078 (9-for-116).
"Sometimes you get a little anxious," Trout said of improving against high pitches, "and when you get anxious out there, you try to do too much and you swing at those pitches. I'd say the majority of them were balls, just trying to do so much with the baseball. It just looks so big and you get so big, and you just swing through it."
Baylor -- the Angels' first MVP in 1979 -- remembers when he came up in the early '70s and pitchers always attacked young players up in the strike zone.
"You either learned how to hit it," Baylor said, "or you better take it."
He sees Trout getting a little vulnerable with the elevated fastball, but he doesn't see a reason why adjustments can't be made.
"We're still talking about a young player who can improve," Baylor said. "Even though he won an MVP, he's not a 10-year vet where a guy has kind of established his strike zone. Mike, he can still improve his strike zone."
Baylor sees a batting title in Trout's future if he can cut down those strikeouts, simply because of his speed.
"[If] he hits the ball in the shortstop hole," Baylor said, "he's going to be safe."
But there's a potential tradeoff here, a delicate balance for a player who would be in the Minor Leagues still if he were on a normal timetable.
On one hand, you want the strikeouts to go down so Trout can give himself more chances to reach and wreak havoc on the basepaths. On the other, you don't want to change his approach at the plate, because even with all those strikeouts, he's still, well, a unanimous MVP.
"I definitely don't believe he should go up there and be like, 'Oh, I need to cut down on my strikeouts,'" Ebel said. "I just think that he recognizes there are situations in the game where just putting the ball in play, maybe not swinging with a big swing, makes sense.
"Knowing Mike Trout the way I do, I just think he's going to come back next year and show that he's going to still be Mike Trout -- hit home runs, drive the ball to all alleys, be on base, score runs -- but he's going to work hard on putting the ball in play more."