Mike Trout’s One Rule For Hitting

Graphics by Gus Wezerek

The God of WAR does not spend much time thinking about analytics.

Outside the cafeteria in the visiting clubhouse in the depths of Cleveland’s Progressive Field, Mike Trout, the best player of baseball’s information age, said he employed little of the data or tech available to him as he passed Ty Cobb and Mickey Mantle for most wins above replacement5 by a player age 27 or younger (71.7 career WAR) this season.

“I don’t look at any of that stuff,” Trout told FiveThirtyEight.

Trout turned 28 on Wednesday, and he might be at the peak of his powers. He’s on pace for his fourth 10-plus WAR season in his career. While pitching velocity is increasing every year, breaking balls are moving more and strikeouts have ballooned, Trout has reduced his strikeout rates in recent years and continues to add power. He is on pace to lead the AL in on-base and slugging percentage for the second time in three seasons.6 But he isn’t interested in mapping his swing or understanding his launch angle (which has increased from 14 degrees in 2015 to 21.2 degrees this season, ranking 12th in baseball).

He does have one rule: Almost always take the first pitch. “I did that in the minor leagues,” Trout said. “I took until I got a strike. I think that helped me understand the zone.”

From the start of the 2015 season through Aug. 4, Trout has swung at just 15.9 percent of first pitches, which is the 22nd-lowest rate in the majors among the 549 players in that time who have seen at least 500 pitches, according to Baseball Savant data analyzed by FiveThirtyEight. This season, Trout is offering at 15.4 percent of first pitches, ranking 27th among the 438 hitters hitters who have seen least 250 pitches. On all zero-strike counts since 2015, Trout has swung at just 21.5 percent of pitches, ranking as the 21st-most discerning hitter in such situations. On all zero-strike counts this season, Trout has swung at just 22.3 percent of pitches, which ranks 33rd.

Few players put themselves in favorable situations as often as the best player of his generation, in large part because of his don’t-swing-until-he-gets-a-strike approach. This has a compounding positive effect for Trout as he can then zero in on his preferred zone of choice. He’s leading the AL in walks (87), and he’s on track to easily surpass his career high for home runs (41 in 2016), given that he has 38 home runs already this season.

“I just have a zone,” Trout says. “If I get a pitch I think I can hit, a light goes off to swing. If I don’t get it, I’m not going to swing.”

He also rarely swings at a first-pitch ball,7 though opponents throw less than 40 percent of their pitches to him within the strike zone anyway, and he offers at out-of-zone pitches only 19.3 percent of the time — the fifth-lowest chase rate in baseball. So he’s getting in more favorable counts more than most major league batters.

FiveThirtyEight analyzed every pitch Trout has faced this season and outcome of each pitch. Trout doesn’t usually take his bat off his shoulder early in counts, and much of his production comes in favorable counts.

Trout ranks 12th in baseball this season in the share of pitches seen while being ahead in the count, at 34 percent.8 (The MLB average is 26.9 percent.) And he takes 38.2 percent of his total swings when he’s ahead in the count, which ranks him 15th in MLB. When he gets ahead, Trout dominates: He ranks third in weighted on-base average (wOBA) when ahead this season (at .577), and since 2015, only New York Yankee slugger Aaron Judge (.535) has had a higher wOBA than Trout’s (.524) when ahead.

Trout’s patience has beaten many pitchers, but it may also offer a roadmap for a pitcher to gain an edge on baseball’s best hitter. If Trout has one weakness this season, it’s that he’s actually worse than the major league average (.225 wOBA) when behind in the count (.215) .

Trout is a mere mortal when he’s behind in the count

The 15 MLB players with the largest differences in weighted on-base average between when they’re ahead and behind in the count

weighted on-base avg.
Player Ahead in the count Behind in the count Difference
Alex Avila .562 .103 -.459
Stephen Vogt .608 .152 -.456
Mike Freeman .559 .111 -.448
David Bote .523 .097 -.426
Tomas Nido .473 .069 -.404
Eugenio Suarez .594 .194 -.400
Manny Pina .501 .104 -.397
Leonys Martin .510 .143 -.367
Mike Trout .573 .208 -.365
Eloy Jimenez .485 .121 -.364
Kole Calhoun .510 .149 -.361
Miguel Sano .524 .169 -.355
Jesus Aguilar .523 .171 -.352
Travis d’Arnaud .540 .196 -.344
Joc Pederson .525 .182 -.343

Stats through Aug. 4.

Source: Baseball Savant

And since Trout rarely swings at first pitches, pitchers may be better off throwing a strike right away to get ahead in the count. While some hitters are becoming more aggressive early in counts ostensibly to take advantage of pitches to hit, Trout benefits from his patience, and the only sure way to get ahead in the count is to take the first pitch. Trout has always been more effective when he’s ahead than when he swings at the first pitch.

The Baseball-Reference.com metric sOPS+ measures a player’s splits against the league’s overall performance within specific splits, with 100 marking an average performance. Trout has a 194 sOPS+ when ahead in the count this season, compared with 141 on the first pitch. (When behind, it’s an 86.)

Few batters are as patient as Trout, and very few, if any, have his physical gifts. That combination has given Trout a compounding and — from the pitchers’ perspective — seemingly unfair advantage.

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