Mark Trumbo’s Upside and Reality

Ah, the winter meetings, a four-day swap meet where the entire baseball industry gets together in one place and…makes a fraction of the transactions they made the week before, when they were all in their respective home cities. In fact, until about an hour ago when I sat down to write this, there had only been one trade consummated in Orlando. It was an interesting one, a three-teamer that sent slugger Mark Trumbo to Arizona, young starting pitchers Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs to Anaheim, and catalyst CF Adam Eaton to Chicago. Dave and Jeff have already checked in with analysis of the deal, and I figured I’d throw in my two cents on one facet of it.

Within the entire population of major-league players, opinions of Mark Trumbo’s value likely vary as much as anyone’s among and within major-league front offices. From a scouting perspective, he absolutely crushes the baseball. From an analytical perspective, he hemorrhages outs. What is Mark Trumbo, and where is he headed?

First, let’s take a look at a number of players whose first three years as regulars line up quite nicely with Trumbo’s. Here are the parameters:

  • Completed their third years as regulars within the last 40 years, within an age range of 25-29
  • Most similar cumulative number of standard deviations above/below league average OBP and SLG over those three years


Wallach Tim -1.57 1.07 -8.98 1.50 15 109 102
Kingman Dave -2.85 2.52 -12.47 13.49 13 109 115
Carter Joe -1.99 1.99 -11.10 8.44 13 111 105
Armas Tony -3.17 2.34 -10.37 7.09 9 114 103
Sexson Richie -2.40 1.77 -1.81 5.74 8 115 120
Samuel Juan -2.61 2.05 -5.26 1.16 8 104 101
Maldonado Candy -1.87 1.84 -1.89 3.50 7 113 107
Snyder Cory -2.94 2.75 -8.23 2.57 7 107 96
Pagliarulo Mike -1.73 1.69 -3.47 0.87 7 108 93
Balboni Steve -2.53 2.77 -6.75 4.42 6 110 101
Davis Jody -1.72 1.83 -4.15 1.85 6 104 92
Fullmer Brad -1.76 1.37 -1.64 2.70 5 108 111
Kittle Ron -2.71 2.88 -5.39 3.48 5 107 110
Hobson Butch -2.55 2.26 -4.18 0.63 5 100 91
Trumbo Mark -2.32 2.34 114
Alvarez Pedro -2.03 1.85 106
Saltalamacchia Jarrod -1.92 1.62 95

The first four columns list the players’ number of cumulative standard deviations above/below the average of league regulars’ OBP and SLG through their first three years as regulars, and for their entire careers. The next column indicates the number of years as regulars they logged through the end of their careers, and the last two indicate their OPS+ through three years as regulars, and for their entire careers.

Interestingly, two of the player comps are 2013 peers, Pedro Alvarez and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The remainder of these low-OBP, high-SLG players went on to have varied careers. The best player, though not the best hitter, is probably Tim Wallach, a very solid 3B defender who would have been a viable No. 5 or 6 hitter in a good lineup in some seasons. Joe Carter was a durable RBI-guy with a cannon arm in RF, a solid if unspectacular No. 5-type hitter in a good lineup in some seasons, whose Achilles heel was always his OBP.

There are other players with very high one-season offensive peaks, ranging from Richie Sexson‘s 50-HR season, to Dave Kingman‘s 48-HR, .613 SLG season, to Juan Samuel‘s power/speed/middle-infield hijinks, to Tony Armas hitting 43 HR as a CF. I think we can agree, however, that we are not talking about perennial star-level offensive talent here. The highest career OPS+ is Sexson’s 120, ironically owed to the swift, sudden type of decline that many of these players experienced. Of the 14 of these players whose careers have ended, five of them completed no more than another three seasons as regulars, and among the other nine, only Kingman and Sexson improved their career OPS+ by their careers’ end.

Bottom line — these players largely remained within the average range of offensive major-league players, though they did show some pretty impressive single-year spikes here and there. None of the 14 players turned into above-average OBP players for the entirety of their careers, and only Sexson and Fullmer (barely) crept closer to league average OBP after their first three seasons as regulars. A case can be made, however, that Trumbo has a chance to rise to the top of this group, though he may not be able to reach beyond it.

As discussed last week in my article on Robinson Cano‘s potential aging curve, hitters separate themselves in the following categories:

  • K Rate
  • BB Rate
  • Popup Rate
  • LD Rate
  • Hard Fly Rate
  • Hard Ground Rate

How does Trumbo measure up?

  • K Rate – Over 1 standard deviation worse than MLB average, trending negatively
  • BB Rate – MLB average range, trending positively
  • Popup Rate – MLB average range, trending positively
  • LD Rate – MLB average range, trending positively
  • Hard Fly Rate – Over 1/2 STD better than MLB average, trending slightly negatively
  • Hard Ground Rate – Over 1 STD better than MLB average

On balance, there are obvious flaws here, but there is also room for significant growth. The walk rate has almost doubled since his rookie year, and he hits the ball hard in the air and on the ground. The main problems are: 1) oh, that K rate, 2) he doesn’t hit the ball in the air enough, and 3) there is a substantial amount of Weak Ground contact to go along with the Hard. The growth could come from a spike in his Hard Fly rate. Trumbo hit 34 HR in 2013, despite having a Hard Fly rate less than half of that of Chris Davis. Ponder that for a second. Davis’ 2013 performance was likely fluky and not repeatable, but it does show what Trumbo could be capable of in an absolute best-case scenario.

Before this becomes too much of a feel-good scenario, however, let’s take a step back. Imagine all of a player’s plate appearances in a given season in the shape of a pie, and since I’m Italian-American, call it a pizza. Let’s split the pizza into “good” and “bad” parts. Take nearly 30% of it away and put it in the “bad” pile for Trumbo. That would be the strikeouts. Then take about 8% away and put it in the “good” pile. That would be the walks. Now you have barely 60% of the pizza remaining from which all of the damage must come, with the bad pile already dwarfing the good.

This leaves very little margin for error re: the quality of contact that must be made with the remaining 60% of the pie, if star-quality production is desired. Chris Davis’ outlandish hard-fly rate — about three times the MLB average — enabled him to do so. Mike Napoli and Adam Dunn had to run Hard Fly rates of over twice the MLB average to have decent seasons compared to peers at their positions, and their BB rates fairly easily outpaced Trumbo’s. To take it to an extreme, Miguel Olivo‘s typical K and BB rates couldn’t have been saved by a Hard Fly rate created in a video game. Poor performance relative to the league in K and BB rate gives the competition a head start that is very hard to overcome without an elite batted-ball profile.

Some conclusions:

(1) Mark Trumbo ranks high within the average range among the entire population of major-league hitters. However, once adjusted for position, and defense, he drops much lower within that average range. Among players at this level, he possesses extremely high levels of ceiling and risk.

(2) Mark Trumbo is likely a better offensive player than most of the players in his comp group. Richie Sexson feels like the best match. Look for Trumbo to have a massive single-season HR total somewhere along the line, but remain a low-OBP, high-SLG type unless he makes the necessary adjustments to turn some of his Ks and weak grounders into BBs and more flyballs. There is a potential road to excellence here, but it is long and very treacherous.

(3) Mark Trumbo is an asset with upside. However, more than 100% of his value is in his bat, especially considering that he’s going to play LF in Arizona. Kind of a younger, healthier Michael Morse. He is much more of a buy-low lottery ticket than he is a premium commodity. Surrendering two young, cheap assets with upside like Eaton and Skaggs values him much more like the latter.

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30 Responses to “Mark Trumbo’s Upside and Reality”

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  1. MFG says:

    Blengino is gonna dominate the internet, isn’t he? Fantastic work. Thanks.

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  2. Jack Zduriencik says:

    Terrible column width in this article. I didn’t read the rest, but Trumbo knocked in 100 last season so you’re probably wrong.

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  3. Carson Palmer says:

    He is proven. Eaton and Skaggs are not. Deal with it, nerds.

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    • B N says:

      He is also receiving significantly more than league minimum, which will only increase over time. You pay for the “proof” (even if what was proved was not all that great). You pay double when the “proof” involves dingers, even if the rest of the package is so-so. Deal with, mathematical illiterates.

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    • Billy says:

      I wonder if he’s the ugly, wart-nosed, lives-under-a-bridge kind, or the collectable, crazy-hair, show-the-world-my-butt kind.

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    • Bengals Fan says:

      Don’t come talking to me about your provenness, Carson!

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  4. Ken says:


    Nice even look at Trumbo’s potential. Wish you were still with the Mariners. Where can we find “hard ground rate” and “hard fly rate”?

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  5. Jamie says:

    So… the Diamondbacks could’ve just signed Mike Morse for like $6m and kept Eaton & Skaggs? That sounds about right.

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    • Duplicato says:

      well that’s a nice try but despite the popular uninformed opinion, Trumbo has been fairly solid in LF. Morse is an awful OFer. Defense counts. Trumbo is also 4 yrs younger than Morse with a far cleaner injury history.

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      • nada says:

        his numbers average about -10 runs per year on defense (and are projected at -10 next year). I know most of this is positional adjustment, but what that says is that Trumbo is replacement-level at a non-premium defensive position, meaning that, with his replacement-level base running, all of his value comes from his bat.

        Michael Morse is actually surprisingly close in defensive+baserunning value. Put the two together and there’s roughly a 5 run gap between Morse’s defense+BsR and Trumbo’s–but the price is really what ruins this trade. The Dbacks had to give up a lot of potential value (up to dozens of WAR) to get a player who is not a lot better than Michael Morse (maybe a couple of WAR). Seems highly unbalanced, and while such a trade might make sense for a contender, the Dbacks are not a contender.

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        • Duplicato says:

          Michael Morse has had exactly 1 season being worth more than .5 war and he’s entering his age 32 season. but ok…

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        • Duplicato says:

          and if the DBacks cannot have playoff aspirations then most teams cannot. They are certainly within range of having enough things break their way to be a contender. Writing them off now is ridiculous.

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        • nada says:

          Michael Morse also only costs 6M, whereas Trumbo cost the team some money + two good prospects. Again, I don’t think the objection is to Trumbo per se; he is what he is, a 2WAR player. As you say, Morse is probably a ~0WAR player. But to pay let’s say (conservatively, given how good Eaton & Skaggs could be) 5-10 *future* WAR for a temporary 2WAR increase seems foolhardy.

          As for the Dbacks being contenders, who knows. Certainly I would be surprised if they were anything beyond a “bubble” team–there’s at least 3 other teams in their very division (Rockies, Giants, and Dodgers) who seem on par or better than them. On the other hand, I was surprised to learn that they had as much team WAR last year as the Pirates and Braves (!), so maybe you’re right that they are in range of being a good team.

          If so, I do think that changes the outlook on the trade substantially. So I can see an optimistic view of the Dbacks’ future in which this trade looks savvy–wherein Trumbo has his monster-homer year just as the Dbacks approach playoff contention, giving them a strong power hitter for their playoff run. I don’t think that’s very probable, but if it happens–good trade, Mr. Towers.

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        • Duplicato says:

          Let me take this opportunity to applaud nada as the only poster here I’ve ever encountered with a shred of humility and open-mindedness. Bravo to you for being open to seeing a side a bit different than the one you came here with. That is pretty rare in these parts.

          DBacks were 81-81 in ’13. They are certainly in a position to push their chips in. They hit just 130 HRs last year and felt they needed more power. They may be proven wrong but they had some OF surplus and with Bradley, Shipley and a few other arms they felt they could use Skaggs to get that power OF corner. Trumbo was by far the cheapest OF corner they could get. Cruz will prob get paid 3 times Trumbo over the next 3 yrs.

          Eaton could end up as a nice leadoff hitter for the ChiSox. Nice get for a backend SP (Santiago) but he’s far from a sure ML starter yet. He may end up a 4th OFer so the Snakes rolled the dice on that. Cannot blame them for picking up the guy they can slot right into LF for these 2 who may accumulate lots of wins but may not. Big variance in what those 2 will do. If Trumbo were on an expensive contract, I would be down with the criticism of this deal but being that he’s relatively cheap the next 3 seasons which fits into the Snakes window, I don’t think you can blame them for doing this deal.

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  6. fromthemachine says:

    “The walk rate has almost doubled since his rookie year …”

    And he still has a sub-.300 OBP. The road to Trumbo reaching star status is through pitch selection – not only to improve his OBP, but also his hard contact percentage.

    Unfortunately, the players on his comp list knew they were paid to him home runs. They focused on little else. Once the power went away, so did their careers. I hope the bosses in Arizona buck the trend and invest time in making Trumbo a more complete batter. I think it’s the only way they’ll see a substantial return on their risk/cost factor.

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    • Belloc says:

      It wasn’t like Richie Sexton or Dave Kingman made a conscious decision one day to become power hitters who swing at too many bad pitches. This isn’t learned or adaptive behavior. Do you really think Sexton or Kingman could have turned into Ichiro Suzuki or Rod Carew if they had been “coached” to hit for average?

      The greatest team of coaches can’t make Mike Trumbo into Barry Bonds or Jim Thome. And the D-Backs don’t have the greatest team of coaches. Trumbo is a low OBP guy who can hit bombs, a big guy with a very long swing. That’s all he will ever be.

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  7. TrisSpeakerFanboy says:

    Thanks for the article Tony. You mention both Trumbo’s hard fly and hard ground ball rates. Where did you get these data points? I don’t think I’ve run across these metrics on the fangraph’s player pages.

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  8. Monty Bayes says:

    Can you explain why you are using cumulative standard deviations above/below two measures? That’s a rough heuristic rather than a real model.

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  9. Bookbook says:

    Trumbo wasn’t a great guy to trade for at this level, but a DBacks fan would/should be happier to have him in the mine up than Morse in 2014.

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  10. BigSandy says:

    Speaking of Trumbo’s questionable defense, I’ve been curious to see if there’s a way to devise a valid measurement of the number of additional pitches an individual player’s defense either adds to or subtracts from the number of pitches a starter has to throw per start, relative, maybe, to league average defense. Sort of like a Pitches Above Replacement. I’m afraid I’m completely unqualified to perform a valid statistical analysis, but my guess is that quantifying the number of additional pitches bad defense adds to each start would identify a key market deficiency. Maybe I’m way off base – I make no claims that this is any sort of brilliant idea, but I think it’d be an interesting phenomenon to measure: how many additional plate appearances wind up being against a middle reliever vs. a top starter each year because an outfielder can’t track down foul balls or misses his cutoff man, etc.

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  11. Mark Williamson says:

    Sorry this is overdue – I just saw the article today – but how can you get data for hitters’ Hard Fly and Hard Grounder rates? I know Blengino probably has a bunch of extra tools from being a scout and Assistant GM, I was only wondering if there was any publicly available data to mess around with. Thanks!

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  12. Mark Williamson says:

    Whoops, I also just saw TrisSpeakerFanboy asked as well! Note: really read ALL the comments…

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