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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