Let’s talk about the narrative. Are we over the use of the word “narrative”? Let’s talk about the narrative. We can worry about our term usage later. Mike Trout remains, to this day, an amazing baseball player. But he seems to be something of a changing baseball player. And the theory that I’ve heard seems to be that Trout has focused on trying to develop his power, and he’s lost some of his athleticism. Basically, he’s gotten bigger, and we can see some supporting evidence. He’s dramatically increased his rate of fly balls, and he’s pulling the ball more than ever. He isn’t stealing very many bases anymore, and his baserunning value is down, and his defensive value is way down. That last bit troubles some people. In Trout’s first full season, batting runs were responsible for 52% of his runs above replacement. This year, that’s shot up to 77%. The numbers indicate that Trout is morphing into someone who’s bat-first, and this seems early for a guy who just turned 23 a couple weeks ago.
But what’s really happened to Trout’s foot speed? To what extent can we blame reduced baserunning and allegedly worse defense on just no longer running as fast? We have a lot of information here, but when it comes to speed, the information serves as a set of proxies. Best to go into the games themselves and try to figure out how quickly Trout still moves around.
I’ll warn you right away that the information that’s going to follow is imperfect and incomplete. I don’t know Trout’s top speed, I don’t know Trout’s old top speed, and my estimates that you’re going to see are based on my own judgment, which comes with certain errors. As far as being incomplete is concerned, I couldn’t reasonably watch every play in which Trout’s ever been involved, so I had to narrow things down. Let’s just look at what fell out of the study.
I first looked at infield singles. I decided to watch five of them from 2012, 2013, and 2014. Five isn’t very many, but speed also shouldn’t fluctuate very much, so we don’t need a massive sample size. All 15 of the infield singles were hit on the ground to the left side, and they all generated throws to first that allowed me to time Trout from contact to the base. You should know that I prepared .gifs. You should also know that I decided against including the .gifs because we all know what an infield single looks like, and in full speed there’s no way to visually see a meaningful difference.
Average times from contact to the bag:
2012: 3.95 seconds
It’s also of some interest — maybe more interest — to look at the best times from contact to the bag:
2012: 3.83 seconds
Based just on that, Trout’s fastest observed sprint last year wasn’t any slower than his fastest observed sprint in 2012. This year, though, none of the five infield singles I watched eclipsed four seconds, so maybe there’s a hint of something there. A fraction of a second seems somewhat insignificant, but then again the difference between the fastest and the slowest players in baseball is something like one second to first base, so everything is about fractions. This doesn’t not support the theory.
On a whim, I also decided to watch some Trout groundball double plays, although this time I only compared 2012 and 2014. Again, I watched five each; this season, there have only been five. Average times from contact to the bag:
2012: 4.00 seconds
Best times from contact to the bag:
2012: 3.97 seconds
I don’t know what this means. The problem with looking at one guy in this way is that you have no idea of the greater context or significance. It would appear that Trout might no longer possess his old top sprinting speed, but he’s definitely still quick, and he’s still getting hits on infield groundballs. He’s still forcing opponents to rush. But, I am willing to buy that Trout is a touch slower. And to be honest, you’d expect as much, because the average player starts losing his athleticism early, and because Trout probably reached his athletic peak sooner than most. I don’t know the particulars of his individual physiology, but he looked decently bulky when he first came up.
It was a bit of a thing when, prior to spring training 2013, Trout said he added weight. The Angels, however, downplayed the significance, and Trout explained that he wanted to show up a little heavier because he tends to lose some pounds in February and March. This year, Trout showed up a little down from where he was at the end of the 2013 season. Yet his baserunning value has further declined, and his defense, statistically, has further declined.
Maybe we can blame the hamstring that has given Trout some issues. That would be an easy answer. I don’t know if it’s still a problem, and I don’t know if it ever was a big problem, but it could help explain taking fewer chances on the bases, and maybe taking fewer chances in the field. It would also, in a way, be encouraging, because hamstrings recover, and if Trout’s performing worse because of a lingering injury, then health could bring improvement. That still wouldn’t explain why Trout’s defense was so much worse last year compared to the year before, but maybe it’s a lot of noise. In 2012, Trout robbed something like four home runs. That’s super valuable, but those are also rare opportunities that you can’t count on repeating.
Here’s the theory: Trout is focusing on becoming more bat-first. With added bulk, he’s losing some ground in the field and on the bases, but he ought to blossom into an even better sort of slugger. I can see changes he’s making at the plate, but they seem largely independent of changes elsewhere. He’s a little bigger than he was in 2012, and he might indeed run a little slower than he did in 2012, but it doesn’t seem like that should cause such a swing in baserunning and defensive valuation. His speed is still well above-average, so that can’t fully explain a below-average DRS and UZR. It seems like Trout should still qualify as an all-around player. One shouldn’t exaggerate the physical changes that are taking place, and one shouldn’t exaggerate their effects. Is Trout really just not a good defensive center field anymore? I mean, maybe, but the reasons are likely to be complicated.
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