Several unusual things happened in Sunday afternoon’s game in Arlington between the Rangers and Angels. Firstly, Huston Street blew a save, his first as an Angel. Second, Mike Trout got a hit, his first in 18 at bats as he suffers through the second prolonged slump of his otherwise Troutishly MVP-calibre season. Thirdly, Trout was caught stealing for the first time in 2014.
Given Trout’s recent inexperience in reaching base safely, one might understand his urgency to make something happen for the first time in a week. Which also explains why Rangers starter Nick Tepesch had an eye on the Angels’ centerfielder, promptly picking him off first base.
Though it wasn’t a straight steal of second base, it counts as just his 13th stolen base attempt and first unsuccessful try – that’s ten fewer than noted speedster and fellow New Jersey native Todd Frazier. A number difficult to believe for a player who gets on base 40% of the time and also successfully swiped 82 bases over the two previous seasons.
The lack of stolen bases highlights a soft spot in Trout’s game this year – he hasn’t been a particularly valuable base runner. One of the fastest players (and hardest runners) in the league, Trout’s work with his feet rates as a single run above average this season, a far cry from the two Wins he added on the base paths between 2012 and 2013. In each of those years, Trout added five runs by advancing extra bases when the ball was in play while the weighted stolen base metric values and reflects his efficient theft accordingly. This season, his UBR is essentially zero.
Given his speed, reputation, and the sheer volume of his opportunities (only four players reached base safely more than Trout this season), this result is somewhat shocking. Why is Trout suddenly less effective on the bases? Or, is Trout actually less effective on the bases, or is this just expected and normal variance?
As far as the stolen bases go, there are countless theories. Both Albert Pujols, who slots behind Trout in the Angels’ order most nights, and manager Mike Scioscia swear up and down it has nothing to do with the lumbering power hitter. One theory suggests he forced pitchers throughout the league to improve their times to the plate to keep him in check. Additionally, Trout’s been on the front end of 18 different Pujols GIDP. At the very least, it puts a significant damper on his chances to get out and run.
Explaining away a lack of stolen base urgency/opportunity is one thing, trying to understand a lack of aggressiveness when moving around on the bases on batted balls is another. Searching for answers is difficult as only the runner himself knows what kind of read he got on the ball and when or where he might have hesitated. Just as pitchers can take steps to slow his progress, outside forces beyond just his own speed can slow Trout’s progress towards the plate.
Baseball Reference tracks extra bases taken and it has Trout grabbing an extra 90 feet 56% of the time this year, down from 59% in 2013 and 65% in 2012. He’s already made five outs on the bases, the same total as 2013 but in fewer games and times on base. He scored from second base on a single 60% of the time this year, down from 75% in 2013 and 69% in 2012.
The most telling number might be his rate of scoring from first on doubles. League average in this situation sits at 41% in 2014, yet Trout has scored just twice in six tries. In his rookie campaign, Trout scored from first on doubles an amazing seven times out of eleven chances. All six opportunities came with Pujols supplying the extra base power, but they are not all created equally.
Via the magic of MLB.tv and Baseball Savant, looking back at these individual plays is simple enough. On July 29th, Pujols hit a ground rule double, keeping Trout at third against his will. A hometown scorer’s double on August 7th clouds our view, as Pujols lined the ball to left field and Dodgers’ left fielder Scott Van Slyke dropped it and threw to third base, allowing Albert to move up to second. It could easily go down as a single and error on Van Slyke, allowing Trout off the hook.
Against Cleveland in April, Pujols hit a high double off the wall with one out that might have been caught, forcing Trout to bide his time between first and second before motoring into third.
Credit Michael Bourn for planting the seed of doubt in the mind of the base runner or admonish Trout for failing to read Pujols’ liner as a sure hit, it’s up to you. The fourth instance of Trout failing to score on a double came Sunday afternoon against the Rangers.
The strangest part of yesterday’s first-to-third on a double was Trout took off running on the pitch. We know Trout picks his spots to run. Late in a one-run ballgame against a weaker opponent, Trout saw an opportunity to grab his team an extra bag so he took off on an 0-1 pitch from recently inserted-reliever Shawn Tolleson.
The Rangers infield tandem went to work on Trout, turning a phantom double play that reached into the deepest recesses of the superstar’s mind. Pay special attention to the upper left corner of this GIF and notice Andrus, a seasoned practitioner of “goofy on-field antics,” gets in on the action by feigning a throw to start the imaginary double play Trout so eagerly attempts breaking up.
This is the 8th inning of a tight game and it cost the Angels a run – a key run as they went on to lose 3-2 when Street lost the ability to get anybody out for the day. It was a huge play in the game, one for which Odor and Andrus deserve a lot of credit.
Interestingly enough, one of the instances in which Trout did score from first on a double was very similar to this one. It was the infamous “eight inning arrow” comeback against Fernando Rodney and the Mariners. Trout slid into second base on a steal attempt, only to realize Pujols’ double was rattling around the right-field corner. Trout got on his horse and scored the tying run in a big game for both teams.
These examples aren’t meant to absolve Trout of any guilt in making base running blunders as much to suggest that base running, like fielding, is difficult to measure accurately no matter how granular we get. Chances are not distributed equally and there are obvious factors ignored by our rudimentary measures, which remain subject to the cruel fluctuations of chance and opportunity.
Trout hasn’t taken advantage on the bases as we expect him to, as his opposition adjusts and does whatever it can to neutralize his weapons. Trout’s numbers on the bases “suffer” this year because of a few key plays – some his doing and some not. He’s still a force of nature on the base paths requiring specific game planning by his opponents. But until he starts running as he did in the past and moving around the diamond as we expect, the defense holds the advantage.
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