So You Want an Edge Against Mike Trout

Like a lot of people, Wednesday evening I was watching Justin Verlander try his damnedest to no-hit the Angels. I was tuning in because of the pitcher, but in the seventh inning, I found myself thinking about the hitter. It was in the top of the seventh that Verlander faced Mike Trout for what would be the last time, and I was reminded of something Sam Miller pointed out a couple years ago. All it took was one pitch.

The first pitch of the at-bat:

It’s nothing special at all. All that is is a first-pitch curveball, for a strike. Verlander did the same thing to the next guy. It’s important to mix things up. In isolation, this is just one of several good pitches. But it’s interesting, if you’re familiar with a little Trout background. How badly did Mike Trout want to not swing at that first-pitch curve? Check out the body language:

trout-verlander

He saw it, he read it, and he stood up straight. Trout identified the curveball and he gave up on it. Not in any kind of cowardly way — he just decided he wanted to see another pitch. Again, in isolation, no biggie. Maybe Trout just wanted to make Verlander work. But I feel like now I should get into the history.

Allow me to remind you of a very simple point. However good a hitter is, he’s going to be worse when he’s behind 0-and-1. The first pitch might not be the most important pitch, but it’s an important pitch, because there’s a big difference between 1-and-0 and 0-and-1. Everybody knows this, but everybody also sort of forgets about it when watching a game live. The odds swing pretty quick, based on a first pitch’s outcome. Get ahead and you can put a hitter on the defensive. Even an amazing one. The hitter won’t be able to sit on something, and he might have to expand his own zone.

Say you’re about to face Mike Trout. Would you rather face Trout at 0-and-0, or 0-and-1? A first-pitch strike still leaves Trout as one hell of a hitter, but any edge is an edge. What if I told you I knew how to get ahead of Trout? What if it almost couldn’t be simpler?

There’s a reason I showed you the Verlander curveball. On Tuesday, against the Tigers, Trout saw two other first-pitch curveballs. According to Brooks Baseball, over the course of Trout’s career, he’s seen 267 first-pitch curves. According to Baseball Savant, he’s seen 276. One should always expect a little disagreement, since pitch identification is as much art as it is science. Anyhow, whether it’s 267 or 276, there’s this — out of all those curves, Trout has swung at exactly one of them.

Since Sam Miller brought this to my attention, Trout has swung at zero first-pitch curveballs. He’s not super aggressive against any pitches, but most of his first-pitch swing rates are around 10%. One swing at a first-pitch curve, ever. It happened against Derek Holland and the Rangers in September 2013.

It didn’t work. Later in that game, Trout got another first-pitch curve, and he took it, just as he’s taken all first-pitch curveballs since. His actual first-pitch-curveball swing rate rounds down to 0%. Matt Carpenter, this year, has also swung at zero first-pitch curveballs, but in his career he’s offered at seven. That beats Trout’s number by a relative landslide.

In case this isn’t sinking in, let’s try a visual approach. From Baseball Savant, all those first-pitch curveballs:

trout-curves-1

And here are the swings:

trout-curves-2

Just the one. Just the one, despite all those pitches in the zone. All those first-pitch called strikes. This is pretty clearly deliberate — when he’s starting off an at-bat, Trout is looking for something else. If he sees a curve, he’s prepared to just take it, because he’s geared up for higher velocity. He can afford to take that first pitch, because a taken first pitch guarantees more pitches. Even though a strike seems like a disadvantage, Trout can afford it. But from a pitcher’s perspective, hey, free potential advantage.

Not that it’s always easy to locate a curve. In fact, over Trout’s career, a little over half of those first-pitch curveballs have missed. They’ve led to 1-and-0 counts, which make Trout only more terrifying. But say you’re a pitcher with a pretty good curve. Say you just want to throw it for a strike, without aiming for anywhere in particular. Throw a strike and Trout’s almost certainly going to take it. Free strike. If everyone started doing this, Trout would probably swing more, but that isn’t going to happen, meaning, free strikes. If you want an edge against Mike Trout, you might consider first-pitch curveballs, because you’ve got a pretty good shot of an 0-and-1 count, and that makes Trout a little closer to going away.

All that’s left is to run a few more numbers, just to sate my own curiosity. Trout owns a career .405 wOBA. Just absurdly, obscenely good. However, in plate appearances beginning with a curveball, he’s generated a wOBA of — .500. Huh. All right, well, as I said before, more than half of those curves have gone for balls. What about just the plate appearances beginning with a first-pitch curveball for a called strike? Then Trout’s wOBA drops to — .471. Which is higher than his overall regular wOBA. By a lot!

So based on that, then, nevermind. First-pitch curves have conferred no advantage. First-pitch curves taken for strikes have also conferred no advantage. If anything, they’ve just made everything worse, and while I didn’t control for pitcher ability above, that’s not going to make too much of a difference, with numbers this crazy. Maybe it works against a pitcher to show his curveball that early. Or maybe this is just randomness, but not only do we not see an advantage — we see quite the opposite. So it’s hard to move forward.

You want an edge against Mike Trout? Good for you. So does everyone. You might consider throwing a first-pitch curveball. It doesn’t seem to actually make anything any better, but at least that one pitch will probably keep Trout from swinging. The swings are where he gets you.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Dave
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Dave
9 months 9 hours ago

Bravo!

Kinshuk Rajan
Member
Kinshuk Rajan
9 months 9 hours ago

Wow that’s honestly stunning. It looks like Trout’s wOBA through 0-1 by any means is .369, which means it’s lower on anything but a called strike curveball. Maybe pitchers tend to pitch differently after throwing a first pitch curveball for a strike? I’d still take my chances with the first strike curveball as it’s hard to believe that it’s not worth getting him down 0-1.

Mike Carp
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Mike Carp
9 months 8 hours ago

Thanks for all the fish!

Kyle
Guest
Kyle
8 months 29 days ago

There’s something to this. As a P, starting off a batter first pitch curve, I feel like it was more likely I’d throw a fb 1 of the next 2 pitches. The idea was always the speed difference would play fastball up. I’d be curious just to see what his swing rates were in next 2 pitches and how many of those were fb’s. Interesting article.

durn
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durn
9 months 9 hours ago

One of these days Jeff, Mike Trout is gonna wise up and come get you for exposing all his weaknesses on an internet blog.

t
Guest
t
9 months 9 hours ago

Right!? It’s like he’s trying to make Trout fail. Jeff should make up for all this with an article about how terrible Trout is vs 85mph fastballs over the middle of the plate.

matt w
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matt w
9 months 8 hours ago

I think if Trout comes to get Jeff it’ll be to have a chat about the effects of volcanoes on weather patterns.

Lenard
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Lenard
9 months 9 hours ago

Great article Jeff! A thought though, how many of those at-bats have ended with Trout hitting a curve later in the at-bat? What is his wOBA on those pitches? Maybe he likes to see a curveball first to get a sense of it’s movement and than absolutely crushes on later in the at-bat?

Michael
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Michael
9 months 9 hours ago

It’s hard to believe that no advantage can be discerned from throwing him first pitch curveballs. I would be interested to see the percentage of those pitchers who followed that first pitch curveball with another curveball or a fastball. Maybe Trout has determined that most of the time he sees a first pitch curveball, he is going to get a specific pitch next. Really interesting article, Jeff.

Shirtless George Brett
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Shirtless George Brett
9 months 9 hours ago

The thing that jumped out at me immediatly when looking at that pitch chart is “Damn, that alot of poorly located curve balls”.

Its probably good for pitchers that Trout doesnt swing at first pitch curves because alot of those hangers would have wound up on the freeway.

Kyle
Guest
9 months 9 hours ago

I have no way of knowing if you could check this, but it sort of makes you wonder if pitch sequencing is working against pitchers and in Trout’s favor.

Let’s say you have a FB/CB/CH pitcher, with usage rates around 60/20/20 — not unreasonable. From personal observation, it at least feels like pitchers are less likely to double-up on a curveball than most other pitchers. Maybe Trout feels the same. Maybe he sees that first pitch curveball and is of the mind “he’s not gonna throw another curve, my odds of a fastball just went from 60 to 75%”, so he gears up accordingly. More often than not the pitcher obliges, hence the absurd wOBA following the first pitch curveball.

Alternatively, if they throw a first pitch fastball, you can visualize that the odds shift at least slightly in favor of non-fastballs on the next pitch, resulting in the merely mortal sub-400 wOBA.

All completely hypothetical and probably unverifiable, but just a thought!

Kyle
Guest
9 months 9 hours ago

Wait, isn’t this the Gambler’s Fallacy?

MikeS
Guest
MikeS
9 months 8 hours ago

It is only the gambler’s fallacy if the events are totally random. Since the catcher and pitcher are selecting a pitch strategically, not at random, then I don’t think it is.

olethros
Member
olethros
9 months 8 hours ago

No. People have habits, dice do not.

Adam
Guest
Adam
9 months 8 hours ago

It does kind of beg the question of how his at bats go if someone who got the free 0-1 curve goes back to it. And really what’s his overall swing rate at curve balls.

Larry Bernandez
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Larry Bernandez
9 months 9 hours ago

This might sound like a dumb question, but how can somebody instantly know if they are going to get a curveball as opposed to any other pitch? By the time you find out, isn’t it already too late?

Kyle
Guest
9 months 9 hours ago

Trout has a pretty sharp eye, so maybe he sees the curveball bump coming out of the hand.

Shirtless George Brett
Guest
Shirtless George Brett
9 months 9 hours ago

It could also be that Trout might have fully intended to not swing at that first pitch regardless of what it was. We are assuming he “gave up” on it because he knew it was a curve. In reality he might have decided before the AB that he wasnt swinging at the first pitch regardless (which fits his M.O.). I have seen him do that same body language on a first pitch FB as well.

MikeS
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MikeS
9 months 8 hours ago

There are things major league hitters pick up on extremely quickly that the rest of us mortals would never see like release points, spin and whether the ball appears to move upwards from the pitchers hand on release that can help him to identify a pitch.

Mark
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Mark
9 months 8 hours ago

The spin is also different and the ball looks different. Guys like Trout will be able to see it.

It is amazing
Guest
It is amazing
9 months 8 hours ago

I was always amazed by an teammate on our American Legion team that could pick up the dot on a curveball, first time I ever heard of it. I knew he wasn’t lying cuz he could hit the crap out of a curveball while the rest of us acne faced punks would flail away at them. He ended up being drafted and made it to double A IIRC.

Eephus
Guest
Eephus
9 months 22 minutes ago

FWIW There’s no dot on a curve ball, but there is a dot on a slider. And picking up spin when people are not throwing 90+ is not that ard. And I should know because I have a career batting average of 1.000 against Rich Harden, but he was throwing 93 mph and I couldn’t even see it.

joser
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joser
9 months 4 hours ago

It’s a long article (it’s actually a book excerpt) but Why MLB Hitters Can’t Hit Jennie Finch is worth reading: it turns out that (in addition to their physical gifts) what sets elite athletes apart from the rest is that they have learned — through endless repetition — to extract an enormous amount of information from the smallest cues on the field. A batter only has about .2 second to make the decision to swing or not (before the ball is even halfway to the plate), so what separates major leaguers from the rest, and the best hitters in MLB from the merely average, has everything to do with the information they gather during the windup and in the first milliseconds as the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand.

In other words, by the time you or I find out, it’s already too late. But the likes of Mike Trout find out much, much sooner.

DNA+
Guest
DNA+
9 months 9 hours ago

Pitchers generally throw either a curveball or a slider. Maybe Trout just hits better against curveball pitchers. Perhaps curveball pitchers have an advantage against Trout when they use the first pitch curve, even if overall they have a disadvantage relative to pitchers with a different repertoire.

Captain Obvious
Guest
Captain Obvious
9 months 9 hours ago

That pitch sure looks like a high fastball out of the zone in the still frame, which is something Trout explicitly worked on in the off-season. Couldn’t it be that he sat on it, not because first pitch curves are the devil’s work, but rather, because he’s been burned so bad on high fastballs in the past?

Mark Davidson
Member
Member
9 months 8 hours ago

Same thing with Goldschmidt!

Mark Davidson
Member
Member
9 months 8 hours ago

And you can down vote me all you want, but here’s the article about using this same approach when pitching to Goldschmidt.

Mark Davidson
Member
Member
TKDC
Guest
TKDC
9 months 8 hours ago

I downvoted you for taking three posts to essentially say one thing.

Mmmm
Guest
Mmmm
9 months 8 hours ago

Master of efficiency, he is not.

Mark Davidson
Member
Member
9 months 5 hours ago

L
New Post
O
New Post
L

I deserved those

Phillies113
Member
Member
9 months 8 hours ago

How often does Trout swing at the first pitch when it’s NOT curveballs?

AS
Guest
AS
9 months 8 hours ago

I wonder how much selection bias could be contributing to his numbers after a first pitch curveball. I can imagined two different sources of such an effect. For one thing, relievers are less likely to start an at bat with a curveball (or even throw one at all for that matter), and hitters’ numbers tend to be better against starters. Secondly, even among starters, it’s more likely for a pitcher to start an at bat with a curve later in the game, at which point they’d be suffering a times-through-the-order penalty, especially against a hitter like Trout.

cass
Guest
cass
9 months 2 hours ago

This was my thought as well – the times through the order penalty. Pitchers usually throw first-pitch curveballs during their second or, more often, third time through the order when the hitter has a big advantage against them. That could explain why Trout’s wOBA is higher despite being down a strike. It’s still pretty stunning.

Nathan Nathan
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Nathan Nathan
9 months 8 hours ago

“Verlander did the same thing to the next guy.”

You know, the next guy. Albert Pujols.

tz
Guest
tz
9 months 8 hours ago

I think the strategy needs to be to start Trout out with a first-pitch fastball for a strike. Take a look at his overall splits by count:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/split.cgi?id=troutmi01&year=Career&t=b

Since he doesn’t swing at first-pitch curveballs, and his production is much worse than normal when he does put the first pitch into play, just get ahead with a fastball.

Then all you have to do is make a nasty second pitch, etc.

Rob
Guest
Rob
9 months 7 hours ago

I thought this would be about how he has an 85 wRC+ in the month of August. It’s still a very small sample size, but I don’t recall him ever having this long of a slump in the past few years.

Have pitchers been trying something new against him this month? Is he nursing an injury? Just a random thing?

Lenard
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Lenard
9 months 7 hours ago
eldude
Guest
eldude
9 months 5 hours ago

I love these “All you have to do against Trout is…” articles and comments. If they actually worked, he wouldn’t have a career .405 wOBA. Just as the Dude Abides, Trout Adjusts.

GoOppo
Guest
GoOppo
9 months 5 hours ago

Harper is getting all the love around here in dc and I’ve been trying to tell them (there’s this other dude….for 4 years…) and they have none of it. “Harper goat” in reality, Trout is quickly becoming the soon to be best playerx if his defense at all doesn’t plummett.

skippyballer486
Member
skippyballer486
9 months 5 hours ago

Trout is becoming the soon to be best player? Trout is already the best player.

Serbian to Vietnamese to French and back
Guest
Serbian to Vietnamese to French and back
9 months 5 hours ago

Harper is all love here in Washington, and I tried to talk to them (not this guy … 4 years …), but they did not. “Goats Harper” In fact, salmon quickly and soon became PlaierKs be better if his defense does not fall.

Viva Baerga
Guest
Viva Baerga
8 months 29 days ago

I love this game!

#KeepNotGraphs

skippyballer486
Member
skippyballer486
9 months 5 hours ago

You want an advantage against Mike Trout? I don’t know, maybe try to convince him to play a different sport or something. Is he any good at NASCAR? Probably. Wouldn’t even use a car, just runs around the track and wins anyway.

dan
Guest
dan
9 months 5 hours ago

Maybe a stupid question, but a first-pitch curve that goes for a strike…if the ball is put in play, doesn’t that count as a strike? Maybe it’s different when looking at pitch f/x data, but when a pitcher gives up a leadoff single on the first pitch of the game, he’s thrown one pitch for one strike.

Mike Trout
Guest
Mike Trout
9 months 29 minutes ago

I thought my weakness was high heat?

Doc Ellis
Guest
Doc Ellis
8 months 29 days ago

High heat worked for me.

Schuxu
Guest
Schuxu
8 months 29 days ago

Trout sees the Curve, identifies the Curve, lets it through but saves all the relevant information in his subconsciousness. So with throwing it that early in the count you just lost all of the change of pace and surprice abilities it normally offers you later in the count and you devalued it pretty significantly.

Any data on how he performs when he swings at a Curve after seeing one earlier in the count compared to if he sees it for the first time late in the count and has to swing at it for protection?

Almer Davis
Guest
Almer Davis
8 months 29 days ago

Mike Trout has an absolute aversion to any first pitch, period. Curve balls, sliders, change ups, grooved fastballs down the middle, it doesn’t matter. Pitchers know this. It’s not just curve balls they’re throwing for first pitch strikes. Check the stats on fastballs. Warch video. He’ll actually pull his hands into his body on a down-the-middle first pitch fastball strike, like he’s somehow going to deak the blue. Since June, Trout is down to 5% first pitch swings. I believe the major league average is 26% first pitch swings. If I’m not mistaken, Trout has two hits on first pitch strikes this year. You want to get ahead on Trout? Throw any first pitch for a strike. If the next pitch is a strike, he’ll foul it off or take it, and he’s down 0-2. I wish this weren’t so, but it happens way too many times.

The Baseball Blog Guy
Guest
8 months 24 days ago

here’s my follow up to how hitters are performing each count by wOBA!

http://baseballblogguy.com/2015/09/02/hitters-the-count-what-counts-are-the-best-hitters-taking-advantage-of/

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