Happy February, everyone! Super Bowl Sunday is officially in our rear-view mirrors, and I know most of us got baseball on our minds with Spring Training right around the corner. I could almost smell the balmy air and Fort Lauderdale palm trees already. The simple thought of pitchers and catchers reporting in just over a couple of weeks is immensely tantalizing. Personally, reading baseball columns and watching classic playoff games on Youtube just doesn’t cut it for me; I yearn for Opening Day more than anything else in the world right now, and nothing else will satisfy my thirst for baseball season to officially commence.
Which is why I’ve decided to get the ball rolling on all things fantasy baseball.
Today’s article is a little more focused than my other ones, since I’ll only be covering one player here (big shout out to the guys at Fangraphs for the inspiration), yet it’s still primarily just a warmup for me. With over 6-7 months of analyzing on the horizon, I figured I’d start flexing my muscles a bit now before things intensify. Still, for those of you who are reading this, I feel confident that my piece here is informative enough for you to walk away with an extra bit of important data.
Now, onto the article…
When someone hits over 25 homers, drives in 100+ RBI, bats over .285 AND slugs over .550 in his first three full Major League seasons (all of which coming before turning 24 years old), the argument can be made that he just might be the greatest player of our generation – or even any other generation to boot. So, why even bother mentioning Mike Trout in any sort of capacity? Anyone who didn’t spend 2014 living under a rock knows that Trout rightfully claimed his place as the #1 overall player in fantasy baseball. Clearly, he has become the be-all and end-all of “best in the game, right now” conversations. But we must keep in mind that the Mike Trout of last year wasn’t exactly the Mike Trout of 2013 or his breakout 2012 season – both for reasons good, and bad.
What I mean by that exactly is Trout found slightly different ways to accomplish his current hierarchal goals, and not all of them might lead to success in 2015. But because he’s so special, and so talented, he produced MVP-calibur numbers anyway. Here are some standard numbers I’ll use to revert back to what I was alluding to with Trout’s constant adjustments:
2012: .326 BAA, 30 HR, 83 RBI, 129 R, 49 SB, 10.1 WAR
2013: .323 BAA, 27 HR, 97 RBI, 109 R, 33 SB, 10.5 WAR
2014: .287 BAA, 36 HR, 111 RBI, 115 R, 16 SB, 7.8 WAR
This numbers comparison is meant to be mild, as Trout’s overall production has not fluctuated much at all from a fantasy perspective. What I’m aiming to do with it here, though, is show you one way in which his play style is starting to change – eventually to the point where he might even start sacrificing production in certain areas to maximize it elsewhere. More than ever, we started seeing that last season. Look again at the steep drop off in batting average, as well as the considerable rise in homeruns, and then take another moment to peep at the even steeper drop off in stolen bases. I’ll get into more detail with the former later; what concerns me most is the latter. Where have Mike Trout’s stolen bases gone? What kept him from swiping bags at the deliciously vast rate of his other fantastic seasons?
My guess is his recent search for more power. Obviously, his dip in batting average also coincides with his increase in dingers. If I knew any better, Trout settling into the two-hole along with the presence of Albert Pujols following him in the batting order has a lot to do with it. But then again, batting 2nd in the Angels lineup didn’t stop him from being aggressive on the base paths in 2013 (20 SB in 89 GS), and Pujols played more than enough games in the three-spot to help prove that. In any event, Trout took 22 fewer stolen base attempts in 2014 than 2013 – 22!! And after swiping 33 bags in 2013, he only stole 16 in 157 games last season. He’s only been caught nine times over the last couple of years, so the bottom line is he needs to quit fooling around and attack the basepaths more.
Like I said before, Trout was reaching for more homers. This just so happens to correlate with his decline in batting average. Fangraphs made an excellent piece describing how Trout adjusted his approach at the plate to cover the upper half of the strikezone better, since his heatmaps exposed it as his “weakness”. The result, on the basis of peripheral stats, was a spike in all air-centric batted balls: flyballs, popups, infield popups, etc. His 47.2% FB rate, for example, did as much as it could to keep his HR/FB percentage in the upper teens, and also provides some reasoning behind his jump in homers (career-high 36 longballs, compared to 27 in 2013).
Surprisingly enough, though, Trout’s transformation from a balanced batted ball type hitter (I.E. someone who hits groundballs and flyballs at or around the same rate) to an extreme flyball hitter did absolutely no favors to his consistency at the plate. Again, it JUST SO HAPPENS to correlate with his decline in batting average. Here’s where Trout’s three-year numbers comparison gets a little more eye-opening:
2012: 10.5% BB rate, 21.8% K rate, 1.35 GB/FB rate
2013: 15.9% BB rate, 19% K rate, 1.16 GB/FB rate
2014: 11.8% BB rate, 26.1% K rate, 0.72 GB/FB rate
Naturally, a high-contact hitter like Trout should benefit greatly with an increase in flyballs, but because he spent a vast majority of 2014 learning how to cover the upper-third of the ‘zone, he wound up striking out so much that such benefits were never realized. Still, to whiff this much for a full season – regardless of the reasoning – is totally unacceptable. His second-half last season is almost too telling in that regard, as his K-rate surfaced around a staggering 30%. Although his power-hungry approach helped him maintain a plus-.500 slugging percentage and a cool 141 wRC, almost all of his post-ASG standard and advanced stats took a severe nosedive because he kept fanning. It’s a growing trend that could potentially damage his fantasy output in 2015, if he doesn’t re-adjust his game again.
All of this information I’ve provided is not meant to drive draftees away from Mike Trout; remember that he struck out almost 200 times last year and still won the American League MVP. He’s a top-flight talent, playing at a incredibly deep position in fantasy, and producing at a one-of-a-kind pace. There’s simply no one like him, and as a avid baseball fan in general, he is the epitome of why I love nerding out over analyzing player statistics on a daily basis. However, I hold no biases when it comes to the numbers, and the numbers suggest that Trout is somewhat trending in the wrong direction. He’s too focused on hitting that high fastball (or high changeup or whatever pitchers throw up at him) over the yard, instead of simply playing to his strengths, which essentially is spraying the ball with a naturally powerful swing. As a result, he’s allowed his K-rate to reach near-Mark Reynolds heights, and for some reason, has forgotten how great a threat he is on the basepaths. He doesn’t have to prove that he could hit 40 homers, and I personally think he shouldn’t dare try to, because his skill set is great enough to produce a decade of 30-30 seasons with way more value (an way less physical effort) in comparison.
But who knows? Maybe I’m just pointing out stats that could wind up becoming outliers to a greater 2015. Maybe I’m proving a valid point, and Trout’s power numbers will continue to climb with the same amount of ascendance as his strikeout rate. All that I’m trying to prove comes from the numbers. And the first thing I saw was a .287 batting average, which, while impressive, is still following a pair of Miggy-esque clips. He’s only 24, so who the hell cares what I see, right? He’s already taken the world by storm, so why bother drawing up red flags? Because he’s only 24. He’s still got room to grow. Yet even if his strikeouts continue to rise, and his batting average continues to fall, Trout will most likely find other ways to be “the guy” in your fantasy lineups. That’s the sort of thing that sets him apart from anyone I’ve ever seen. I project him to at least demand a spot in the top-10 of all fantasy league rankings by season’s end, and that has a lot to do with him being such a magnanimous contributor in almost every single other category. Also, if you can also stomach the prospect that Trout might continue to swing for the fences more and conversely neglect to steal bases, then by now you should be able to make your own conclusions about how else he may fit into your draft strategy.