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Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Mike Trout is good at hitting baseballs

By David Schoenfield

You could chalk it up to Mike Trout just owning Felix Hernandez.

You could chalk it up to Trout, like another former AL West center fielder named Griffey, having a flair for Opening Day theatrics.

You could chalk it up to Trout being, you know, good at baseball.

Or you could chalk it up to Trout saying in spring training he was going to be more aggressive at the plate this season and then being more aggressive and hitting a laser beam off the King in the first inning for a two-run homer to left-center and an immediate exclamation point for his first game after signing a contract extension worth many piles of coins.

It’s the last of those statements that is the most interesting to examine. See, last season Trout swung at just 37 percent of the pitches he saw -- the lowest rate of 140 qualified regulars. Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Trout led the American League with 110 walks. He swung at the first pitch just 12 percent of the time, which ranked 131st of those 140 regulars. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it can help Trout get into a lot of good hitter’s counts. He hit .347/.508/.571 after a 1-0 count.

But, and here’s the fine line between discipline and aggression, what if Trout swings at the right pitches earlier in the count? As he told MLB.com a couple weeks ago, "I think the biggest thing, for me, is being aggressive early. A lot of counts last year, I'd be taking, seeing pitches. But I'm going to be aggressive this year. Instead of just flipping one over for strike one, or 2-0 strike one, I'm going to be up there hacking. I'm going to be up there swinging."

Against Hernandez in the first, Trout took a fastball for ball one (patience!) and then foul tipped another fastball (aggressiveness!). The 1-1 pitch was a slider that maybe didn’t slide quite enough, and Trout crushed it. Now, the 1-1 pitch is often the make-or-break pitch in an at-bat, because what happens on a 1-2 count or 2-1 count is dramatically different -- the average major leaguer hit .255 after a 2-1 count but just .179 after a 1-2 count. Trout hit .321 after the count reached 2-1 and .245 after it reached 1-2.

So the smart hitter knows when to attack that 1-1 pitch. While the average major leaguer hit .331 when putting the 1-1 pitch into play, Trout hit .423 with seven home runs in 71 at-bats. It helps to be smart and talented.

Anyway, one at-bat and a spring training quote don’t mean Trout is necessarily going to start hacking like Vladimir Guerrero, even if you do sort of admire his bravado for declaring his strategic intentions to opposing pitchers. I talked to his teammate, David Freese, in spring training about Trout’s quote, and he said he wouldn’t expect Trout to really change all that much. "That’s not the kind of hitter he is," Freese said. "He’s going to wait for his pitch. He’s still going to get his walks."

Against Hernandez in the third, Trout again took ball one, took a 93 mph fastball on the inside corner for a strike and then flew out to right field. In the fifth, he took a high fastball for strike one, took a ball, swung through a good sinker and fouled off three pitches before finally striking out on a 3-2 sinking fastball. Facing Charlie Furbush in the seventh, he took strike one and then singled off Furbush’s leg. So, overall, the new, aggressive Mike Trout resembled the old, not-so-aggressive Trout. I think Freese is probably right: It's not so easy to change your natural style. Just as Joey Votto isn't going to expand his strike zone just because it's an RBI situation, Trout is going to work deep into the count.

Bottom line: This is something we'll keep an eye on. Trout is so smart and disciplined that the scary idea is if he does develop an even more perfect balance between patience and aggressiveness. He struck out 136 times last season. What if he maintains his walk rate but puts an extra 40 balls in play? He could hit .350 with 35 home runs.

Which, umm, would make the best player in baseball the even-better best player in baseball.