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Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Trout's strikeouts a cause for concern

By David Schoenfield

The best player in baseball is still one of the best all-around players in the game. Mike Trout is tied for fourth among position players in Baseball-Reference WAR and second among position players in FanGraphs WAR. He's hitting .272/.359/.524, good for eighth in the American League in wOBA and fifth in adjusted OPS.

And yet there's sort of a small, black cloud hanging over Trout because the numbers are down from last year, when he hit .323 and reached base 43 percent of the time. He's tied for the AL lead in strikeouts with 47, one behind major league leader Justin Upton. A year ago, Trout struck out 136 times while drawing 110 walks; he's on pace for 206 strikeouts and 88 walks. While his power output hasn't been affected, with so many fewer balls in play his batting average and on-base percentage have thus declined significantly.

Justin Havens of ESPN Stats & Information broke down some of Trout's issues so far, and this stands out to me:
Trout is swinging and missing far more often against pitches in the strike zone. About 50 percent of Trout's strikeouts last season came on a pitch in the strike zone. This season, however, 74.5 percent of his strikeouts have come on a pitch in the strike zone.

Digging deeper, Havens found that Trout has especially struggled with pitches up and in and against off-speed stuff with two strikes. (He's hitting .125 in those situations, after hitting .245 last year and .320 in 2012.)

Should we be concerned? Not that Trout is suddenly turning into Abraham Almonte, of course, but that he's turning into sort of a souped-up center-field version of Mark Reynolds or something. (That sounds much worse than what's going on, but you get the idea.)

There are reasons to be concerned. Strikeout rates are one of the statistics that stabilize most quickly. This 2011 study by Derek Carty at Baseball Prospectus found that strikeout rates stabilize after about 100 plate appearances. This study by Russell Carleton, also at BP, reports that it stabilizes after 60 plate appearances. Trout is well above either figure, with 170 plate appearances.

Of course, there are always exceptions to any generalization, but Trout has already had two four-strikeout games, including a second one on Sunday, after having none in 2012 or 2013. Something is going on here besides just a random fluctuation in the numbers, whether it's tied to Trout's spring training assertion that he was going to be more aggressive or pitchers finally finding a hole in his swing or a bad case of allergies clouding his vision.

It should be pointed out that Trout doesn't appear to be hitting into bad luck. His batting average on balls in play is .347, compared to .376 last season and .383 in 2012 -- a little less but that looks like a result of a few more fly balls (which go for hits less often) and a few less infield hits. It is possible that Trout has been selling out for power, even though it hasn't resulted in more home runs.

So, can Trout still be a .300 hitter while striking out 27.6 percent of the time, like he's done so far?

There have been 181 qualified regulars who have struck out in at least 25 percent of their plate appearances. Here's the list of the guys who hit at least .280:

Ryan Howard, 2006 Phillies: .313, 25.7 percent
Bobby Bonds, 1970 Giants: .302, 25.4 percent
B.J. Upton, 2007 Devil Rays: .300, 28.1 percent
Jim Edmonds, 2000 Cardinals: .295, 26 percent
Willie Stargell, 1971 Pirates: .295, 25.4 percent
Austin Jackson, 2010 Tigers: .293, 25.2 percent
Jim Thome, 1998 Indians: .293, 26.3 percent
Jim Thome, 2001 Indians: .291, 28.7 percent
Jose Hernandez, 2002 Brewers: .288, 32.3 percent
Dick Allen, 1969 Phillies: 28.5 percent
Chris Davis, 2013 Orioles: .286, 29.6 percent
Josh Hamilton, 2012 Rangers: .285, 25.5 percent
Chris Johnson, 2012 Astros: .281, 25 percent
Preston Wilson, 1999 Marlins: .280, 28.7 percent

That's 14 out of 181 (7.7 percent) but only three out of 181 who hit .300. So, yes, it's possible that Trout can still be a .300 hitter despite this prodigious strikeout rate. (Marlon Byrd is actually hitting .312 right now with a higher K rate than Trout, and Giancarlo Stanton is hitting .302 with a 25.7 percent K rate.)

It's difficult to say what kind of hitter Trout is turning into, whether this a blip on the radar or whether he's turning into a new version of Jim Thome, albeit one with more speed and better defense. Thome did hit .300 twice in his career in years when he didn't fan 25 percent of time. You don't think of Trout and Thome being similar players, and they're not, but maybe they are similar hitters. During his 1995-2004 peak, Thome averaged 39 home runs and 112 walks, however, so if Trout is going to sacrifice batting average, it needs to come with a few more home runs and a few more walks to match Thome.

If I had to predict, however, I'm going with a blip on the radar. I'll say Trout cuts down on the strikeouts as the season progresses and gets that average back around .300. He's too good and too talented to suddenly be striking out as often as Khris Davis or Welington Castillo.