My Approach: Mike Trout

Drew Fairservice

Mike Trout is the best player in baseball. Even if you don’t agree, you would have a hard time mounting a vigorous disagreement that he ranks any lower than second. He might not be as good a hitter as Miguel Cabrera right now but, at 22-years old, the gap is more narrow now than you think.

Mike Trout turned 22 in August, which makes 2013 his “age-21″ season. Among all players in the history of the game, Mike Trout ranks among the very best, ever, at this point in his career. His OPS ranks fourth behind Ted WilliamsMel Ott, and Jimmie Foxx (inner circle Hall of Famers all.) His OPS+, which adjusts for era and league? First. None better through age 21. Zero.

We could keep going all day long. Batting average? 7th best at this age. On base and slugging percentage? Top five each. He is on a historical trajectory that could well see him end up as one of the best players in history. Obvious hyperbole, but Trout keeps playing at such a level as to render no hyperbole off limits. All bets are off.

Even without considering his age, the things he’s doing (or has already done) in his career puts him in extremely exclusive company. How many center fielders can say they put up seasons with an OPS+ higher than 165 in their careers more than once? Nine.

Rk Yrs From To Age
1 Willie Mays 7 1954 1965 23-34 Ind. Seasons
2 Mickey Mantle 7 1955 1964 23-32 Ind. Seasons
3 Joe DiMaggio 4 1937 1941 22-26 Ind. Seasons
4 Tris Speaker 4 1920 1925 32-37 Ind. Seasons
5 Ken Griffey 3 1993 1997 23-27 Ind. Seasons
6 Ty Cobb 3 1921 1925 34-38 Ind. Seasons
7 Mike Trout 2 2012 2013 20-21 Ind. Seasons
8 Bobby Murcer 2 1971 1972 25-26 Ind. Seasons
9 Duke Snider 2 1954 1955 27-28 Ind. Seasons
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/19/2013.

How many can say they did so (OPS+ > 165) with 25 home runs and 25 steals? Only three center fielders accomplished this feat. Just one player did it twice: Mike Trout.

Rk Yrs From To Age
1 Mike Trout 2 2012 2013 20-21 Ind. Seasons
2 Matt Kemp 1 2011 2011 26-26 Ind. Seasons
3 Willie Mays 1 1957 1957 26-26 Ind. Seasons
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/19/2013.

The only other player to accomplish this feat more than once, regardless of position? Barry Bonds.

We could sit here all day and create imaginary buckets in vain attempts to place Mike Trout’s young career into context. Most people get it by now: he’s really good. You know the “whats” of his accomplishments and the “whos” of his statistical peer group. What you might not know is the how. I spoke with Mike Trout about how he does what he does in this edition of My Approach.

Drew Fairservice – How much do you rely on video work? Do you study opposing pitchers before you face them?

Mike Trout – We have a team meeting before the game to look at pitcher tendencies and what pitches they’re featuring that night. That’s most of the studying I do.

DF – You look at how they pitched you in the past or how they went after you in different plate appearances?

MT – I try and get a sense of what they’re going to try to do to me. A lot of pitchers are different than others, sometimes it’s the catchers you gotta worry about. I just try to go up there and keep my same approach.

DF – What kind of tendencies are you looking for when you try to learn about a pitcher?

MT – Just a sense of what their pitches look like and what they’re trying to do to hitters.

DF – Is it possible to get too much information?

MT – You can’t be up there thinking. You have to plan and have a game plan but when you go out there, don’t try to think too much.

DF – Do you ever guess?

MT – Nah, I’m always looking fastball and adjusting to the pitch speed.

DF – No matter who you face, if you step in against Verlander or somebody with big time fastball like that, you still look fastball first?

MT – Just adjust. I’m just about reactions up there. I’m not trying to guess on one pitch. For me, if I guess on one pitch I get too big and it’s not good for me.

Red flag – this is not normal. Well, it isn’t abnormal for a big league hitter to key on fastball but Trout’s ability to wait and wait and wait and then trigger his lighting quick stroke sets him apart from his peers.

Angels analyst Mark Gubicza played with a lot of terrific players over his career, including Hall of Famer George Brett. When describing what he thought makes Mike Trout capable of doing what he’s doing so early in his big league career, Gubicza mentioned Trout’s instincts on the baseball field in addition to his ability and willingness to stay back with his hands and swing on breaking balls. The longer Trout wait, the more time he gives himself maximum time to recognize pitch type.

It is this quick swing that lets him pound the best heat in the game as the timing that prevents him from getting exposed by off-speed stuff.

When searching for a physical comparison, Gubicza broke the long-held scouting code: he comped Mike Trout to Bo Jackson – except better. He wasn’t alone in evoking the immortal Bo. Angels pitcher Jerome Williams also reached back for one of the greatest physical talents in recent baseball history. Teammate Mark Trumbo described Trout’s physicality as “off the charts. He’s an animal. He’s strong, he’s fast, he’s durable. But this year, even more so, he’s been even more patient this year. His on base percentage is ridiculously high. That’s a testament to his patience.”

The combination of physical skills and keen strike zone awareness. The quick swing and a body built to stand up to the pounding of a full season playing a physically demanding position. The perfect ballplayer, in other words.

You take a lot of close pitches, is that something that’s come with confidence and experience in terms of your strike zone?

MT – You know, I have a strike zone. Sometimes it doesn’t go my way but if I don’t think it’s a strike, I’m not going to swing. I’m not going to change my approach to different umpires. They’re going to call their game and I’m going to play my game.

This is example number of two of something Mike Trout does that he considers normal that most certainly is not. Among qualified hitters this season, just two take a great percentage of “pitches on the black” than Mike Trout (Matt Carpenter and Elvis Andrus). As a young player, he can expect more of these calls to go against him. Only Chris Carter has struck out looking more than the Angels young outfielder. Imagine what Trout’s walk rate will look like should a few more of these calls go his way?

Mike Trout reacts to a called third strike

Mark Trumbo summed up what makes Trout’s keen batting eye special just about perfectly:”he does it [takes borderline pitches] in an aggressive manner. Everyone can lay off those close pitches if you’re looking to take, but if you’re looking to swing? That’s when it really gets tough. That’s just something he has that makes him one of the best.”

Mark Buehrle of the Toronto Blue Jays faced Trout’s Angels twice in 2013 and he echoes the sentiments of Trumbo: “if the pitch looks like a ball, he won’t swing at all. If it’s a strike, he melees on it.” The man speaks from experience.

Again: this sort of strike zone discipline is not normal. Not for a power hitter. Not for anybody this side of Joey Votto, who happens to be a premier slugger in the game and NOT, last time I checked, 22-years old.

DF – In the cage, you keep the same routine day in and day out?

MT – I keep the same routine. It’s been working for me for a while. I do some flips and some slider machine and just go from there.

DF – If you’re not feeling quite right, is there something you go to?

MT – I try to stay up the middle and stay to the right side. Really just try to let the ball get deep.

DF – What about with two strikes?

MT – Same thing. I really try to let the ball get deep and not give up on a pitch.

DF – What about on the bases – do you video work to learn about how pitchers adjust their vary their moves to the plate?

MT – Mostly just pay attention when other guys are on base. Some pitchers tend to move their shoulders first or do whatever. I just try to half a secord of two-tenths of a second to get that stolen base.

When I asked Jerome Williams about how he’d pitch Mike Trout, he said “I’d walk him, then slide step every pitch to keep him from going to second.” Trout is third all-time in baseball history for stolen base percentage.

The stolen base might be an overrated stat but Trout’s ability to add this dimension to his game, as well as going first-to-third on singles, reaching on errors, beat out infield singles, and generally using his speed to make a nuisance of himself results in a dangerous player outside the batters box.

DF- Who do you think has the best approach in the game?

MT – There are a lot of guys. I mean, Cabrera, staying to right-center with a lot of power. Jeter, his inside-out swing. Pedroia…those guys are up there. I think Cabrera. The way he hits the ball the other way with force and then can turn on the ball inside with force it’s really amazing.

I believe it was Plato who said “real recognize real.”

DF – For yourself, the TV broadcasts often pick you up sitting with Albert Pujols, picking his brain and talking things over after an at bat.

MT – Albert is another guy you can go to. Great career, great person, great mentor for young guys like me. He’s always there to lead me in the right way and give me the right tips for hitting.

Some stats via Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, and ESPN Stats & Info

The best of MY APPROACH featuring Clayton KershawMiguel CabreraRobinson CanoManny MachadoJose BautistaPablo SandovalDustin PedroiaJoe Mauer, and Tim Lincecum.