Mike Trout is the most valuable player ever through his age-22 season, amassing 29.5 wins above replacement. That’s more than Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Mel Ott, Jimmie Fox and Mickey Mantle.
And that was a down year. Why? Because pitchers and catchers may have finally found his weakness: the high fastball.
Trout demolishes pitches down and in, but he struggles against pitches up the ladder. Against pitches in the lower third of the strike zone, his slugging percentage was a robust .840 in 2014. Against pitches in the upper third: .233. That’s the difference between Barry Bonds’ 2001 MVP season and Mark Ellis from last year (yea, I had to look him up too).
Here’s how it looks in practice:
Throw a first-pitch strike
Trout swings at the first pitch just 10.1 percent of the time. And if he does get a piece of it, it is usually not dangerous — just four of his 98 career home runs have been off the first pitch.
Breaking ball away on 0-1 count
Place it just past the outside corner of the plate and he should chase it for strike two.
Even Superman could be thwarted with Kryptonite. This is Trout’s. Below is a heat map of the pitches he has struck out on when the count is 0-2.
Trout recognizes the problem and is taking steps this spring to remedy it.
“Plain and simple, I was chasing the high pitch,” Trout told the L.A. Times. “The majority of time, they’re balls. Throughout my career, I’ve been taking. I like to see pitches, but I’m going to get locked and loaded on the first pitch. If it’s in the zone, I’m going to take a hack at it.”
That didn’t work last year. Trout batted .292 with .333 slugging when he swung on the first pitch of an at bat, a decline from the previous two seasons.
But an increase in swings at the first pitch could change how an opposing pitcher attacks him at the plate. For example, not going for the “easy” first strike or seeing Trout lay off the initial pitch could put the count 0-1, where he has an on base plus slugging of 1.275 on the next pitch. After the count has gone 1-0, Trout has hit .337 with .612 slugging. A huge improvement over at bats that start 0-1. And once Trout gets ahead of the pitcher, it starts to get ugly for the opposing team.
It remains to be seen who will win this game of cat and mouse, but Trout was the MVP after seeing his numbers decline across the board. If he improves even a little bit, it could be another historic season.