Monday, November 3, 2014

Trout: An Evolving MVP By Any Metric

   By Ross Newhan
     It is impossible now to find a major league front office that doesn't devote space and study to analytics, the advanced metrics that annoy veteran scouts and often create internal debate and disagreement.

     Take the case of Mike Trout, who next week is expected to be named recipient (and deservedly so) of the American League's Most Valuable Player Award in voting by a committee of the Baseball Writers Assn. of America.

      Miguel Cabrera, the recipient in both 2012 and 2013, will not again leave the Angels center fielder in runner-up position.

    At 23, Trout has produced three full seasons of historic dimensions, compiling numbers matched only by an illustrious few.

    Batting second for a team that led the major leagues in wins last season, Trout led the AL in runs and RBI (111), matched his career high with 39 doubles and reached a career high in home runs (36).

    Strangely, however, even with his MVP progression and the wider recognition as the game's best player, Trout has been the subject of internet and talk show discourse regarding where he is as a hitter and where he is headed.

     In a web blog titled "The New and Not So Improved Mike Trout", on the sabermetric haven that is,  Tony Blengino writes that Trout became a power-before-hit guy in 2014 as opposed to a hit-before-power guy in his first two  seasons.

    Blengino suggests that Trout swapped outs for power, producing in the process a dramatic increase in pop ups and strikeouts--"free outs for pitchers."

      Some of the metrics can't be disputed. They are part of Trout's 2014 box score. For instance:

      As his average fell below .300 for the first time (to .287), Trout's strike out rate jumped from 19% to 26% and he led the AL in strike outs at 184 (compared to 136 in 2013). His pop up rate almost doubled, and the number of at bats ending in fly balls put him in the 90th percentile.

     That lower batting average and fewer ground balls resulted in his stolen base total dropping from 49 and 33 in his first two seasons to 16 this year.

      In addition, while batting a composite .262 in August and September before going 1 for 12 as Kansas City wiped out the Angels in the division series, no major league hitter saw more pitches--almost 40%-- that Fangraph describes as "high and hard."

      An obvious vulnerability?

      A conscious effort for power above all else?

      It's a matter of how the metrics are interpreted.

      "Look, we all have a tendency to pick things apart," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said from his Westlake Village home. "We win more games than any team in the major leagues and the only thing people remember is the series with Kansas City. Were we disappointed with that? Of course. Was it the way we wanted it to end? Certainly not.

       "With Mike, a couple categories weren't what people might expect but you have to look at the whole picture, and this guy is still the best offensive player in baseball, the best player. I mean, the thing we tried to do for Mike this year was put him in a position where he could hit with more guys on base, which is why we moved him (from leadoff) to No. 2 in the batting order, and I certainly think he responded."

      For Scioscia and his hitting coach, Don Baylor, it's all a matter of Trout evolving and pitchers adjusting. The name of the game in other words.

      "I saw the league change its approach more than Mike change his style or objective," Baylor, the 1979 MVP, said from his LaQuinta home. "Mike likes the ball down, likes to take the first pitch and go from there. Guys like (Don) Mattingly, (Rod) Carew and (Wade) Boggs were the same way but recognized that at times you have to be more aggressive.

     "Mike understands. He's young, still learning, and pitchers are going to try and exploit any possible weakness  Yes, he was worked high and hard, but he also saw breaking balls away, fastballs and cutters in, and with all that he had an MVP season and recognizes that the main thing now is to whittle down the strikeouts, put the ball in play, put pressure on the defense with his speed. Nothing good happens on a strike out except for giving the bat boy more work."
     Added Scioscia: "For anyone to suggest that Mike was trying to force anything or that he changed anything in his style or approach I strongly disagree. I mean, people tend to look past the fact that he's still a very young hitter who is going to continue making little adjustments that any hitter will as they gain experience and evolve into the type hitter they are going to be long-term. He certainly has the power to hit that many home runs again and he certainly has the ability to hit .310 and .320. And, as he continues to evolve and gain the experience that all hitters need, I think you'll see the strike outs shrink and the situational component improve."

       Situational component? Is there really a need to throw up a defense for a player of Trout's caliber?

       What 23 year old in any endeavor isn't evolving?

       And given Trout's three year production it seems realistic to think, as Scioscia and Baylor believe, that an adjustment here and there and a little more aggressiveness early in the count should help restore his batting average and turn some of those pop ups and fly balls into line drives and ground balls, benefitting his speed.

      The bottom line, perhaps, is that for all of those often indecipherable metrics (WAR, OPS,  BABIP), Trout is about to emerge with an acronym that tells a more complete story: MVP.