Mike Trout's Crazy Season Isn't Crazy at All
The numbers point to this season being Peak Mike Trout, not Fluke Mike Trout.
Photo by Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
Since being called up in April 2012, Mike Trout has been the best player in baseball by a fairly wide margin. He's led the American League in WAR each of the last five seasons, and has finished either first or second in MVP voting every year. Really, there's a solid case to be made that Trout should have been MVP in each of the last five seasons.
So, yes, Trout has been reliably dominant, but because of his age—he's 25 right now—you'd be forgiven for wondering if there was somehow a layer of his immense talent that still hasn't been unearthed. Could he possibly get even better? Based on what Trout has done so far in the 2017 season, we might finally be catching a glimpse of that next level.
Even by his own ridiculous standards, Trout has been an absolute conqueror of worlds this year. After Monday's game, he was putting up a line of .343/.464/.741, good for an OPS of 1.205, and an OPS+ of 230. If Trout keeps this up, it would be the most impressive hitting season since Barry Bonds' reign of terror from 2001-04. So far, he has put up a fWAR of 3.1; if he maintains that pace, it would make him worth 11 wins for the year, a number that even he hasn't quite been able to reach (his career high is 10.8 in 2012).
Of course, when any player gets off to a rolling start, we have to wonder if we're merely being taken in by a small sample size, and he'll come down to earth by the end of the season. But we're not talking about any player. We're talking about Mike Trout.
When someone is hitting nearly .350, it's natural to wonder if luck is a factor. That's where Batting Average on Balls in Play, or BABIP comes in. If a player has an absurdly high BABIP, it's likely that they've simply been going through a lucky stretch. Trout's BABIP for the year is .365, which is quite high. It is not, however, out of character. In fact, it's actually slightly below last year's .371, and 2013's .376, and even further below 2012's .383. Basically, this is par for Trout's course.
So, if it's not luck, what explains Trout's sudden boost in batting average? It could be a simple matter of Trout maturing as a hitter, and making smarter decisions at the plate. So far this year, Trout has struck out 36 times in 143 at bats, which would put him on pace for 136 strikeouts in a projected 544 at-bat season—well below his career average. He's also walking at a higher rate than ever before.
A handful of at-bats resulting in hits rather than strikeouts could be enough to carry Trout's average from the low .300s to the mid .300s. It makes sense that after six seasons of facing major league pitching, Trout has become more familiar with pitchers and the strike zone, making him a better hitter than the already great hitter he was.
Of course, there's also the matter of power. With 14 home runs, he's on pace for 53 home runs in that same 544 at-bat season, 12 more than his career, and 24 more than last season. This is where Trout will probably fall off slightly. For his career, he has tended to hit better before the All-Star break than after, as his pre-ASG OPS is 1.004, compared to .936 after. Still, the next two months of June and July have historically been where Trout has done his most offensive damage; he has a career OPS of 1.036 in June and 1.022 in July. So even taking into account his tendency to dip in the second half, things could still get even better before they get worse.
Then there is the issue of age. Trout turns 26 in August, and is about to reach his absolute peak as an athlete. Looking at his career to date, the lack of luck, along with his increased discipline at the plate, and it's reasonable to conclude this season is simply approaching Peak Mike Trout and not Fluke Mike Trout. A good comparison might be the season Barry Bonds had in 1992, when he morphed from a strong hitter into a beast, putting up an OPS of 1.080, and winning his second MVP. Bonds, who turned 27 that July, was only slightly older than Trout is now.
Baseball is a random game, and it's quite possible that by the time this season is over, Trout's numbers will look closer to what he usually puts up than, say, Mark McGwire circa 1998. Still, taking everything into consideration, there's no statistic that says a severe regression is especially likely. It's entirely possible that Mike Trout actually could keep this up.