The 2022 season was an oddity in the career of Mike Trout. While the outfielder hit to an elite OPS above .900 for the tenth time in his career, the way he achieved that number is significantly different than previous seasons. Trout’s uncanny ability to get on base while also managing to slug the baseball has always resulted in both a high OPS and WAR. Steamer projections, however, predict Trout to have a career-low in both OPS and WAR in 2023. The reason for these grim projections is mostly the result of worrying trends in Trout’s hitting approach in 2022.
Steamer hitter fWAR projections for 2023:— Full Count Baseball (@FullCountMLB) December 20, 2022
1. Juan Soto, 7.0
2. Aaron Judge, 6.9
3. Julio Rodriguez, 6.0
T4. Mookie Betts, 5.9
T4. Adley Rutchman, 5.9
T6. Wander Franco, 5.6
T6. Mike Trout, 5.6
T6. Yordan Alvarez, 5.6
9. Fernando Tatis Jr., 5.5
Anything stick out to you?
Trout hit the ball especially hard in 2022. His .630 slugging percentage is a near career-high, only falling short of his 2019 MVP season. Despite continuing to battle injuries throughout 2022, Trout slugged an impressive 40 home runs in 119 games. This 8% home run rate was a career-high, falling just .9% short of Aaron Judge’s record-breaking pace. While Trout’s 2022 campaign displayed impressive feats of power, other offensive statistics suffered as a result.
With worrying trends and a projection of a career-worst offensive year, is it finally time to start worrying about Mike Trout?
Analyzing Mike Trout’s Projections
Mike Trout and the Home Run Formula
The explanation as to why Trout hit so many home runs is easy. He followed the recipe.
Baseball can be broken down into complex numbers and percentages but at its heart, it’s a very simple game. The harder and higher you hit a baseball, the more likely it’ll leave the park. And that’s exactly what Mike Trout managed to do.
According to Baseball Savant, Trout’s average exit velocity of 91.6 was in the top ten percent of the league. His HardHit% was even better, ranking in the top 4 percent. Furthermore, his barrel percentage of 19.7% was a career-high, nearly a whole 2% higher than his next highest season. While Trout has always been a powerful hitter, this increase in barrel percentage indicates a conscious change in his swing. For a ball to be classified as a “barrel,” it must be hit at least 98 miles per hour with a launch angle between 26-30 degrees. Therefore a higher barrel percentage means that Trout hit the ball both harder and higher in 2022.
Trout’s 24.6-degree average launch angle is the highest of his career. With a launch angle of 25 to 50 degrees often resulting in a fly ball, Trout’s average launch angle suggests a consistent effort to get under and lift the baseball. This effort was successful and led to a career-high 44.7% fly ball rate while simultaneously leading to a career-low 25% ground ball rate. By coupling his power with a new approach of lifting the baseball, Trout encouraged more balls to leave the park.
This approach of hitting the ball hard and in the air, however, negatively impacted other aspects of his offensive production.
Swing and Miss
As a player tries to hit the ball harder, they become more likely to swing and miss. According to Baseball Savant, Trout’s Whiff% went from the 82nd percentile in 2019 to the 17th percentile in 2022. His whiff percentage of 30.2% is the highest of his career and is mostly the result of missing more 4-seam Fastballs.
Trout has been, and continues to be, an elite fastball hitter. In 2022, he recorded a 16-run value on the pitch with a 53.3% hard-hit rate. But his attempt to get under the baseball leaves him more vulnerable to 4-seamers fastballs that stay up in the zone. His 31.1 Whiff% on 4-seamers in 2022 is nearly double his 16.5% in 2019. While Trout’s ability to hit the fastball suffered the most in this new approach, his swing and miss on off-speed pitches suffered as well. Trout’s Whiff% and K% on sliders and curveballs also increased significantly from his 2019 numbers, demonstrating an overall tendency to swing and miss as the result of a higher launch angle. And, as a result of more swings and misses, Trout saw a career-high strikeout percentage of 28.1% in 2022.
Mike Trout has always been susceptible to the strikeout, even leading the AL in his 2014 MVP season. However, his elite walk rate and on-base numbers have more than made up for this weakness throughout his career. His 2022 season, however, saw a career-low walk rate of 10.8%. The increased gap between Trout’s strikeout rate and walk rate is a factor that led to a career-low .369 OBP. Steamer projects this on-base percentage to lower further to .360 in 2023, making it the first time in Trout’s career that his OPS would end below .900.
What Can We Really Expect in 2023?
Even with lower on-base numbers, Steamer’s projection feels overly pessimistic. Mike Trout has been the best player in baseball over the last decade. At the age of 31, he’s already within the top 60 of career leaders in WAR. Even at his projected wRC+ of 145, he’s still expected to be one of the best hitters in the game.
A multitude of factors could have caused such a drastic change in Trout’s swing. With the Los Angeles Angels offense consistently falling short, perhaps Trout put it upon himself to carry the offensive load. But with a more well-rounded lineup after the addition of Gio Urshela, Brandon Drury, and Hunter Renfroe, it will be interesting to see if Trout continues his power-focused approach or returns to a more well-rounded mix.
With the contract of superstar Shohei Ohtani coming to an end, the Angels will look to Trout for his production and leadership in what feels like a make-or-break season for the franchise.