One of the best things about having a weekly article is, I’ll be honest, the Mike Trout stories. There are so many fun facts and depths to mine in how good Trout has been, so early (now even 10 years into his career) that it’s almost an automatic “look at this, wow!” type story no matter what you put down.
This isn’t that type of story, though.
Mike Trout is still good, and through the weekends’ games, was right where he belongs again, near or atop the WAR and wRC+ leaderboards.
We’re used to Trout’s greatness, but perhaps not the way he’s doing it. In fact, he’s succeeding at the plate in a way no one really ever has before.
Trout is putting everything in the air. Like, the second most in baseball this year (only Adam Duvall, who is slashing .202/.265/.303 is putting in the air more). Among qualified hitters since 2002, only two other players besides Duvall have hit more flyballs (2010 Aramis Ramirez and 2002 and 2006 Frank Thomas). The degree to which Trout is elevating the baseball may be surprising, but the overall trend is not– he’s been steadily increasing his flyball percentage since 2016.
It’s not easy to succeed hitting that many in the air. Among the six qualified player seasons to have eclipsed 55% flyballs in a full season, only Frank Thomas has been an above-average hitter.
And no hitters have ever hit that many flyballs while walking as much or hitting as few infield pop-ups as Trout has so far in 2022.
It would appear then that Trout has simply decided that he hits the ball hard, so he might as well hit them hard and in the air. It’s not so much a flyball revolution attempt at hitting the ball harder as we’ve seen other hitters revive their careers, but one of hitting the ball hard a different way.
Trout’s exit velocity and hard hit rates are actually down from the previous two seasons, it’s just his approach is leading to more success with his .661 slugging percentage and MLB best 217 wRC+.
You might expect that with so many flies, it’s hard to run a good BABIP, and you’d be right. Among hitters who have hit more than half their batted balls in the air, the highest-ever BABIP is .311. Mike Trout’s so far this year (again, he’s hitting 55% of his balls in the air) is .369.
His approach is sort of a Megazord of skills that would lead to success with a flyball-heavy profile such as his.
To hit so many flyballs in the air you’d want to make sure you’re hitting them hard– and Trout continues to be in the top 10% of average exit velocity, max exit velocity, and hard hit %. You’d want to be selective at the pitches you hit, as evidenced from Trout’s 97th-percentile walk rate and 93rd-percentile chase rate. And, in case you miss the pitch, you’d want to be fast to beat out ground balls. Trout is still in the 97th percentile of sprint speed.
It’s hard to come up with a better profile for a flyball-heavy hitter. Among the top-20 flyball hitters since 2002, there aren’t many speedsters in there, and none had a BABIP even reaching .300:
Fast Frank Thomas isn’t a bad comp for what Trout is doing, which is a terrifying thing to think about for opposing pitchers. Another commonality between the two is how selective they appear to be at the balls they want to hit. Among those top-20 flyballers, only Thomas and Trout have swung at less than 40% of the pitches they’ve seen.
If you’re looking for a reason to give pitchers more insomnia, consider that despite hitting all those balls in the air about as hard as anyone in baseball can hit them, only 20.9% of those flies have left the yard. That’s a pretty high rate, considering Frank Thomas averaged 14.7% for the years between 2002-2008 (the only years for his career for which we have flyball data), and only eclipsed 20% once. Trout though is actually hitting fewer flyballs out than he has averaged for his career!
All that said, it’s still early in 2022. There is a reason only six players have hit so many flyballs in a full season. But this is a trend we’ve seen out of Trout for several years now, and even with some regression in the number of flies he’s able to hit, we’ve still never quite seen a hitter succeed to this degree in this way.
If you were able to strip away the name and speed from the leaderboards you might assume you were looking at a stat page for a massive hulking slugger. Mike Trout is that, but also happens to be one of the fastest and most disciplined players in all of baseball.
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Matt Fletcher (@little.gnt on Instagram)