Are Mike Trout’s homers an illusion?

It sure seems blasphemous to criticize any aspect of Mike Trout’s game. The newly-turned 24 year old has led baseball in fWAR in each of his first three seasons and is on pace to do it once again. And he’s not bolstered by only one category, everything he does is elite. Trout is, without a doubt, a scout’s exact definition of a five tool ballplayer; the glove, the arm, the speed, the contact and the power.

Mike Trout homers illusionExcept the power may not be quite as fearsome as it first looks. Now, I’m not doubting Trout’s ability to launch balls into the stratosphere with absurd exit velocity, because it is an objective fact that he can do so (well, maybe sliiiighhtlyy exaggerated). But once a closer look is taken at his power peripherals, some question gets brought up as to whether or not he is truly a mid-30s homer hitter, or is he a little less.

The first clue to this lays in the Home Run Tracker data that ESPN collects on (you guessed it) every homer hit. Sure, Trout is tied for first in the majors in homers, but his total has been heavily padded by what they have classified as Just Enough dingers. His 13 are tied for most in the league, and no one else on the top five for Just Enoughs managed to get onto the top five in total home runs for either the American or National Leagues.

Just Enough home runs count just as much as No Doubts in games and value formulas, but they don’t carry their value well when it comes to next seasons projections. Just barely creeping over the fence doesn’t bode well when it comes to repeatability as we’ve seen time and again when it comes to surprising power jumps, or quick power declines.

Something else that starts to bring worry to Trout’s power is his home run to fly ball ratio (HR/FB). This ratio can be a little tricky for beginners to try an utilize effectively, but in a nutshell a hitter has much more control over it than a pitcher. Pitchers tend to gravitate towards 10%, with few are barely able to live just a point or two above or below. Hitters however can maintain ratios double that, sometimes more in extreme cases. And of course there are guys like Elvis Andrus who can maintain their ratio at zero thanks to a complete lack of power. Right now, Trout’s HR/FB is sitting at an extreme 28.4%, highest in the majors by a full percentage point over fellow home run leader Nelson Cruz. A slight decrease in fly balls hit by Trout this season is partially to blame, but this ratio should stay somewhat consistent, and almost certainly not creeping up towards 30% (as an aside, since line drives, grounders and fly balls are tracked by hand and not any objective method, we could attribute some of the decrease in fly balls to human error and a large increase in line drives).

Another thing to look at is how successful he has been on the fastball. At over 34 runs above average (by FanGraphs’ pitch weighted values), that’s an insane amount of value to get from just one pitch. Clearly Trout shows dominance on the pitch as he has crushed it his entire career, but a mark so high can also be a cause for concern. It’s so tough to replicate that number, which means to keep up the value he would have to either continue to mash the four seamer at a ridiculous rate (still a possibility with Trout) or start to find success against other pitches – which have given him significantly more trouble. Remember, significantly more trouble means that he’s only average to slightly below on all of these, without a true weak pitch.

There’s some strong evidence that maybe Mike Trout’s home run totals are a little more hollow than Angels fans and fantasy owners would care to admit, but that is all this article is saying. Trout could adjust his swing or find some correction and hit 40+ homers next season and it wouldn’t be surprising because that’s the kind of player he is (although unlikely with his current state). Even with the evidence against him, he’s still first in baseball in hard contact percentage and top twenty in batted ball distance. It is far from impossible for someone of his intelligence and ability to make the correct adjustments and come back even better yet in 2016.

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James Krueger
James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.