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Solving the Mystery of Mike Trout’s Debut Season

No one has been better than Trout over his five full seasons. In his partial 2011 campaign, however, the outfielder was below average. But was he actually bad? Or did the surface numbers deceive us? We consulted the stats and the experts to crack the case.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

How do you like your heroes: perfect or flawed? If you prefer an irreproachable idol, Mike Trout is your type. As my colleague Michael Baumann laid out last week, the world has nothing negative to say about Trout as a person or role model: He’s dedicated, he’s self-effacing, and he plays with a seriousness that endears him to people who think that’s the "right way" to play baseball, without himself suggesting that such a way exists.

While there are many people as nice as or nicer than Mike Trout, there’s no one better at baseball. By the standards of a sport that maybe more than any other routinely humbles its superstars, he’s even less the kind of hero who could pass for a regular guy. Not only has he been baseball’s best player in each of his five full seasons, accruing the most wins above replacement ever through age 24, but whenever he’s had a small weakness — an anemic throwing arm, not hitting high fastballs, being too passive against curveballs — he’s quickly corrected it. Even if you think you’ve discovered a stat in which Trout has struggled, you can often drill down to find that it’s disguising another one in which he has been good.

But there is one tiny, mysterious smudge remaining on his otherwise unparalleled record. I mentioned that Trout has been the best player in baseball in each of his full seasons. But Trout had a partial season, too, one we tend not to talk about. There’s little reason to dwell on it when there’s so much to marvel at: the two years when he won MVP awards, and the three other years when he should have. But the more superlative seasons that pile up on Trout’s Baseball-Reference page, the more I’m drawn to that unspectacular small sample, which stands out like a clogged pore chiseled onto Mount Rushmore.

For 40 games in 2011, his debut year in the majors, Trout was a below-league-average hitter, with a .220/.281/.390 line in 135 plate appearances. That translates to an 87 wRC+ (where 100 is average), which tied Trout with luminaries like Eduardo Núñez, Ryan Theriot, John Buck, and another highly touted outfield prospect whose career had already stalled, Delmon Young. It’s the only period, however brief, in which we saw Trout look human.

With any other player, we would dismiss that little blip, because it would be strange for anyone other than Trout to succeed under the same circumstances. Trout was 19 in early July 2011 when the Angels summoned him from Double-A Arkansas, where he’d hit .326/.414/.544. Just by becoming a big leaguer that young, he was already doing something extraordinary. In the wild-card era, only seven hitters have made more plate appearances in an age-19 season; two of them (Adrián Beltré and Alex Rodriguez) have Cooperstown-caliber career stat lines, and two more (Manny Machado and Bryce Harper) could be building their own. Most of the other 19-year-olds scuffled during their first stretches too; the closest comp is probably A-Rod, who like Trout posted a .672 OPS as a 19-year-old and went on to finish second in AL MVP voting the next year.

Still, in retrospect, it’s surprising that there was any period during which Trout didn’t dominate. The next season, he was better than everyone else — and better than any 20-year-old had ever been. He’s had slumps since 2011, but he’s never had another 40-game stretch of being below average at the plate.

In fact, he’s been amazing in a metronomic way, posting wRC+ marks between 167 and 176 in each year. No other hitter who’s played in each of the last five seasons has had such a narrow range between his best and worst wRC+, and Trout has achieved that consistency at a level that most players couldn’t dream of reaching even once. So how did Trout go from below-average results to being the best ever in the span of one winter?

"It was almost like the first day of the regular season or the first day of the playoffs," Justin Hollander remembers about the beginning of Trout’s major league career. "That kind of buzz in the hallway."

In summer 2011, when a Peter Bourjos hamstring strain created an opening for Trout in the Angels outfield, Hollander was a player development and scouting assistant for the team. (Today, he’s the director of baseball operations for the Mariners, a frequent Trout victim.) As such, he was especially well versed in what made the team’s top prospect special, but Trout’s arrival was a major moment for anyone with an @angels.com address.

"When it’s that type of talent, it touches more than just baseball operations," Hollander says. "It becomes an organizational moment, where it touches scouting and player development, marketing. The people in accounting know who he is."

Trout had been the future of the franchise since his selection in the first round of the 2009 draft. Although he’d fallen to 25th overall — largely due to bad weather, a lack of high-level experience, the scarcity of New Jersey–born hitting stars, and his nontraditional baseball body type — the Angels had had him "sixth or seventh" on their board, according to Eddie Bane, a current Red Sox special assistant who drafted Trout while serving as the Angels’ amateur scouting director and will probably be retelling Trout stories for the rest of his life. Trout was second on Bane’s personal preference list, behind Stephen Strasburg. "That sounds good, but I was wrong still," Bane says. "He should have been first. Stephen Strasburg’s pretty good, but Mike’s the best player in the world."

As precocious as he was, Trout wasn’t quite a finished product when he entered the Angels’ system. "He had a very steep swing," says Abe Flores, a current Yankees scout who was then the Angels’ director of player development. "It was more of a chop. It was just a steep plane going down."

By the time Trout was invited to his first big league spring training camp in 2010, though, he had ironed out that issue, appearing so polished that Hollander recalls Angels staffers joking about starting him in Triple-A instead of A-ball. Both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus ranked Trout as the game’s second-best prospect in spring 2011, coming off a strong season in the Midwest and California Leagues and a tool-flashing performance in the 2010 Futures Game that made Bane feel good about having decided to take Trout after telling his subordinates that "the first round is mine."

"He ran under 3.9 [seconds to first base] three times in the Futures Game," Bane says. "And nobody can run under 3.9, definitely not a right-handed hitter. … Guys were laughing at me because I don’t ever carry a stopwatch, so they all showed me their times and I went, ‘No.’ And then he did it again and then he did it again."

(If you’re wondering how the Angels wound up with a weak farm system in recent years, here’s one of many reasons: Angels GM Tony Reagins fired Bane in 2010, citing poor performance in the 2009–10 drafts — which yielded a bounty that included Trout, Randal Grichuk, Tyler Skaggs, Garrett Richards, Patrick Corbin, Kole Calhoun, and Cam Bedrosian, among others. Fortunately for Bane, he says "it never does hurt" to have "drafted Mike Trout" on your résumé.)

Despite Trout’s skills and early minor league success, the Angels were wary of moving him too quickly, as prospect evaluator John Sickels hinted that they might have when the news of his impending promotion to the majors broke. Hollander remembers a prevailing, organization-wide impulse to say, "Let’s not screw this one up, let’s take our time," and refrain from rushing him. As with any prospect, Flores says, "You just worry about them. You want them to have success. You don’t want [them] to all of [a] sudden go up there and run into failure and start to question their ability."

On the other hand, when a team has a player with Trout’s talent and makeup, it doesn’t want to waste him against minor league pitching. "Everybody talks about pushing them too fast, but one of the hardest parts of scouting is not pushing them fast enough when they’re ready, when they’re a different bird," Bane says.

Hence the two-level promotion, the hallway buzz, and the big expectations. But Trout didn’t deliver immediately. He went 0-for-3 in his July 8 debut, and through his first nine games, he was 4-for-30 with three walks and one extra-base hit (a double).

After the ninth game, Trout appeared to fix whatever excess of jitters or absence of adjustments had been holding him back. "At one point during the call-up, he was a good performer for a couple-week stretch, where you looked up and he had an .800 OPS and he was doing all of things that you would expect Mike Trout to be doing," Hollander says. That stretch started in Game 10; in that game and his following 15, Trout hit .356/.423/.756 in 52 plate appearances, with five home runs and only one more strikeout than walk. By September 3, his OPS was up to .861.

If Trout’s season had ended there or continued at the same torrid pace, this article wouldn’t exist. But he ended his first big league season in a worse slump than he’d started it, hitting .146/.180/.188 with 17 strikeouts and only two walks in his final 50 plate appearances.

Keep in mind that even when Trout wasn’t excelling on offense, he was still running and fielding well enough to be valuable. His 0.7 WAR that season would prorate to more than 3.5 WAR over his usual 700-ish plate appearances — terrible by Trout standards, but good by the typical player’s. But there’s more to the mystery of Trout’s subpar offense in his first season: His bat probably wasn’t as bad as the stats make it seem.

Granted, Trout’s sense of the strike zone wasn’t as refined as it was starting the next season: He swung at a career-high percentage of pitches outside the strike zone and a career-low percentage of pitches inside the strike zone, recording a chase rate worse than the league average for the only time in his first six seasons. And according to Sportvision HITf/x data — a precursor to Statcast — obtained from a major league source, Trout’s average launch angle in 2011 was 16.3 degrees, higher than in 2012 (11.1 degrees) or 2013 (12.7 degrees). He was swinging at worse pitches, and as a result, he was getting under them more often as well as walking less often.

However, he did hit the ball hard from the beginning. Again according to HITf/x data — which reports lower average exit-speed values for all hitters than Statcast, because it tracked bunts and other weakly hit balls that Statcast doesn’t include — Trout hit the ball almost as hard in 2011 as he did in 2012, topping the average hitter with at least 250 balls in play in 2011 by 1.4 mph.

Somehow, despite hitting the ball harder than average and running faster than was supposed to be possible, Trout posted a .247 batting average on balls in play that season, even though he leads all hitters with at least 1,500 plate appearances from 2012 to 2017 with a .365 BABIP over that span. Fatigue may have played a part: Trout, who was still adjusting to baseball’s relentless schedule after getting more off days as an amateur and in rookie ball, managed only a .600 OPS in the Arizona Fall League that year, and Hollander theorizes that he was "already dead tired" by the end of the regular season. But even if Trout was tired and hitting more cans of corn than he does today, it’s safe to say the guy got a little unlucky.

"People forget how fast he was then," Hollander says. "I vividly recall him hitting a ground ball to third base, Adrián Beltré looking over at our dugout after either throwing him out or he’d just beat it out or something like that, and mouthing ‘wow’ to the dugout. For him to be a 90 runner on a 20–80 scale, and have a [.247] BABIP, ‘unusual’ is a mild way to put it."

No one with the Angels was fooled by Trout’s initially disappointing surface stats. Former pitcher Dan Haren, who played with Trout in 2011, says the 19-year-old "stood out from the start" to his teammates. "There was a game, I believe in Seattle, where he went off," Haren says, referring to the August 30 game when Trout homered twice (once on a pitch low and away) and walked in five trips to the plate. "I remember thinking how unique his swing was and how the ball just jumped off his bat. There was never a point even with his early struggles that any of us thought that he wasn’t legit. I had never played with anyone with that combination of speed and power."

As far as the front office and field staff were concerned, Trout’s below-average slash line at 19 had no bearing on their intention to hand him a season-long starting spot at 20.

"I don’t think anybody had him pegged as, ‘should finish top 2 in the MVP every year starting next year’ at our org meetings at the end of the year," Hollander says. "But there was no [roster] construction where people were speaking about, ‘Is Mike Trout going to be good?’"

This wasn’t a Byron Buxton scenario, where the tools and talent shine through even as the player genuinely flounders. Trout had the tools and, lousy slash line notwithstanding, he also really was major league ready, even at 19 and despite skipping Triple-A.

"It wasn’t like he struck out a ton," Hollander says. "Watching it live, he never appeared overmatched or uncomfortable. I’m sure he did get better — players get a lot better between their 19- and 20-year-old years, or during those seasons. But I don’t think the difference in their true talent was great at 19 or 20. I just think he was unlucky."

In the second paragraph of this piece, I wrote that when you think you’ve found a flaw in Trout, you’re usually underestimating him. That’s what happened here. Peak Trout didn’t quite spring from the minors fully formed. But almost no sample is small enough to make him look less than great.