This story originally appeared in the March 24, 2014 issue of Sportsnet magazine.
SARASOTA, Fla. – You can spend your entire morning locked away in the video room, sifting through game tape and studying his approach. You can spend half the afternoon drinking coffee with your pitching coach, devising a strategy to limit his ability. You can do all the preparation you want. But when you’re a pitcher facing the Los Angeles Angels, you’ll eventually have to throw Mike Trout some pitches. And as the 22-year-old phenom has proven for two straight seasons, there’s not a lot you can throw him that he won’t crush to smithereens.
Here’s the book on Trout. First, he hits fastballs really well. According to the linear weight stats kept by FanGraphs, he’s currently the second-best hitter in the game against fastballs, trailing only Texas Ranger Shin-Soo Choo. Since 2000, just 12 players have had a better season hitting fastballs than Trout did in 2013. So, definitely don’t throw him any of those. But he also hits changeups, ranking sixth against that pitch. So you can’t really throw him those either. You can try to work around the strike zone and get him to chase, but Trout’s eye is so good—he swung at just 24.2 percent of the pitches he saw outside the zone in 2013, well below the league average—that he’s able to lay off most of those.
If you throw him fastballs and changeups for balls, he’ll just leave the bat on his shoulder and take his walk. That’s not good. He’s been a little less successful against breaking pitches like curveballs and sliders—although still better than the vast majority of major leaguers—but those pitches are only effective if you can set them up with fastballs and changeups. If he knows they’re coming, he’ll hit them. But you can’t throw fastballs and changeups. So you can’t throw breaking stuff either. Essentially, you can’t throw anything. So what the hell can you do?
“You just have to accept he’s going to get his hits,” says Baltimore Orioles starter Bud Norris, who’s faced Trout 12 times, giving up two singles, three doubles and a walk, and striking him out three times. “I’m not sure you can stop him entirely, so you basically just try to control him. You just try to keep the ball in the ballpark. If he gets on base—so be it. Sometimes that’s the best result.”
Norris, a 29-year-old right-hander, isn’t a fantastically talented pitcher, but he is a very smart one. He relies on guile to get batters out, exploiting their weaknesses to compensate for his underwhelming stuff. He’s very good at what he does. To get to this level and make 127 starts like he has, you have to be.
That’s why, the first time Norris faced Trout, in April 2013, he attacked the young outfielder with fastballs up in the zone. Norris had done his homework. Trout’s one weakness in 2012 seemed to be pitches in the upper half. That year, he hit just .257 against high pitches, missing the ball entirely 24.4 percent of the time he swung. That trend bled into the beginning of 2013, and Norris was able to get Trout to hit into a double play, strike out swinging and hit a fly ball, throwing seven of his 11 pitches to Trout that evening in the upper half of the zone.
But the thing about Trout is that he’s always adjusting, and by the time Norris faced him again in May, the Angels’ slugger had already begun eliminating his weakness against high pitches. Trout went 2-for-4 against Norris that night, with a long double and a line-drive single, both hit off pitches in the upper half. The phenom went on to finish 2013 batting .299 against upper-half pitches, missing on just 19.6 percent of his swings. The hole simply wasn’t there. “Yeah, I wouldn’t want to go up in the zone on him anymore. I’ll try to change his eye level more now,” Norris says. “I’ll probably keep it down in the zone a lot more and try to make him pound it into the ground. I’ll go in and out of the zone on him. I’ll keep playing that chess game with him. We’ll see what happens.”
While Norris is surprisingly open with his plans on how he’ll approach Trout this year, many pitchers are not. Brett Cecil, an all-star reliever for the Toronto Blue Jays, is one of them. “Yeah, I’ve got my game plan for him. But I’m not going to tell anybody,” Cecil says. “A lot of it will depend on the day, too. What the situation is; which of my pitches I feel are working; what he’s been hitting. That stuff can change game to game.”
Cecil has faced Trout on six occasions—more than any other Blue Jay—and gotten him out four times. In 2012, Trout worked a 3-1 count against Cecil and then took an 81 mph changeup up and away to deep left field for a home run. What must have been frustrating about that hit, apart from the fact that Trout hit a changeup in a fastball count, was that the pitch was located pretty well. It was up in the zone—which, you’ll remember, Trout was having trouble with in 2012—and close to the outside edge of the strike zone, not the easiest pitch for a right-hander to get to, and an especially difficult pitch to hit for a home run to left field.
When Cecil faces Trout, he looks in to the plate and imagines the strike zone in quadrants—as if someone had drawn a big cross through the middle of it. If he’s trying to throw Trout that same high changeup away, he’ll aim it for the very outside edge of the upper-left quadrant. He’ll try to put the pitch basically right on the line between being a ball and a strike. With some hitters, Cecil would come into the zone more to give himself a better chance of having the pitch called a strike. But with Trout, Cecil would rather aim for just a fraction of the strike zone, so Trout has less chance of making good contact.
This strategy also makes sense because Trout is notorious for leaving things in the hands of the umpires. He took the third-most pitches on the edge of the strike zone of all qualified hitters last season and struck out looking 53 times, the second-most in baseball. MLB umpiring seems biased against younger players, who can expect to have borderline calls not go their way. The strike zones of veteran stars like Derek Jeter or David Ortiz seem to be smaller than those of the next generation of talent. Whether it’s fair or not, it’s a reality. And at this point in Trout’s career, with him being so young and umpires being so curmudgeonly, the MVP candidate stands to have most of the pitches he takes on the outer edges of the zone called as strikes.
Of course, that’s just when he takes those pitches. Trout’s swing is so compact and fast that when he reads a pitch on the outer half, he has little trouble getting his bat out there to hit it. That’s how a changeup up and away lands in the left-field seats. “With guys like him, sometimes even if I put it a bit outside the zone, he’ll get to it. I’ll miss my location outside and he’ll still hit it somewhere,” Cecil says. “So I try to give myself some room for error and understand that those things are going to happen.”
So what have we learned? Well, it doesn’t seem like there’s much a pitcher can do. Trout is constantly evolving; there’s no guarantee that what worked against him once will work next time. That’s why, for many pitchers, getting Trout to make an out any way they can is an accomplishment. “I’ll always remember when I picked him off at second base one time,” Norris says. “That felt pretty good.”