Mike Trout’s career-best start has us wondering what’s possible in 2021
It’s May 3rd and Mike Trout is batting .413.
He also has seven homers, a .515 on-base percentage and 1.290 OPS, with 2.0 bWAR and 259 OPS+.
“What I’m seeing right now is pretty darn good,” Angels manager Joe Maddon told reporters on a recent pregame Zoom call.
Even a sore elbow — he was hit on a pitch by Houston’s Christian Javier on April 22 — proved to be nothing more than a hiccup. He missed a couple of games, but has hit .458 in the six games since he’s returned to the lineup.
This is, by most measurements, his best start to a season. Those numbers we referenced are all career bests to start a season, with the exception of the home runs. Trout had 11 homers through May 2 in 2018, but “only” a .433 on-base percentage and 1.084 OPS.
So, two questions pop to mind.
1. What’s different this year?
Trout struggled a bit in the shortened 2020 season; his on-base percentage fell under .400 for the first time since 2014 and he posted the lowest OPS+ of his career (164).
Yes, every word of that sentence is ridiculous. His down season still resulted in a fifth-place finish in the AL MVP race.
“You’re talking about somebody in a different galaxy. Even when he’s going badly, it’s still really good,” Maddon said. “The standards for him are so high, it’s very difficult to maintain them constantly. Just by the conversation that surrounds him that we’re all aware of, I think the right word maybe is ‘pressure.’ He feels this pressure to at least be that, and he’s always tried to do more. He’s got this high standard to live up to and he does.”
The key so far this year, Trout told reporters via Zoom, is timing.
“It all starts with getting that foot down,” he said. “When it’s not down, I don’t recognize pitches, the chase rate goes up. Being on time and recognizing the pitch is big.”
2. What’s possible this year?
A month does not a season make, of course. He’s played 23 games, which is a crazy-small sample size. And yet, we’ve learned to expect greatness from Trout in his career. If he retired tomorrow, he would be a first-ballot Hall of Fame choice.
Still, Trout is not going to hit .400. Well, he’s almost certainly not going to hit .400. He’s only topped .315 twice, and that was way back in his rookie year of 2012 (.326) and in 2013 (.323). He hasn’t even finished at .300 since 2018. To hit .400 would be a huge jump.
Trout obviously isn’t the first person to finish April with a batting average north of .400. Since 1961, when baseball expanded its season to 162 games, a total of 72 players have finished April with at least 75 plate appearances and an average of .400 or better.
You already know how many of those 72 finished at .400 or better: Zero. No hitter has topped .400 for an entire season since Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941.
Barry Bonds tops that list of 72; he was batting .472 with 10 homers and a .696 — not a typo — on-base percentage at the end of April 2004. He finished at .362, 45 and .609.
A few other end-of-April notables …
— Larry Walker was at .456 in 1997, when he finished at .366
— Tony Gwynn had an average north of .400 at the end of April three times (1984, 1996 & 1999).
— Bonds, Rod Carew, Paul O’Neill and Pete Rose all finished April with an average of .400 or better twice in their careers.
— Pete O’Brien did it twice, too, in back-to-back years! He was batting .433 at the end of April 1988, and he finished at .272; he was batting .400 in 1989 and finished at .260.
Again, it’s a small sample size, but Trout is crushing the baseball so far this year.
Here are a few StatCast numbers, from BaseballSavant.com, which tracks numbers starting from 2015: His hard-hit percentage is 58.9 percent. His barrel percentage is 19.6. His average exit velocity is 93.8. All three of those totals are StatCast-era bests for him. And remember, he won two AL MVP awards and finished second two other times in that era.
Could he top 50 homers for the first time? Set a career high for doubles? Crack the 11-bWAR club? Those things are all possible in his Age 29 season.
“He’s got everything going on right now,” Maddon said.
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