Envision a scenario in which you, the reader, have been blessed with the gift of having a “crystal ball” with which you can look into the future and know anything about the game of baseball. Envision now that you’ve been asked a rather specific question by someone who is aware of your psychic gifts: “What team will MLB’s home run leader on June 3 play for?”
You look into your crystal ball and you see that there’s a three-way tie at 17 for first place on this date, complicating things a bit. You can see that there’s a player from the Chicago White Sox, a player from the Colorado Rockies, and a player from the Baltimore Orioles. You don’t reveal which players, leaving the masses to mull over which players it might be.
From the White Sox, there’s two clear choices; it’s likely either Todd Frazier or Jose Abreu (the correct answer is Frazier). Again with the Rockies, it’s most likely one of two men: Carlos Gonzalez or Nolan Arenado (Arenado is the man in question). From the Orioles, however, one might presume that it must be Chris Davis, MLB’s home run champion in two of the last three years. They might briefly consider that it could be Manny Machado, but Davis seems to be a far better bet.
But no, those presumptuous folks would be dead wrong. In fact, to date, Davis has just ten homers, four behind Machado and seven behind the Orioles’ team leader:
Mark Trumbo. Trumbo, after a two-homer night against he Boston Red Sox on Thursday now sits alongside Frazier and Arenado as MLB’s home run leaders.
Trumbo has always been a hitter with excellent power, posting multiple 30-homer seasons in the minors as a Los Angeles Angels farmhand and then clubbing 29, 32, and 34 homers in his first three seasons in the big leagues from 2011 to 2013. Following the 2013 season, in which he recorded 30 homers and 100 RBI for the first time in his career, he was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks as part of the three-team deal that sent pitchers Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs to Los Angeles as well as outfielder Adam Eaton to the Chicago White Sox.
Trumbo’s tenure in Arizona was relatively short and similarly underwhelming. He appeared in just 88 games in 2014 due to injury issues, and then saw action in just 46 more in 2015 before being sent up to the Seattle Mariners along with Vidal Nuno in return for Welington Castillo and a host of minor leaguers. As a Diamondback, Trumbo hit just .243/.295/.446 with 23 homers in 546 plate appearances. The power was still relatively good, but the average and on-base numbers had declined slightly from what they were in Los Angeles, where they were already below-average to begin with.
In 96 games with Seattle to conclude the 2015 campaign, Trumbo improved his average and on-base abilities but sacrificed a bit of power, hitting .263/.316/.419 with 13 homers and 13 doubles in 361 PAs. Despite being under team control through arbitration for one more season, the Mariners decided to part ways with Trumbo in December, sending him to Baltimore in exchange for catcher/first baseman Steve Clevenger, a move which saved the team over $8.5 million in salary expenses.
When the deal was made, the Orioles were still unsure if Chris Davis was going to be returning to the team, and many saw the Trumbo deal as a way to insure themselves at the first base position in the event that Davis left town via free agency. Eventually, Davis ended up returning to Baltimore on a seven-year deal worth over $160 million. This pushed Trumbo into the outfield, where he’d been a phenomenally poor defender over the past few seasons, racking up -13 defensive runs saved (DRS) between 2014 and 2015.
Nothing’s changed with Trumbo’s defense so far in Baltimore — he’s still looking as uncomfortable as ever tracking fly balls, accruing -5 DRS already this season — but the offensive output has increased astronomically, not only leading MLB in home runs but also posting career-best numbers in average, on-base percentage, and slugging thus far.
Trumbo’s most marked improvements in 2016 have come via his improved approach and patience at the plate. Trumbo is pretty notorious for never walking, posting a career 6.5 percent walk rate in just under 3,000 plate appearances. This season is no different, as his walk rate currently sits at 6.8 percent as of Friday afternoon. However, the way his improved approach has benefited him is in the quality of contact he is making so far.
Trumbo’s average exit velocity last season was 93.4 mph, seventh-best among MLB hitters with 100 or more batted ball instances. His average line drive and fly ball exit velocity, however, came in tied for 59th best in the bigs at 94.6 mph. So far this year, Trumbo’s average exit velocity is up to 95.0 mph, tied for third best in the majors among batters with 50 batted ball instances. Trumbo’s line drive and fly ball exit velocity has increased even more, up to 96.7 mph on average, good for 25th in the league.
In addition to Trumbo hitting the ball harder, he’s also hitting the ball at more desirable launch angles than he has in the past. In his career prior to 2016, Trumbo hit ground balls at a 44.6 percent rate and line drives/fly balls at a 55.5 percent combined rate. So far in 2016, Trumbo’s hit just 38.4 percent ground balls, and has increased his line drive/fly ball rate to 61.7 percent. As we know from past research, line drives and fly balls produce much better results in terms of isolated slugging (ISO) and weighted on-base average (wOBA) than ground balls.
So Trumbo has taken his already excellent power and improved it, and he’s also using that power more effectively by elevating the ball more often. But how is that derived from his approach at the plate? Simply put, Trumbo’s become more selective about the pitches he swings at, especially outside of the strike zone.
Prior to 2016, Trumbo had a career 38.5 percent chase rate. That is, he swung at 38.5 percent of the pitches he saw that were out of the strike zone. On those swings, Trumbo made contact 60.1 percent of the time. In 2015, his chase rate was slightly lower at 36.8 percent, and his chase contact rate was down to 58.5 percent. This season with the Orioles, however, Trumbo’s made big strides in each category, chasing just 31.8 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone and making contact just 49.0 percent of the time.
Clearly, such a change means that Trumbo is making far less contact on balls out of the strike zone, which is usually where it’s toughest to hit the ball hard. Most balls contacted out of the zone go for weak contact, so it’s no surprise that Trumbo’s average exit velocity is up now that he’s hitting fewer bad balls than he ever has before. But, what about balls inside the strike zone?
When looking at the location of pitches that Trumbo’s put into play over the last two seasons, it’s easy to see that he’s also improved his selectivity and approach on balls inside the strike zone too. Here’s a look at a heatmap of every ball Trumbo put in play last season between Arizona and Seattle:
As you can see, the concentration of pitches is highest low and away from Trumbo, a right-handed hitter. Now let’s see how the heatmap changes on pitches that Trumbo hit for a line drive or fly ball:
Compared to the last heatmap, you can see that the concentration of “well-struck” pitches from Trumbo is not only higher, but closer to his body. That’s no surprise, if you look at Trumbo’s exit velocities from the 2015 season, which shows how much Trumbo likes to hit the ball on the inner half of the plate as well as up in the zone, especially against righties:
So, now that we know where Trumbo likes to hit the ball the best — up and in — we can take a look at all of the balls he’s put in play this season:
No surprise that this year’s chart is concentrated much higher in the zone and closer to the middle of the plate than last year’s chart. In fact, this year’s map of all of Trumbo’s balls in play looks quite similar to the map of just the balls he hit well last season, which is why he’s been able to hit fewer grounders and more balls in the air this year. For the sake of it, here’s a graph of Trumbo’s line drives and fly balls this season:
It’s similar to the map of all his balls in play this season, but concentrated even more in on the hands, where he’s been excellent at turning on the ball for power to left field this season. Just as he did last year, he’s been crushing any balls that pitchers make the mistake of leaving up or in to Trumbo:
As Boston starter Rick Porcello learned Thursday night, you can’t miss on the inner half to Trumbo. In the fourth inning, Trumbo took a changeup that Porcello left middle-in and clobbered it out to left field at 114.8 mph:
Two innings later, Porcello again made the mistake of leaving a pitch inside to Trumbo. Despite being a bit late on the fastball, Trumbo muscled this ball a Statcast-estimated 458 feet out to right-center for his longest homer of 2016:
As a whole, Mark Trumbo has shown some legitimate signs of maturing as a hitter so far in 2016. He hasn’t tried to change his style of play by attempting to draw more walks or put more balls in play, but instead he seems to have pinpointed his biggest strength as a hitter and focused on using that skill to his advantage. While he’s surely bound to cool off from his torrid start eventually — his .326 BABIP and 27.0 percent HR/FB rate are likely too high to maintain over a full season — the improved approach Trumbo has shown should mean his overall performance in the future takes a step forward from where it’s been over the past few years.
For Orioles fans, the time couldn’t be better, as the Orioles desperately need to keep pace in the division with the American League’s top team (by record) in Boston. For Trumbo, the timing is just right too, as he’ll be a free agent this winter heading into his age-31 season. Overall, Trumbo’s been a key part to the Orioles’ success so far, and hopefully he will continue to make adjustments and maximize the potency of the raw power he’s possessed in his professional career.