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How To Prepare For The Return of Mike Trout: A Manager’s Guide

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Trout will be back in as soon as two weeks. Should we still consider the “Bonds Treatment”?

We are nearly at the one-month anniversary of Mike Trout’s first career trip to the disabled list, and thankfully we all survived and baseball is still fun. Trout’s thumb injury on May 28th put a halt to what had been his most promising season to date, but his Los Angeles Angels teammates have rallied in his absence to jump above .500 and make some Wild Card noise.

The scorching Angels should only benefit from the return of the best player on Earth, who stated that he may be back as soon as the All-Star break. How could they not? Trout was posting career bests in batting average (.337), on-base percentage (.461), and slugging percentage (.742). An OPS that high (1.203) has not been seen since the Barry Bonds days in the early 2000s.

Before his DL trip, Trout’s offensive dominance stood in stark contrast with the lackluster lineup around him. At the time of his injury, the Angels were 13th in the American League in runs scored. Batters not named Trout were hitting a combined .226. It was as if the Angels were bringing wiffleball bats to the dish while Trout was wielding the Mark McGwire Vortex Power Bat.


(Note: This is by no means an allegation of steroids use on the part of Mike Trout! Let the record show, however, that 90s-child Trout probably swung one of these at some point in his youth.) 

Now the Angels are a little more threatening, boasting a positive run differential (+3) and the ninth-best offense in the AL. Trout will rejoin the mix in as little time as two weeks. Fans will rejoice to witness the return of the Millville Meteor, but the opposition will sit, scowl, and ask themselves for the millionth time: “How do we attack Mike Trout?”

The answer? Don’t.

Image title

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, May 20th, New York Mets manager Terry Collinsabsolutely” considered intentionally walking Mike Trout with the bases loaded in a 7-4 game in the top of the ninth inning. Collins decided against the maneuver, Trout lifted an RBI sacrifice fly, and the Mets held on for a 7-5 victory. However, Collins’ musings brought the “Barry Bonds Treatment” phrase back into the public consciousness.

Bonds led the league in intentional walks for a record 12 seasons (since that stat has been kept in 1955), including an unmatchable 120 in 2004 with the San Francisco Giants. Even more famously, in 1998 then-Arizona Diamondbacks manager Buck Showalter gave Bonds a free pass with the bases loaded, opting to forfeit the one run rather than face the prolific slugger. Joe Maddon repeated this strategy while managing the Tampa Bay Rays, walking a red-hot Josh Hamilton with the bases full in 2008. Both Showalter and Maddon emerged victorious after those respective decisions, and that got Collins thinking.

Image titleRick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports


It also got ESPN’s Sam Miller to look back at The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, by Tom Tango, Mitchel G. Lichtman, and Andrew E. Dolphin. Miller took a look at Chapter 10, titled “Boots Were Made for Walking,” to see whether or not giving Trout the Bonds Treatment is justified. He eventually sides against the strategy, but his article nicely distills both the pros and cons of being especially (or overly) careful with Trout.

Thankfully, I possess my own copy of The Book and I wanted to examine the details a little more closely. According to Tango et al., the simplest way to determine when to intentionally walk a batter is to compare the hitter’s weighted on base average (wOBA) to the next few hitters in the lineup. For example, Trout has a wOBA of .475. The player who has hit behind him the most often, Albert Pujols, is at .282. The ratio of Trout wOBA to Pujols wOBA is .475/.282, or about 1.68.

Depending on the base/out/score configuration, there will be a wOBA ratio threshold where an intentional walk is statistically appropriate. Below is a sample of what that looks like in the top of the ninth.



Runs Ahead
Runs Behind
Inning
Bases
Outs
5
4
3
2
1
Tie
1
2
3
4
5
Top 9
-23
0
1.33
1.34
1.35
1.36
1.37
1.33
1.33




Top 9
-2-
1
1.38
1.39
1.40


1.32





Top 9
—3
1
1.31
1.32
1.33
1.34
1.35
1.22





Top 9
1-3
1





1.37





Top 9
-23
1
1.07
1.08
1.08
1.10
1.03
1.14





Top 9
-2-
2
1.15
1.16
1.16
1.17
1.17
1.12
1.27




Top 9
—3
2
1.22
1.22
1.23
1.23
1.23
1.18
1.34




Top 91-3
2
1.29
1.29
1.30
1.30
1.31
1.25





Top 9
-23
2
1.21
1.21
1.21
1.21
1.21
1.22
1.18
1.31





You will see that every situation listed here is far below the wOBA ratio between Trout and Pujols (and that, apparently, the authors figured it unnecessary to show any ratios higher than 1.40, which is the case throughout this massive table). It is true, though, that Pujols is not the only imminent hitter. According to Mike Sciosia’s most recent lineups, when Trout would re-assume his batting position in either the second or third spot in the order, he would be followed by Pujols, Yunel Escobar, Luis Valbuena, and Andrelton Simmons, in that order. Based on these next four hitters, the wOBA ratio between Trout and his succeeding teammates would be 1.61 with no outs, 1.59 with one out, and 1.65 with two outs. This rounds to an average ratio of 1.62. Keep that number in mind for a bit.

In his article, Miller links to another Tom Tango creation, namely a 2002 table providing every situation when a manager should order a free pass to Barry Bonds. I counted 119 situations when a walk was advised and 12 when a walk was essentially a necessity. But this is prime Bonds, right? How in the world, Miller implies, could Trout compare?

In creating this table Tango employed the same assumptions he did in The Book. He examined 2002 Bonds in a completely average lineup, which meant every succeeding hitter is given a wOBA of .335. Bonds’ wOBA in 2002 was a career-best .544, which, yes, is well above Trout’s number this year. However, if you examine the ratio between Bonds (.544) and his teammates in the Tango table (.335), you get a threshold of 1.62. As you remember, that is exactly how Mike Trout compares to his teammates in the Halos lineup. Trout alone is not hitting quite at the level of Bonds, but the Angels behind him are so pitiful that the difference becomes Bonds-esque.

Thus, on the basis of his and his teammates’ current performance, Trout would merit the statistical Bonds Treatment. That said, there are many other variables for and against the strategy of giving Trout a free pass far more often.

The Book advises the manager to consider the proneness of the immediate batter to hit into double plays. Pujols, who almost always hits behind Trout, is a slow, right-handed batter who has led the league in GIDP more times (three) than home runs (two) over his illustrious career. That’s a reason to walk Trout.

Another reason to pass Trout is the way he has once again plugged holes in his swing. Once upon a time, Trout struggled with pitches in the upper part of the strike zone. Then he fixed it. Last season, Trout ran into some trouble with the low-and-away pitch.

Image title

This year, though…

Image titleIt is still early, but Trout has shown evidence of confounding yet another way to attack him. The case against walking Trout like Bonds, though, partially hinges upon this admittedly small sample. Trout has had an amazing year, but 47 games is not 162. Is he truly a .475 wOBA hitter? And are Pujols, Escobar, Valbuena, and Simmons really that bad behind him? It is reasonable to expect regressions to the mean over larger samples, which would likely close the wOBA gap between Trout and the rest of his team. Moreover, Pujols has looked much more like his old self with runners in scoring position this season.

There are two other reasons not to walk Trout without restraint. First, he can run. Trout is 10-for-11 in stolen base attempts this season, and he has been a plus baserunner every year in the league. It is not like you want to put that threat on base automatically, especially in tight games.

Trout, though, might not run as aggressively after the thumb injury. This leads into the second reason to go after Trout rather than walk him, namely any injury hangovers he may have following thumb surgery. Nicolas Stellini at FanGraphs made a great table of hitters who have undergone the same surgical procedure since 2010, and he thinks some offensive sluggishness is reasonable.

For all of his greatness, Mike Trout has never led the league in intentional walks. His highest total was 14 back in 2015. At the time of his injury, he was atop the leaderboard with 10 IBB. He still leads the AL almost one month later. While he will not have the chance to add to that lead until mid-July or so, Trout should absolutely have a new career high at the end of season. And the reason has less to do with Trout than his protection, or lack thereof.

Managers, take heed. Trout is just around the corner.

Edited by Jeremy Losak, Jazmyn Brown.

SQuiz
Before Barry Bonds, who held the single-season record for intentional walks (IBB)?
Created 6/26/17
  1. Mark McGwire
  2. John Olerud
  3. Roberto Clemente
  4. Willie McCovey

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