David Laurila recently wrote an article in Fangraphs, discussing an interview he had with Mark Trumbo. Trumbo discussed his plate discipline and stated that he is best when he is aggressive rather than selective. He stated that he’d love to have the ability that players like Goldschmidt and Votto have to control the strike zone but that simply isn’t one of his strengths. He further noted that he likes to swing more at pitches that are up, especially if they’re off-speed pitches. This is very interesting, but is it accurate?
The way I like to determine whether a batter can control the strike zone is by measuring the frequency of his swing rate. This data is found via pitch fx and ESPN Stats and Information. Measure the percentage of pitches in the strike zone that he swings at and divide by the percentage of pitches out of the strike zone. This methodology isn’t perfect because it inflates the value of batters that swing often, but it does give a rough estimate. Mark Trumbo doesn’t have the ability to control the strike zone as well as Goldschmidt or Votto. Trumbo swings at roughly 2.35 strikes for every pitch outside of the strike zone he swings at. In contrast, that ratio is 3.7 for Goldschmidt and roughly 4.9 for Votto. Indeed, Votto swings at nearly the same percentage of pitches in the strike zone that Trumbo does, but at fewer than half of the pitches clearly outside of the strike zone.
To be fair, Trumbo and Goldschmidt each are thrown roughly 40% balls, 40% strikes and 20% pitches that are in the middle and can go either way. Votto sees roughly 42% balls, 22% pitches in the middle and roughly 35% strikes, which likely gives him an incentive to swing less frequently. Still, there’s no question that those two players are better at controlling the strike zone than Trumbo. In fact, Trumbo is actually below average in this ability; his 2.35 ratio ranks roughly 75th out of 433. He’s probably correct that attempting to control the strike zone would be a poor way to efficiently leverage his strengths.
Next, Trumbo stated that he likes to swing at pitches that are up. The data indicate that this is correct, as from 2013-2015, he swung at 74% of pitches up in the strike zone. He swung at only 71% of pitches in the middle of the zone and only 65% of pitches low in the zone. It makes sense also, as he has a .516 wOBA when putting pitches in the upper part of the strike zone into play, but only a .472 against pitches in the middle of the strike zone and a .445 wOBA against pitches that are low in the strike zone. However, he does struggle to put pitches up in the zone into the field of play. He only puts 30% of pitches up in the zone into play, compared to 44% for other pitches in the strike zone and 35% for pitches close to the strike zone. The question is whether the better results when swinging at pitches up in the zone are worth it, considering the significant challenge of putting those pitches into play.
The question becomes stronger when looking at hard and off-speed pitches in various parts of the zone. He only swings at 66% of off-speed pitches in the upper part of the strike zone compared to 74% of pitches in the other parts of the strike zone. That’s disappointing because he has a .626 wOBA against soft pitches high in the strike zone, but only a .475 against pitches in the middle of the strike zone and .414 against pitches low in the strike zone. The caveat is that he puts only 38% of soft pitches high in the strike zone into play, but 52% of those in the middle of the strike zone and 45% of those low in the strike zone.
He swings at 77% of hard pitches in the upper part of the strike zone, compared to only 71% of pitches in the middle of the zone and 57% of pitches low in the zone. His wOBA when putting hard pitches in the upper part of the zone into play is .466 which is slightly worse than his .470 wOBA against hard pitches in the middle part of the zone and his .478 against hard pitches in the lower part of the zone. His HR Rate is 6% against hard pitches in the upper part of the zone and over 7% against hard pitches elsewhere in the zone. Finally, he puts only 27% of hard pitches high in the zone into play compared to 40% of pitches in the middle of the zone, 44% of pitches low in the strike zone, 35% of pitches that are close to the strike zone and 28% of pitches that aren’t in the strike zone.
It’s pretty clear that he enjoys swinging at off-speed pitches that are high in the strike zone because he’s able to crush them if he puts them into play. The problem is that it’s hard for him to put those pitches into play. As a result, his best overall results are when he swings at pitches in other parts of the strike zone. He’d probably be better off sacrificing some home runs by swinging at fewer pitches up in the zone for singles by swinging at more pitches lower in the zone.
The third argument that he made was that he’s better off when he’s selective rather than aggressive. The way I determine whether a hitter is selective rather than aggressive is by measuring a players’ swing rate over a given month. Months in which a batter swings more often are labelled aggressive, while those in which he swings less often are labeled selective. For Trumbo, I used April-September for 2013-2015, resulting in 8 selective months and 8 aggressive months.
I found that pitchers didn’t pitch Trumbo much differently when he was being selective or aggressive. The percent of pitches out of the strike zone was roughly the same in both samples. He faced a slightly lower percentage of strikes and more pitches that were on the border when being selective. When he was selective, he swung at the same proportion of strikes divided by balls as he did when he was aggressive. This suggests that any success he may have had wasn’t due to him receiving fewer pitches outside of the strike zone or swinging at better pitches.
Despite this, Trumbo had better results when being selective rather than aggressive. His walk rate was 8.63% when selective and 4.98% when aggressive while his strike out rate was 25.46% when selective and 27.47% when aggressive. This results in a good-sized improvement on balls not put into play with a minimal increase in the total plate appearances ending in a walk or strikeout. Likewise, perhaps randomly, he had better results when putting the ball into play when being selective rather than aggressive. Interestingly, his home run rate was 5.4% when being selective, but only 3.4% when being aggressive.
The reason for his improved success on plate appearances resulting with the ball not being put into play is pretty clear by the next graph. As expected, when he swung less, his called ball and called strike percentage increased. However, his swinging strike and foul percentage decreased by a larger quantity than his called strike percentage increased. In addition, his in play percentage was lower when selective rather than aggressive, but only by a minimal amount. A greater frequency of balls plus a lower frequency of strikes resulted in fewer strikeouts, more walks and being more productive.
All of this begs the question of why Trumbo acts the way he does. After all, with a better plan of attack, he’d likely be a better player and help his team become more successful. This question can largely be answered by a quotation from Big Papi. In this article, Buster Olney writes the following, “Big Papi doesn't like to concede anything against the shift even though he's confident he could hit the ball to the left side -- because he knows that in order to do that, he'd have to surrender the power that has been the backbone of his career. He'd be hitting singles instead of homers. "If I did that," he said, "I'd be selling oranges back in the Dominican." It seems a number of power batters like Trumbo feel that their value is signified primarily by the amount of home runs that they hit. If that number drops, their value drops with it.
This makes a lot of sense when thinking back 15 years ago. In 2000, stats like wOBA, wRC+, OBP or SLG weren’t in vogue. Rather, players were judged by their batting average, number of home runs and RBIs. Sure, stats like stolen bases mattered and a players’ defense/position was taken into account. But if you couldn’t hit for power, then you needed to hit for average to be valuable. Trumbo is far more likely to be successful hitting for power, then hitting for average. If Trumbo feels the same way as Big Papi, then Trumbo likely feels that his value is best determined by the amount of home runs he hits. He’s most likely to hit a home run if he swings at off-speed pitches high in the zone. And if his value doesn’t change much if he has a .260 batting average of a .240 batting average (while ignoring walk rate), then he’s going to be interested at swinging at the pitches that offer the highest chance of a home run.
It would make sense if he did feel this way. The Diamondback’s GM, Dave Stewart, stated that Trumbo is so valuable because he was able to hit the ball out of the park and that right now, his primary home run threats are Goldschmidt and Trumbo. Trumbo has received a lot of reinforcement suggesting his value is hitting home runs.
Likewise, this explains why he thinks he’s better being aggressive than selective. It’s impossible to hit a home run if you don’t swing. The only way he can be successful is if he hits the ball, and logic fools us into thinking it’s more likely to put the ball into play by swinging especially frequently.
If so, the Orioles’ challenge is to ensure that he understands how production works and how he’s valued. Especially on a team like the Orioles, that have a large number of players that can crush the ball, it needs to be made clear that stats like wOBA describe production better than stats like home runs and RBIs. If Trumbo can be convinced that his value will be greater with a higher wOBA rather than higher home run and RBI totals, then this will be beneficial to both parties. Specifically, he should swing less frequently, especially at pitches up in the zone.
It’s pretty clear that Mike Trumbo is most productive when he’s selective rather than aggressive and when he tries to put the ball into play rather than solely aim for home runs. Trumbo wants to hit off-speed pitches up in the zone because he is able to crush them for home runs. If he wants to maximize his production, he needs to focus on hitting the pitches that he’s able to put into play most frequently while still having good results.