A Rebuttal to Ron Shandler and David Gonos re: Mike Trout

Baseball HQ's Ron Shandler makes some ostensibly persuasive arguments as to why Mike Trout should not be drafted anywhere near his current price tag (top-three overall pick or $40-plus dollar buy), as does my industry colleague David Gonos. While there's little doubt it would be wise to bet on regression from his monster rookie year, I think both overstate the case and that Trout is an easy top-three pick.

Let's consider Shandler's (and Gonos') arguments in order:

Consider our perception of Mike Trout at this time last year. All the talk was about the two top prospects, Trout and Bryce Harper. According to the scouting reports, Trout was always considered the speed prospect while Harper was the power prospect. Consulting the Trout projections from several respected fantasy sources last year, annualized to 550 AB, the mean expectation was 15 HR, 31 SB and a .275 BA. Heck, he never hit more than 11 HRs in any minor league season.

Shandler is considering who we thought Trout was before 2012. Okay, before 2012, it would have been insane to rank Trout as a top-10 player on the 2013 board, let alone top three. I don't think anyone would dispute that.

Just as before 2001, it would have been insane to have ranked Albert Pujols (who only made the team out of spring training when Bobby Bonilla got hurt in the final week) in the first round of the 2002 draft board. Prospects - even top ones - do not develop linearly. We can't know from someone's minor league numbers exactly what type of player he'll be or how soon. Some mega prospects like Delmon Young underperform. Other lower-ranked ones like Matt Holliday excel. What we thought about Trout in 2012 turned out to be a poor predictor of his 2012 season. Why would we now double down and use it for 2013 when we have a whole year of more current and far more relevant major league data?

Shandler also compares Trout's HR burst to Joe Mauer's and Jacoby Ellsbury's. But those were fully formed players having a spike after established major-league track records. A minor-league track record where you're constantly young for your level, and your body is not done growing is a different story.

2. From 2005-2011, there were 187 batters who hit at least 30 home runs in a season. Of those, only one accomplished the feat with a fly ball rate as low as Trout's 33% from last year: Josh Hamilton in 2008.

Setting aside the possible arbitrary end point issue (how many hit 30 HR with 35- or 37-percent fly-ball rates, or how many 33-percent fly-ballers hit 25?), let's concede that Trout's batted-ball profile in 2012 made him unlikely to hit 30 homers. There are two questions that need to be asked: (1) How likely is 33% to be Trout's baseline for fly-ball percentage, i.e., how stable is this stat, especially for a player in his first season; and (2) Are everyone's fly balls created equally, i.e., do some players simply hit the ball harder no matter what the trajectory and therefore have an excellent chance to have an above average HR/FB ratio?

The answer to the second question is clearly yes, and given Trout's size and strength, you'd expect him to get more bang for his fly-ball buck than a smaller player. What about the first question - who else had a 33-percent fly ball rate last year?

Player 2012 FB% 2011 FB% 2010 FB%
Prince Fielder 33.3 37.1 39.7
Allen Craig 33.3 37.0 39.3
Bryce Harper 32.9 N/A N/A
Marco Scutaro 32.9 34.6 41.9
Jesus Montero 32.9 34.1 N/A
Alex Gordon 32.7 38.5 39.2
Andre Ethier 32.6 31.0 39.7
A.J. Ellis 32.6 34.8 32.2
Adam Jones 32.6 33.0 36.8
Alex Rodriguez 32.5 37.2 40.2

Looking at this table, I don't think the case against 33-percent fly ball hitters is particularly compelling. Not only does it fluctuate greatly year to year (and usually to the upside), there are plenty of power hitters who happened for whatever reason to have the same fly ball rate as Trout last year. In fact, the league average for fly ball rate is 34 percent, so that Trout was league-average in one five-month stretch in that stat shouldn't carry a whole lot of weight.

Taking a look at the quality of Trout's fly balls that sailed over the fence, we can see that only one of his 30 homers was considered "lucky." Contrast that with Miguel Cabrera, who had seven of his career-high 44 homers barely clear the fences. In fact, Cabrera's average home run distance was 407.3 feet with a velocity of 104.9 mph. Trout's average home run distance was 409.6 feet and the velocity was 105.3 mph.

If hitting longer and harder home runs than Cabrera isn't enough for you, consider Trout did the same vs. slap hitters such as Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, Jay Bruce and Ryan Braun.

3. If Trout's power is a mirage, he has far less value as a first-rounder. Home runs are scarcer in today's game so you need to stockpile them early.

True, but I don't see a compelling reason to think Trout's power was a mirage.

4. Trout had a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .383. While batters establish their own BABIP baseline over time, nobody maintains a level that high. .330 maybe, .340 on the high end. More likely closer to .300. So as Trout's BABIP comes down, so will his batting average. A falling batting average doesn't happen in a vacuum. When BA drops, so will all the rest of his counting stats, including his stolen base opportunities.

It's already established that Trout hits the ball hard, he hit plenty of ground balls last year (more likely to be hits) and he runs well. He's going to be on the high-end of BABIP. Let's regress his .383 from last year to .330. Trout had 569 at-bats, 182 hits, 139 strikeouts, 30 HRs. So he had 400 balls in play and 152 in-play hits at his 2012 BABIP. Lower it to .330, and we have 132 non-HR hits. Add the 30 HR, and he has 162 hits instead of 182 for an average of .285.

But what if he improves his contact rate? It was just 75% last year after being 79% at Triple-A as a 19-year old in 2011. If Trout were to strike out 110 times instead of 139, then what happens to his batting average? At a 33 percent BABIP, that adds back 10 more hits, bumping his average to .302, significant regression from last season, but still highly valuable, especially in a full year of at-bats atop the potent Angels lineup which will turn over more than most.

5. And about those steals... Trout showed up to camp at 240 pounds. While he will probably work some of it off this month, that weight is a huge amount to carry for a speedster. When you look for players that are 6-1, 240, you find names like Chad Billingsley, Billy Butler, and Bob Wickman. Over the past few years, the most bases any player over 230 pounds has stolen in a season was 17. To find even 20-SB output, you have to go down to 225 pounds, and only two players of that weight have amassed those totals recently - Hanley Ramirez and Matt Kemp. To find anyone who consistently steals 30-40 bases, you have to go down to 210-215 pounds.

This argument takes the form of: "No one with characteristic x has ever done y, so it's unlikely anyone with characteristic x will do y." In short, it's a form of inductive reasoning, which the philosopher Bertrand Russell once described as like jumping off the Empire State Building, counting the windows as you go down, and when you get to 80 saying: "So far, so good!"

Just because such a season hasn't happened yet doesn't address the likelihood of it happening now, given this specific set of circumstances. Eighty for 80 looks pretty good until you consider what's actually happening. Similarly, stealing bases at 240 pounds looks pretty bad until you consider that Trout stole 49 in a five-month season while weighing 225 pounds last year. Dropping 10 pounds in spring training for a 21-year old professional athlete isn't a big deal, and no one is alleging Trout showed up fat or out of shape - in fact, he was reported to have nine percent body fat even at 240.

Moreover, the whole notion that no one of a certain size can do something cuts in the other direction, doesn't it? That Trout stole 49 bases at 225 pounds last year means this is a special athlete, a freak of nature really. And for those who are surprised with his power surge, doesn't the fact that he weighed 225 pounds help explain that? How many 250-pound basketball players have averaged 6.9 assists for their careers? Should we bet against LeBron James doing it again because no one has? Isn't a major reason we'd bet on James to repeat is that he's physically capable of doing what other players are not?

6. Shandler alleges Trout's size, athleticism and style of play are more likely to get him injured than most top players.

Perhaps. Miguel Cabrera diving to field hard-hit ground balls at third could give one pause, too. I suppose a first baseman like Prince Fielder with a track record of durability and who doesn't attempt stolen bases is safer - though many have wondered how long someone of his build can sustain his health, too. The bottom line, sure - there's elevated risk compared to station-to-station DH's like Billy Butler, but it's not something unique about Trout.

7. There are some who argue that Trout could maintain - or, God help us - even improve his numbers because he'll have a full six months of at-bats. But last year's five months of amazing performance wasn't even real - it was an amazing three months. He was other-worldly in May, June and July. But he batted just .284 in August and .257 in September, with a similarly declining power trend. His OPS in September was a mortal .835.

Trout's worst month as a 20-year-old major leaguer was an .835 OPS. And that's supposed to be a strike against him? Robinson Cano had a .712 OPS in April, an .843 OPS in July, an .862 OPS in August and an .869 OPS in September. Trout's second-worst OPS month (.866 in August) was better than half of Cano's season. Moreover, Trout's first-half OPS was .959, and his second half OPS was .966.

8. And don't think that opposing teams haven't been spending the offseason reviewing film, scouting reports and trying to uncover a weakness they can exploit. While not nearly at Trout's level, remember how highly we had valued players like Eric Hosmer and Brett Lawrie coming into 2012. They both disappointed as sophomores. Well, this is a game all about adjustments and we have yet to see how Trout adjusts when the league catches up in year #2.

While Hosmer and Lawrie were nice prospects and had good rookie years, I don't think they'd make the top-100 in terms of comparables to Trout. Lawrie had 150 at-bats in 2011, and Hosmer had a modest .799 OPS. If you look at Trout's top-10 comparables at age 20 on Baseball Reference, you get all-time greats Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Al Kaline, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Jimmie Foxx among them. Even Vada Pinson - who is his top comp - had a far stronger second full season than Lawrie or Hosmer. Of course, even Mantle regressed as a 21-year old - from .311/.394/.530 to .295/.398/.497. He hit two fewer homers and batted 16 points lower. This seems more in line with knocking Trout down from a .326 average to .301.

Moreover, I'm pretty sure teams were scouting Trout pretty heavily in 2012, too while he was setting the league on fire.

9. Still, most analysts are projecting some regression. The problem is, a season like 2012 - one that is filled with so much noise already - cannot be used as a point of reference. You can't be taken in by the recency bias and project 2013 by regressing Trout 10%, 20% or 30% from last year's numbers. Last year's numbers are faulty. You have to start 2013 as a blank slate and build a projection from the ground up based on better measures of underlying skill. Admittedly, that is tough to do because all we have is 2012 data. But it's bad data. Garbage in, garbage out.

This begs the question. The assertion Ron's article seeks to establish is that Trout's 2012 is simply noise and not a point of reference. Stating the matter in question as a settled fact and using it to conclude you can't base your 2013 projections on it doesn't advance his argument, i.e., simply saying that what you're trying to prove is in fact the case, and then drawing conclusions from it being the case, doesn't establish that it is in fact the case!

10. And that 2012 season was not only incredible, it was historic. With one additional stolen base, Trout would have become only the third player in the history of Major League Baseball to post a 30-HR, 50-SB season.

Another way of looking at this is to consider whether Trout is a uniquely great player. Given his pedigree and performance, I'm not sure why that should be ruled out.

11. Ron wonders about Trout's success going to his head at age 21.

Fair enough - I suppose that's a slightly added risk vs. established stars who know what it's like to perform in the spotlight and stay professional. Another reason to build in some normal regression, I suppose.

12. Over the past decade, only one player has ever repeated at #1 in consecutive seasons - Albert Pujols, in 2008 and 2009, at ages 28 and 29.

If Trout finished No. 3 or No. 5 last year, would that make him a better bet to finish No. 1 this year? What finish from 2012 would be better than No. 1 when projecting 2013?

Dave Gonos' reasons for not seeing Trout as a top-three pick pretty much mirror Ron's. He cites the concerns about his stardom going to his head, the rarity of his numbers, particularly for a 20-year old and the likelihood that teams will pay more attention to him both scouting-wise and on the basepaths.

Two interesting points Gonos brings up are Trout's possibly unsustainable success rate in stealing and that with the Angels loaded lineup he'll run less. I think the first point is valid and would project him for fewer steals than 49, while the second is more speculative given that Scioscia has always loved to run, and the upgrade from Torii Hunter (.313/.365/.451) in a pitcher's park last year to however many games they get from Josh Hamilton won't be a needle-mover.

I agree with Ron and Dave we should expect *some* regression this year, but 2012 happened, and it's the best, most recent and most relevant data we have when projecting Trout for 2013. I'll give him 25 HR, 30-35 SB and a .300 average. Essentially Robbie Cano plus 30 steals. And that is an easy top-3 pick this season.

Erickson and I also discuss this topic below:


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