Mike Trout is the best player in baseball. This isn't about that. This is about the best player in baseball getting better. It's happening, and it's wonderful.
Maybe the most amazing thing about the Los Angeles Angels center fielder's first five seasons was the consistency. Other than the little stumble at the beginning of his career during his 40-game call-up in 2011, he arrived in the majors as a finished product, which is why he finished first or second in the MVP voting all five of his full seasons. Oh, maybe he'll hit more home runs one year, like when he hit 41 in 2015, and he had that little strikeout issue in 2014 that sent his average tumbling all the way to .287. His walk rate has been high since his second season, and he even stole 30 bases again in 2016. His consistency was anything but boring.
But now we have this:
This could be turning into one of those seasons -- Mickey Mantle 1956, Carl Yastzremski 1967, George Brett 1980, Barry Bonds 2001 -- when the player and the year are forever linked in legend. Before the season, I was skeptical Trout could raise his game to a new level. He was already so good, and even though he was 25 -- the age when many players first hit their peak -- most players don't suddenly improve after 3,500 plate appearances in the majors, no matter their age.
There have been signs, however, that Trout could find some ways to get better. His strikeout rate had improved each of the past two seasons. It has dropped again in 2017. When he hit those career-high 41 home runs in 2015, Trout played through a wrist injury in August and hit just one home run that month. Otherwise, he had a slim chance of reaching 50. He has a chance to get there this season: He's on pace for 49 -- but that's based on a projection of 141 games played, because he missed five games earlier this month with a tight left hamstring. He returned from that injury to homer five times in 10 games, including his 14th of the season in Sunday's 12-5 win over the New York Mets. That's already the most home runs he's had by the end of May and the Angels still have 10 games remaining in the month.
His past eight home runs have all gone 400-plus feet. His isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) is at a career high, and, according to ESPN Stats & Info, his well-hit average of .231 is the second-highest of his career, behind 2012's .246 mark. Those are the results, as we can see, in that .350 average and .757 slugging percentage. What has he changed to get there?
I thought the answer would be simple: He's continued to improve against the high pitch. Trout entered the league as a dead low-ball hitter, and pitchers eventually learned to exploit the one weakness in his game: fastballs up in the zone. In 2014, he hit .076 against pitches in the upper third of the strike zone (or above). Now, he has such a great eye that he's good at laying off those pitches, so if pitchers threw up there, they had to make sure it wasn't out of the zone. Last year, Trout hit .234/.602/.438 against pitches in the upper third. The numbers in 2017: .071/.364/.286.
This is old-school Trout: He's crushing low pitches, and he's crushing mistakes in the middle of the zone. For the most part, he's laying off high pitches. One thing he's doing, however, is swinging more often. His overall swing rate is 41.4 percent, compared to a career mark of 38.3 percent. He's swinging at the first pitch over 25 percent of the time -- compare that to the 10 percent rate of 2014 and 2015. This is obviously a deliberate part of his game, as it increased to 17 percent last year. That approach has paid off with a few extra hits; when putting the ball in play, he hit .615 last year and .467 this year (it's only 15 at-bats so far). He's swinging more often on 2-0 counts, up from a 30 percent career rate to 42 percent.
Think of the problems that more aggressive approach creates for pitchers. It's not as easy to get ahead in the count now, but if you don't challenge him, you're more likely to fall behind in the count -- and he's being a little aggressive in those counts, as well. So this is how the best player in the game gets better, by simply refining his game just a little bit. Good luck, pitchers.
Mike Trout has a higher career WAR than Bryce Harper and Manny Machado combined.
— Ted Berg (@OGTedBerg) May 21, 2017
The Astros are the best team in the AL? Not so fast, my friends. Big series for Cleveland, which went into Houston and cleaned up with 5-3, 3-0 and 8-6 victories. Two keys for the Indians have been Jason Kipnis and Yan Gomes. Kipnis started the year on the DL with a sore shoulder and struggled in his return, hitting .155 through his first 19 games, but has hit .387 with three home runs in his current seven-game tear. The big surprise has been Gomes, who had gone south at the plate the past two seasons after hitting .278 with 21 home runs in 2014. He homered and drove in five runs on Sunday, and is hitting .267/.359/.456. Small sample-size warning for Gomes, but considering the Indians received no offense from their catchers last year, this would be a huge bonus.
— #Statcast (@statcast) May 21, 2017
Greg Holland's opus
The Colorado Rockies took two of three from the Cincinnati Reds to climb to 28-17, and Holland picked up his 19th save in Sunday's 6-4 victory (they hit four home runs off Bronson Arroyo, including one from pitcher Kyle Freeland). Holland is on pace for 68 saves -- yes, we're still early enough that on-pace stats are dubious -- which would break Francisco Rodriguez's single-season record of 62 set with the Angels in 2008. Holland has saved 67.9 percent of the Rockies' victories; Rodriguez saved 62 percent of the Angels' 100 wins in his record season.
As Rodriguez proved in 2008, you can save that many games without a big workload. He appeared in 76 games but pitched just 68.1 innings. Holland, likewise, hasn't been used heavily despite the all the saves. He's on pace for 72 games and 65 innings and has appeared in back-to-back games just three times. Coming off Tommy John surgery, you know the Rockies wanted to be careful about using him on consecutive days, let alone three in a row, so his save opportunities have been fortuitous in that they've been spread out. Here's the other thing: Holland has been more dominant than Rodriguez was in 2008.
(Here's a great piece from Sam Miller examining how conventionally -- or unconventionally -- all 30 teams have managed their bullpens so far.)
Play of the day
— MLB (@MLB) May 22, 2017
As the New York Post headline reads: How the hell did Aaron Judge catch this ball?
Quick thoughts ... The Texas Rangers had their 10-game winning streak snapped on Saturday but bounced back with a win Sunday night against the Detroit Tigers behind home runs from Mike Napoli and -- of course -- Pete Kozma. Anyway, the amazing thing from this game: Sam Dyson recorded three strikeouts, his first since April 11. He had gone at least 43 batters without a strikeout. ... Koda Glover got the four-out save for the Washington Nationals in a 3-2 win over the Atlanta Braves, so maybe he's the new closer. He has the stuff to hold on to it; just a matter of Dusty Baker trusting the rookie. ... Trea Turner's OBP is down to .265; does Baker start thinking of changing his order around? Would be nice to give Bryce Harper more runners on to drive in. ... Joc Pederson hit his first home run since Opening Day. I expected him to have a 30-homer season, so his start is disappointing. The weird thing is he has one of the higher-average exit velocities (fourth in the majors, right behind Judge). While his fly ball rate is a little lower than last year and his launch angle slightly lower than the MLB average, it looks like a guy hitting into some bad luck. ... Weird stat line of the year: Buster Posey is hitting .362 with seven home runs but has just 11 RBIs in 127 at-bats. How does that happen? For starters, all seven of his home runs have been solo shots. He's hitting .264 with men on base, but those 14 hits have produced just four RBIs. With runners in scoring position, he's 6-for-24.