MLB Free Agency: Mark Trumbo Is Worth the Gamble
With less than three months until Opening Day of the 2017 MLB season, available roster spots for teams will start to quickly be filled. General managers and their staff will need to make difficult decisions on some borderline-type players.
For example, would you want to sign a hitter coming off a season in which he posted a .314 on-base percentage, a 7.6% walk rate and a 25.0% strikeout rate, all of which were below league average?
None of those numbers are hypothetical, as it is what Mark Trumbo posted in 667 plate appearances for the Baltimore Orioles last season as their primary right fielder. Based on those numbers, it's a hard pass, right? Well to steal a line from one of my favorite movies, unless you've got power.
For Trumbo's sake, this is an understatement. His 47 home runs led led the league in 2016, his .277 ISO was fourth best, and his .533 slugging percentage was 17th best. After seeing these numbers, in addition to the ones above, the decision on whether to sign him or not (and lose a first-round draft pick) becomes a trickier.
A Career Year
Trumbo arguably had the best season of his career with the Baltimore Orioles, setting career-bests in home runs, ISO, slugging percentage (RBI (108) and wOBA (.358). It wasn't because he played his home games at Camden Yards (18th in ESPN's HR Park Factor).
The right-handed slugger did perform better when playing in Baltimore, but his home/road splits were not drastically different. He hit just three less dingers when on the road, while his ISO (.261) and wOBA (.344) away from home were both well above last season's league average (.162 and .318, respectively).
If playing for a new team wasn't the main factor in Trumbo's success, what was?
It appears as though he is self-aware (which is always a good thing) and recognizes both his strengths and weaknesses as a hitter. Take this quote from the beginning of last season (via FanGraphs):
“I’m not [disciplined enough] in a lot of people’s eyes, but that’s the way I’m most efficient. I’ve tried both. I’ve tried to be a high-walk guy, and that version of me is not even a major-league-caliber player. I have opinions on plate discipline, and the best version of me is the one that’s aggressive. If I swing at a few pitches out of the zone, so be it. I especially try to limit the amount of balls I chase that are down. The ones I tend to go after more often are the balls that are up, especially if they’re offspeed pitches. Those balls can go a long way."
Trumbo actually demonstrated better plate discipline in 2016 than he has in the past -- his 49.4% swing rate and his 33.8% O-swing rate (pitches swung at outside of the strike zone) were both career lows. The more significant change occurred when he was able to make contact.
You need to hit the ball in the air in order to hit home runs, and Trumbo did just that in 2016. His 43.1% fly-ball rate was a career high, and when combining that with a 39.3% hard-hit rate (another career-best and 16th-best last season) and a 42.0% pull rate (his highest since 2012), the result is going to be a ton of jacks.
This is where his aggressive approach at the plate pays off, and where the majority of his value comes from. However, playing out of position -- he's originally a first baseman -- has hurt his overall value.
An Outfielder No More
Despite hitting four more home runs than any other player last season, Trumbo's power didn't equate to an impressive WAR, according to FanGraphs. His 2.2 fWAR was tied for just 85th-best, which is surprisingly low for such an impressive power-hitting performance. It's partially due to his -9.9 UZR/150 in right field, which ranked third-worst for players who tallied 750 innings or more at the position in 2016, and suggests he should no longer roam the outfield.
This excellent piece from Mike Petriello at MLB.com suggests that if Trumbo played first base last season, his fWAR could have been substantially higher, yet another reason why he should move back to his original position. This potentially limits his landing spots, but the Oakland Athletics are apparently interested and they have a gaping hole at first base, as well as a protected first-round pick.
We know who Trumbo is at this point in his career: an excellent power hitter who will strike out a ton and won't get on base much. He'll be 31 years old by Opening Day and quite possibly just experienced his best season. However, that doesn't mean a slight drop in power -- the one thing he does well -- will greatly diminish his value, as long as he avoids the outfield.
Trumbo bet on himself by turning down the O's qualifying offer of $17.2 million. He's likely not going to earn the type of deal he originally hoped for, but he could end up being a bargain for whomever chooses to sign him. His approach at the plate last season clearly paid off, so it's safe to assume he'll keep the same thought process in 2017.
As long as he continues to pull the ball in the air while maintaining that hard-hit rate -- and there isn't much to say he can't -- baseballs will continue flying out of the yard.