The Reason for Mike Trout's Early-Season Struggles

The Angels' superstar center fielder is off to a slow start in 2016, but why?

I don't know if you've heard, but  Bryce Harper is off to kind of a hot start here in 2016. And this is following a 2015 season in which he led baseball in pretty much every offensive category known to man. Yet, for many including myself, Mike Trout was still considered to be the best overall player in baseball coming into this season.

And it was easy to see why.

While Harper has always been good, Trout had been a 10-win player twice and had won an MVP award (he should have four, probably). 

Both players came into the league in 2012, and here are their totals through last year.

Mike Trout 134 381 109 .970 170.5 37.8
Bryce Harper 97 248 37 .902 142.5 19.5

Trout had obviously been the more dominant -- and healthier -- player during those four years. But then, things changed in 2015.

Player HR RBI Runs SB OPS wRC+ fWAR
Mike Trout 41 90 104 11 .991 172 9.0
Bryce Harper 42 99 118 6 1.109 197 9.5

And while Harper appears to have gotten even better this season, with an OPS of 1.295, a wRC+ of 222, 7 homers, and 20 RBI, Trout has struggled badly, just 11-for-50 with a .220 batting average, a .333 on-base percentage and a .673 OPS.

Trout has just one long ball so far, with 4 RBI and 6 runs scored, giving him a wRC+ of 100, which is league average.

There's no doubt that, right now, Harper is a better player. But it's still early, and it's certainly possible Trout can regain that crown, but he will have to reverse a few trends that have gone in the wrong direction here in 2016.

Year GB/FB LD% GB% FB% Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Hard%
2016 1.88 34.3 42.9 22.9 48.6 25.7 25.7 31.4 28.6
Career 1.03 22.4 39.3 38.3 34.9 36.0 29.1 14.1 36.6

In the chart above, a few things stand out from Trout's batted ball data. 

His ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio is backwards. Usually, it's been a pretty even distribution, but this year, he's hitting more balls on the ground. He's also hitting more line drives, at the expense of fly balls.

Normally, this would be a good thing, but when you look at his hard hit versus soft hit percentages, you see he's never generated such weak contact at the plate as he has this year.

Why is this? There appear to be a couple different reasons why he's making weaker contact at the plate.

Year Fastball % Cutter % Slider % Curve % Changeup %
2016 28.2 8.2 16.1 9.3 10.4
Career 40.0 5.5 14.7 7.4 7.4

Simply put, he's seeing fewer fastballs this year.

Just 28.2% of pitches he's seen have been four-seam fastballs, leading to him seeing more breaking pitches.

Teams have also changed where they're pitching Trout in the strike zone.

Based on this zone profile from Brooks Baseball, pitchers have exclusively stayed down in the zone to Trout, with virtually nothing being higher in the strike zone.

Mike Trout 2016 Profile

Compare that to last year,
when teams went upstairs with regularity against Trout, with not a lot of success.

Mike Trout 2015 Profile

More breaking pitches, lower in the zone, have resulted in weaker contact and worse power numbers.

Of course, Trout has never had a problem with balls low in the zone before, so it's likely he'll make the adjustment, start mashing again and stop killing your (and my) fantasy team very soon. 

But it may not be enough to overtake Bryce Harper, who appears to be inhabited by the spirit of Barry Bonds at the height of his powers.