Mike Trout is the best player in baseball.
He also, interestingly, has one of the most unique swings in baseball; he’s not only hitting the ball better than just about anyone in the Majors, but he’s doing it in a way that no one else does — or even can. In fact, Trout’s swing is so unique and his talent so prodigious, he’s compiling one of the more bizarre hot zones in MLB history.
Every batter has his favorite and not-so-favorite hitting zones. But this? This is … something else.
What Trout has done thus far this season is a virtually incomprehensible combination of utter dominance in the lower part of the zone and historic futility in the upper part. Exactly how this asymmetrical convergence of beauty and horror came to be is a subject of great fascination, and one certainly worth exploring in further detail.
Let’s take a look at the basics of Trout’s swing before diving into what it all means:
Trout starts from a relatively standard big-league position. There’s not much to note here. His pre-swing movement is minimal, and his hands and bat angle are fairly normal. He’s perhaps a tick more upright than most, but there is nothing else that is particularly atypical.
Trout’s leg kick is above-average in height and exceptional in length. He gets way out there with his front foot, leaving him with a wide base. Most lesser athletes would fly too far forward with their torsos with this kind of stride, but Trout is able to maintain exceptional full-body balance despite the huge horizontal distance covered with his foot. The last item of note is the late inward pronation of his left leg (watch the front foot at the 12 second mark). This helps Trout get his foot planted more firmly so that he can generate maximum torque with his lower half.
That inward pronation, however, doesn’t come without risks. Most inward pronators are vulnerable to too much internal rotation with their front shoulder. This leads to weaker contact, less plate coverage, and a higher incidence of pitches pulled foul. Trout, though, is athletic enough to avoid such excessive internal rotation. As such, he can squeeze out all of the juicy power from his swing without worrying about the drawbacks mere mortals tend to suffer from with this type of movement.
The aforementioned torque generated by Trout’s inward foot angle also helps him fire his hips as hard as possible once his front foot hits the ground. Considering that he’s linebacker-strong — he’s 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds — it’s an extremely significant hip explosion, which creates a domino effect that goes from Trout’s lower body to upper body.
Like most good hitters, Trout’s hips fire first, then his hands follow once the hips are well on their way. The resultant whip-like effect is but one of the many reasons why Trout is fourth in MLB in average home run distance.
Moving to the upper body, we find the area where Trout is perhaps more distinctive than any hitter in baseball. Watch closely. Once the swing starts, Trout’s back shoulder dips rapidly and significantly as his hands start to move forward.
All hitters have some back shoulder dip, but Trout’s is huge—the biggest in baseball, perhaps even by far.
It is this dip that gives Trout a swing path that is characterized by a sharp vertical angle. It’s worth noting that even if Trout’s swing is far more vertical than most, that doesn’t mean he’s swinging a straight up-and-down bat. Though he’s on the extreme vertical side, his bat angle is rarely sharper than 45°.
It’s probably easiest to understand this kind of swing path by looking at the path from contact to finish. We’ll use this helpful Trout vs. Troy Tulowitzki (whom we’ll profile in detail next week) side-by-side to illustrate Trout’s markedly vertical swing path. Both of the swings are home runs on pitches in similar locations.
Here’s the contact point on each swing:
The divergence between Trout’s hyper-vertical vs. Tulowitzki’s standard, more horizontal swing path becomes more clear at the finishes. Both hitters are at the same stage in their swing here, but the difference in the angle of their bats is enormous.
Trout’s bat finishes in a nearly straight-up manner, consistent with his vertical swing plane. Tulowitzki finishes closer to where most big leaguers do, at a far more horizontal angle.
Here are the swings from start to finish, you can actually trace the differences in swing path in real-time:
Trout’s other slightly more visible oddity is the lack of separation of his elbows from his body and the resulting lack of elbow extension. Trout keeps both of his elbows far closer to his torso and far more bent than almost anyone else in baseball.
Doing so means that his hands stay extremely close to his body. It also gives him something of an abbreviated finish, similar to what we see from Chase Utley, who also keeps his elbows tight to his torso, but not many others. Of course, in Trout’s case, some elbow separation and extension is inevitable, given his incredible bat speed, but compared to most big leaguers, it’s quite minimal. His lack of extension means that Trout hits the ball “deeper”, or closer to the plate and farther from the pitcher, than almost anyone else in baseball. Most hitters somewhat “reach” towards the ball by fully extending their elbows, but both of Trout’s elbows stay at least partially bent for the whole swing. (This will be significant later.)
HOT ZONE IMPLICATIONS
As you can see, Trout’s hot zone chart is completely ridiculous, but how has this come to be?
When we look closely at his swing, it’s much easier to understand the genesis of Trout’s insane high-low discrepancy — namely, that gigantic shoulder dip and resultant sharply vertical swing plane.
It is Trout’s pronounced vertical path that helps him destroy anything in the lower third of the hitting zone (or even lower). He is able to stay “on” the ball on low pitches for an eternity, which leads to Trout’s signature hard contact, that “different sound” off the bat that scouts gush over. Essentially, because of the angle from which his bat approaches the ball, instead of connecting with the ball and quickly moving off it, Trout’s bat stays in contact with the ball for a very long time. Picture a pendulum that swings back and forth in a perfectly straight path—Trout’s vertical swing path delivers that kind of effect, where the forward direction of his bat is atypically straight towards the incoming pitch.
More time in contact with the ball — even though we’re talking milliseconds here — means harder contact. (Trust me, simple physics regarding the longer application of force to an object are well settled.) When Trout gets a low pitch on the barrel, the ball goes off the bat at approximately a zillion miles an hour—as it did on this missile off Mark Lowe last month. This was the type of pitch that most hitters either: a) miss; b) pull foul; or c) roll softly to third. But Trout’s uniquely vertical bat angle enables him to choose option d), absolutely nuking the offering, and leaving permanent scarring to the Progressive Field bleachers and Lowe’s psyche.
The scary part is that Trout doesn’t even need to barrel up low pitches to do serious damage. Even when he makes less-than-optimal contact near the hands or off the end of the bat, he still hits the ball much harder than his contemporaries.
Check out this game-breaking oppo-taco off poor Josh Tomlin:
Incredibly, this ball had the slowest speed off the bat of any home run in the Majors this year, but it still got out. And though it wasn’t exactly a majestic blast, it’s not like it was a 303-footer that snuck around Pesky’s Pole, either.
How can we explain this? Again, due to the verticality of Trout’s swing plane, his bat simply has a longer duration of applied force to the ball, even if the contact point is anything but ideal (it appears to be off the end of the bat here).
At first glance, the verticality of Trout’s swing would presumably impact his ability to do damage on pitches of even middle height, but here, Trout benefits from his unique hand and elbow usage. All hitters take their hands towards the general direction of the ball, but Trout does so less than almost anyone. Again, consider the point of contact on his walk-off job against the Rays back in May, as seen below Tulowitzki’s bomb in a near-identical pitch location.
With such a vertical swing path, if Trout were to utilize typical hand movement and elbow positioning — like Tulowitzki’s — his hands would be far too low at the point of contact to hit even middle-height pitches. Look at the above pictures and imagine if Trout’s hands were in the same spot as Tulowitzki’s, but also imagine that Trout maintained his trademark vertical bat angle. Instead of a mammoth walk-off home run, Trout would have a tiny piece of wood in his hands while the majority of the bat (and the ball) would be heading softly toward Yunel Escobar at shortstop. Thankfully for Trout, he keeps his hands much higher and closer to his body than the average player. This unique elbow usage and hand placement allows him to maintain his vertical bat path even on pitches in the middle third of the zone.
Of course, any celebration of Trout’s otherworldly dominance on low pitches would be useless without explaining why, then, Trout is so helpless on pitches in the upper third of the hitting zone.
On 138 swings on pitches in the upper third or higher, Trout has missed on 38.4 percent of them. He’s also whiffed on 30.6 percent of the high strikes he’s swung at. The MLB average for swings and misses on strikes is 12.5 percent, yet a player as talented as Trout sits at almost two and a half times that on high strikes. And it’s not like he has a lot of success when he does make contact on high pitches. As you’ve seen in the previous hot zone charts, Trout has just three hits on high pitches all year, giving him a robust .061 average on pitches in that zone. Even more incredibly, he’s only put 13 high pitches in play all year. 36 of his 49 at-bats ending on high pitches have ended in strikeouts.
How the heck is that even possible?!
On pitches in the upper third, Trout’s luck in abusing the system on lower-half pitches finally runs out. The verticality of his swing—while a recipe for destruction of low pitches—makes solid contact with pitches in the upper third almost impossible, no matter how nifty his hand usage is.
Trout’s swing plane is so sharply vertical, and his elbows so unextended, that he almost physically can’t go out and meet high pitches far enough out from his body to square them up — or even put them in play, for that matter. For any hitter, high pitches must be met closer to the pitcher than low pitches. This is an inevitable outcome of any hitter’s swing path. It’s not by a significant distance—but no matter how cliché, even one inch can be enough to separate home run from strikeout in this insanely fine-margined sport.
On a given high pitch, if the ball were four to five inches lower, it would be nearing Trout’s barrel. Drop it another ten to fifteen and it’s dead center on his barrel and often going very far, very hard, or both.
But on pitches in the upper part of the zone, the verticality of Trout’s swing path renders him about as dangerous at the plate as your average Little Leaguer.
That’s not hyperbole. Trout has three hits all season on pitches in the upper third or higher.
Here’s the first and only four-strikeout game of Trout’s career, back in April. Two of the K’s come on high pitches, and the first one is a quintessential Trout struggle up in the zone.
The first strikeout is representative of virtually every high pitch Trout swings at. His lack of elbow extension and sharply-angled bat leaves him simply tied up on high pitches and unable to get the path of his bat on line with the path of the ball.
To better understand how all of this works, try a Trout simulation yourself, in exaggerated form over three easy steps:
- Hold an imaginary bat with your hands in front of your chest, and the barrel resting above your back shoulder.
- Next — and this is key — lock your elbows into your ribs to over-simulate the Trout effect.
- Now, try to “swing.” You might first try to generate power by rotating your shoulders horizontally. This is no way to strike a baseball with any power or consistency. Also, if people see you doing this, they’ll laugh, because you’ll look like an idiot. Trout knows this, too. That’s why he drops his back shoulder so dramatically.
If you’re doing it correctly, you probably feel ready to launch a low Yu Darvish fastball well over the centerfield wall. But what if Darvish challenges you up in the zone? Remember, you must keep a vertical swing path, and you must keep your elbows close to your ribs. Good luck getting the barrel (or ruler, or pen, or whatever you’ve picked up) anywhere near that imaginary baseball.
Your (valid) impulse is probably to do two things when imagining Darvish coming at you with 95 at belly-button height. The first is to flatten the heck out of that swing path. Even with the elbows still locked in your ribs and the shoulders rotating vertically, you could at least make contact, albeit weak contact, if you were swinging purely horizontally. Maybe you want to free your elbows from your side, too. Even if you’re still swinging hugely vertically, creative elbow movement can get you all over that ball.
But those two fixes are antithetical to everything Trout does well as a hitter. His tight elbows and vertical path have enabled him to be by far the best in baseball in the most frequently located section of the hitting zone. Remember, this is a guy who is hitting .483 with a slugging percentage over .700 on strikes in the lower third of the zone. And though he is also one of the game’s very worst up in the zone, it’s hard to argue with Trout’s overall approach, no matter how unorthodox it may be.
For some reason, teams simply haven’t sufficiently adapted to Trout’s strengths and weaknesses, and he stills see a stunningly high rate of low pitches.
In fact, 50.8 percent of Trout’s pitches have been in the lower third or below—where he’s hitting .390 with 18 home runs—compared to just 26.9 percent in the upper third or higher—where he’s hitting .061 with one home run.
Pitchers are taught to stay down in the zone, but this is the completely wrong approach with Trout. To almost every other major league hitter, a mistake up is liable to go a very long way. Trout, on the other hand, turns low offerings — often including those which would be considered optimally located — into mistakes. Until teams start better recognizing the effects of Trout’s unusual swing, he’ll continue to glean perennial status as the game’s best player.
All data accurate as of July 12.