I’ve taken quite a bit of flack since I claimed that Mike Trout was a better pure hitter than Miguel Cabrera right now. I didn’t look much into the numbers before making the claim and just went off of what I’ve heard from people in and around the game over the past several months. Many people think Trout’s the best hitter, but let’s take a deeper look at the debate.
Let’s pull up each player’s Pitch F/X hitter card from Baseball Prospectus and take a look at their line drive rates. Batted ball data is going to be the best way for us to reach a conclusion here, as we’re trying to avoid things like BABIP (which is affected by speed). Swing and whiff rates will also tell us a lot about each hitter. Since the question we’re trying to answer is right now, let’s only look at 2012.
Line drives are known to be the most likely of the batted ball outcomes to become hits, so let’s first look at both players’ LD rates.
Out of respect for the Tigers fans who think I hate Cabrera, let’s look at him first.
Cabrera has put 120 balls in play that started off as pitches outside the strike zone and 25 of those balls became line drives, good for a rate of roughly 21 percent. The 29-year-old has put 197 would-be strikes into play, and 38 of those became line drives (19 percent).
Now let’s take a look at Trout.
Trout, who didn’t make his season debut until late April, has put 74 non-strikes into play, only 10 of which went for line drives (13.5 percent). Trout put 147 would-be strikes and 37 of those strike became line drives, meaning that about 25 percent of balls thrown in the zone that Trout was able to put into play became line drives.
We can draw a few conclusions about the line drive rates of these players. With Cabrera, he’s lining pitches that are thrown inside and outside of the strike zone, which means he’s dangerous wherever you throw the ball. In Trout’s case, he’s lining balls inside the zone at an excellent rate, but not doing much outside of it.
So Cabrera looks to be a little less dangerous when you go right at him than Trout is. This isn’t conclusive though, as pitchers may have attacked Trout in the strike zone early in the season before they realized he could turn on just about anything.
I would say that the main conclusion we can draw from their line drive data is that both players are really good, but with different strengths. Trout’s rates are actually better in my opinion. His small LD rate outside of the zone should make opposing pitchers try to paint the corners, where they are more likely to throw balls and put Trout into hitter’s counts. It’s actually a big advantage for Trout to be significantly weaker outside the zone.
Now let’s take a look at the swing rates. Cabrera first.
Without addressing the numbers specifically, it’s pretty clear that the Tigers’ third baseman swings at a lot of pitches out of the strike zone. This allows opposing hitters to throw him junk pitches outside the zone and potentially get ahead of him in counts. On to Trout.
Trout is a much more selective hitter than Cabrera is, but that isn’t necessarily an advantage, as it means pitchers may be able to get to Trout by sneaking balls in parts of the zone where Trout doesn’t swing as often. (Up and away, for example.)
While it isn’t definitive, I’ll give the edge to Cabrera here, as I’d rather see a player of his offensive prowess swinging at whatever he thinks he can do something with. Trout’s selective nature is a good thing because it’ll lead to better counts and tire pitchers out sooner, but I hear chicks dig the long bomb, which can only happen if you’re swinging the bat. I’m not sure it’s the best statistical approach, but point Cabrera.
Here’s a look at where Cabrera swings and misses.
Cabrera tends to whiff when pitchers pitch him away or up and in. But again, he’s just fine inside the strike zone. Here’s Trout.
Trout appears to have a hole up and away. He swings at very few pitches there, but will need to work on that going forward or pitchers will just start to pound the upper outside corner.
This one is close, as Cabrera swings pretty often at pitches up and in, and misses them pretty often too. Trout has a clear weakness, but he’s actually seen very few pitchers attack that weakness, whereas Cabrera is consistently falling into pitchers’ traps. I’ll call this one a tie. (Tie goes to the runner…Trout! Just kidding.)
I mentioned this on Twitter when “people” were calling me a terrorist, but there just isn’t a clear answer to this debate, statistically or observationally. Most scouts would probably dodge the question, because no one can say with exact certainty that one is better than the other.
I like Mike. You can like Miguel. I’m okay with it.
In the Triple Play piece, I mentioned that it was easy to get enamored with small sample size awesomeness with respect to Cabrera, not Trout. I made the mistake of thinking people would understand that I meant that last week or so, in which Cabrera has been absolutely incredible. And I’m not being sarcastic; it was a genuine mistake. Yes, I’m aware that Miguel Cabrera has been great for most of my life and that Trout has played less than a full season.
If you’ve got your eyes on this right now and you’re one of the folks who went crazy on me, or the ferocious gentleman who sent me that lovely message on Faceback, I hope you really think about what you say to people before you say it. If you hate someone more than Michael Scott hates Toby Flenderson, so be it, but understand that there’s always a person you’re deliberately trying to hurt.
If you’re interested in actual baseball discussion, drop a line in the comments section.
Hudson Belinsky can be followed on Twitter at @hudsonbelinsky.