Today I will look at a reason Angels fans could be pessimistic about their team’s chances in the upcoming season. There will be five posts and they’ll be rolled out in the next week or so. These aren’t necessarily apocalyptic, worst case scenarios (Pujols busted for deer antler spray and begins fawn mutation, Weaver retires and starts a garage band, etc.) but are things that could easily happen and wouldn’t take a large stretch of the imagination. After this, I’ll write about five reasons Angels fans should be optimistic for 2013. So if you prefer avoiding negativity in your life, just wait a couple weeks.
1) Mike Trout Will More Than Likely Regress
Even if Mike Trout remains the superstar force he was in 2012, it’s very unlikely he will be able to reproduce his magical season in 2013. This isn’t to say that Trout will fall from the rankings of elite players into mediocrity; rather, it’s just a testament to how ridiculous he was in 2012, when he accumulated 10.0 fWAR in only 139 games. For fun, I added some additional “wins” to his WAR, assuming he was on the big club all season and played an additional 20 games at the excellent rate he had all year. In that scenario his fWAR would have been about 11.5, tying Lou Gehrig for the 24th best fWAR-based season for a position player…ever. Now, WAR isn’t everything and that’s some funny math I used, but still — Trout was absurd and his skills should sharpen as he continues to develop, if you can believe such a thing.
But even if his skills sharpen, that doesn’t necessarily translate into greater production for a single season sample size. Relying solely on BABIP to cite Trout’s downfall could be an error in judgement, because Trout’s blazing speed and ability to square balls up should always allow him to post high BABIPs. In Double-A in 2011, for instance, Trout’s BABIP was .390. With that said, a BABIP drop should be expected. Austin Jackson is a prominent example in recent history: in his 2010 rookie campaign, he rode a whopping .396 BABIP to a .293 batting average. In 2011, his BABIP fell to a still-high .340, and predictably his batting average tumbled to .249. ZiPS projects Trout’s BABIP to fall dramatically to .322, resulting in a .282 average. With more information available on Trout’s tendencies, managers may now shift their fielders around to take away hits that may have fallen in last season.
There’s also the matter with Trout’s power. Perhaps the most astounding aspect of Trout’s 2012 onslaught was the power he displayed when whacking 30 homers in basically only five months of play. Trout’s .564 slugging was fourth best in all of baseball (trailing only Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Braun, and Josh Hamilton). Like his BABIP, Trout’s slugging might always be a little inflated thanks to his speed, as he raced to 8 triples last year and will often turn a single into a double if the outfield defense is lazy or sloppy. Yet, 30 home runs don’t lie, as Trout flashed legitimate power in his rookie year.
Interestingly, as recently as one year ago, scouts projected Trout as a player that could one day top out at about 25 HRs. In November 2011, Fangraphs’ Marc Hulet described Trout as a guy with “decent power” and wrote that “power is not a key component of his game right now.” In February 2012, Baseball Prospectus’ Kevin Goldstein wrote Trout “projects to hit 18-25 home runs annually.” The word “projects” is key — nobody, not even the most renowned scouts in baseball, saw Trout as a guy that could hit 30 homers, let alone in 139 games in his freaking rookie year.
It begs the question: was Trout’s 2012 home run binge a fluke? Some reason for alarm might be the distribution of his home runs, with 10 of them coming in his scorching July when he slugged a laughable .804. It’s possible Trout’s homer total is largely inflated by that brief period when he was out of his mind and hit 10 homers in 25 games, while the rest of the year more accurately reflects Trout’s expected power abilities (20 home runs in 114 games).
Another tool we can use to assess Trout’s homer capabilities is ESPN’s awesome Home Run Tracker. One of the things they track is something called “just enough” home runs: “Means the ball cleared the fence by less than 10 vertical feet, OR that it landed less than one fence height past the fence. These are the ones that barely made it over the fence.” Trout finished with the 14th most Just Enough homers in the AL, with 8. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean Trout will definitely regress and hit eight fewer home runs (Miguel Cabrera has led the AL two years running in this category) and obviously players that hit a lot of home runs will tend to lead this category. However, that doesn’t mean it should be completely ignored. In 2011, Angels second basemen Howie Kendrick himself had an unexpected home run binge, hitting a career high 18, 8 more than his previous career high. If we look at the home run tracker, we learn that 14 of those homers qualified as Just Enough, third most in baseball. Kendrick regressed to his typical self in 2012, hitting only 8 home runs.
Finally, we still don’t know if Trout can play a full 162 on the big league level. Last year, Trout seemed to tire in the stretch run. In August and September, his numbers across the board declined, and his strikeouts ballooned. Was Trout tired? Were pitchers figuring out how to beat him? Probably both. I say Trout struggled, but he still managed a .370 wOBA during his August “slump.” But in 2013 he will be asked to lead off for 160 games. Yeah, last year he played in 159 games, but 20 of those came in Triple-A, where he posted a .403/.467/.623 slash line. He was a man amongst boys at that level and didn’t need to exert himself. This year, can he handle the additional work load and opponent adjustments? Oh yeah, and he’s also one of the faces of the game that will have more expectations and pressure heaped on him now.
ZiPs projects Trout to be worth 8.0 fWAR. That’s still MVP caliber, but also two wins fewer than last season. Trout is a fascinating player to study because we have no idea what’s in store for him in 2013; there’s simply not enough data to go by. Is he destined to become the next Ben Grieve? Or after this season should Cooperstown start keeping a spot for him warm? The truth likely lies in the middle. Where he falls on that spectrum is the biggest variable for the “playoffs or bust” Angels as they enter the 2013 season.
In Part 2, I’ll examine how the Angels’ weak farm system will impact them directly in 2013.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrewkarcher.