Monday, June 10, 2019

Mike Trout's road to first is paved with unintentions

TDLR: Mike Trout is so feared by MLB pitchers, he already walks 22% of his plate appearances. And while pundits term the intentional walk the 'Barry Bonds Treatment,' I find there is evidence of the 'Mike Trout Treatment' - the intentional unintentional walk.

In counts of 3-balls and less-than-2-strikes, Mike Trout gets a pitch in the zone an average of 16 percentage points less than the rest of MLB. When considering the score and the number of runners on base, this number becomes 19 percentage points less than the rest of MLB.

And what would happen if Mike Trout didn't even bring a bat to the plate facing counts of 3-balls? Read on and find out!

Superlatives aside, Mike Trout is good at baseball, which is bluntly stated but nonetheless undeniably true. In fact, he is so good at baseball, many pitchers do not like to pitch to him and many pitchers rather pitch around him than to put anything in the strike zone: In the first two months of the 2019 MLB season, Trout has his walked 25% more than the next most-walked hitter and 22% of his plate appearances resulting in a walk.

Another good baseball player, Barry Bonds, also drew many walks in his 22-year career: 20% of his career plate appearances were walks and 26% of Bonds' walks were intentional. Bonds was walked so often that the moniker "The Barry Bonds Treatment" was coined for the act of intentionally walking a batter to avoid pitching to him, even if the bases are loaded and a run scores.

What Mike Trout does not lead the league in is intentional walks and most of Trout's walks come from pitchers starting the plate appears with - at the very least - the intention to try to get him out (13% of Trout's walks are intentional versus the previously stated 27% of Barry Bonds'). Instead, pitchers have developed the Mike Trout Treatment: the 'intentional' unintentional walk.

Score, inning, and runners on base aside, pitchers who fall behind in the count tend to attack the strike zone more often that not: in a 3-0 or 3-1 count, pitchers throw a pitch anywhere in the strike zone 60.5% of the time. However, when Mike Trout is at the plate, it is a very different story: the rate of which pitchers throw a 3-0 or 3-1 pitch in the strike zone drops to 44.4%, a difference of more that 16 percentage points. (Note that there is a similar, but less dramatic trend with counts of 2 balls and less than 2 strikes). The chart below illustrates the reluctance of pitchers to give Trout a pitch in the strike zone when down 3 balls and less than 2 strikes.

Now, an astute reader may recognise there are many reasons why Trout may not be in the same high leverage situations, such as a close game with the bases loaded, that would necessitate a pitcher try and avoid walking Trout as they may be with other hitters. Using a logistic regression, I predict the conditional probability of a pitcher throwing a pitch in the strike zone when down 3-0 or 3-1 to a hitter. I control for things such as the inning, the score, runners on base, and number of outs already recorded. I then predict what would happen in each of Trout's plate appearances if, instead of Trout, a league-average hitter was put in the game. What I find, and display in the graph below, is there is an even larger discrepancy between Trout and the league! If the average hitter was in the same situations that Trout faces, they would have been more than 19 percentage points more likely to get a pitch in the strike zone than Mike Trout!

And if I have not yet convinced you, let me further show that Mike Trout is so feared by pitchers that once he is up 3 balls and less than 2 strikes he can probably put the bat away. While Trout ranks first in the league in OBP in 3-ball counts, if he were to never swing in these situations, his 0.708 OBP would would drop his rank only to 6th!

Yes, Mike Trout is good at baseball. All while he is not getting the intentional walks like Barry Bonds, he is certainly getting the intentional unintentional walks like no other player in the MLB today.

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