Amid all the weirdness endemic to the 2020 season, from the gimmicky extra-innings rule to the San Diego Padres' competence, one countervailing constant has helped provide a sense of normalcy: Mike Trout is whacking the bejeezus out of the baseball.
Heading into Friday's action, Trout owns a gaudy - even by his standards - slash line of .328/.377/.738, good for a 192 wRC+, the fifth-highest mark in baseball. Small-sample caveats apply, but his batting average, slugging percentage, and wRC+ all represent career highs, as does his .410 isolated power, which ranks fourth in the majors behind only Yankees slugger Aaron Judge, Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto, and - inexplicably - Tigers speedster JaCoby Jones.
As it happens, virtually all the damage Trout has done this year has come since he became a father. When he was placed on the paternity list late last month, Trout had a decidedly human .815 OPS and had gone deep just once. In nine games since the birth of Beckham Aaron Trout, the three-time American League MVP has been superhuman, hitting .351 with seven homers and a .919 slugging percentage - raking at such a prodigious level that Trout himself conceded that dad strength may indeed be a real thing.
A more plausible theory may be that Trout's monster season so far is simply the culmination of myriad adjustments he's made over the years, the mechanical modifications and approach tweaks that facilitated year-over-year improvement and enabled him to rack up more WAR through his age-27 season than Derek Jeter, Reggie Jackson, and Frank Thomas throughout their entire careers.
|41||Ken Griffey Jr.||2‚671||77.7|
Last year, for instance, Trout elevated the ball more than ever, riding a career-high fly-ball rate (49.2%) to a new high-water mark in homers (45) despite playing only 134 games. In 2018, Trout - already one of the game's most disciplined hitters - took his selectiveness to a new level, becoming only the seventh qualified hitter this century to walk in more than 20% of his plate appearances.
At no point throughout his singular career has Trout stopped learning and evolving. While it's easy to dismiss his early surge as a 15-game small sample, there's evidence to suggest Trout's simply stepped up his game once again, as impossible as that may seem.
For one, Trout's hitting the ball harder than ever before. Surprisingly, despite his power numbers, Trout's average exit velocity has seldom been eye-popping. From the start of 2014 through last year, Trout's average exit velocity of 91.1 mph ranked only 32nd among qualified hitters, below less accomplished guys like Pedro Alvarez, Kyle Schwarber, and Chris Carter.
This season, Trout's smoking the ball harder than almost everyone, producing an average exit velocity of 93.1 mph, the 11th-highest mark in the majors and better than that of even Judge, the putative prince of exit velocity. A career-high 48.8% of Trout's batted balls have been deemed hard-hit by Statcast, meaning they've come off his bat no slower than 95 mph.
Ultimately, his ability to punish the baseball no matter where it's pitched is increasingly unmatched, as evidenced by this 428-foot homer - with an exit velocity of 108.1 mph - off Oakland's J.B. Wendelken this week. In 2019, Trout's average exit velocity on inside pitches in that same location was 81.2 mph.
Trout's also looked invulnerable in so-called pitcher's counts. Perhaps the only indication that Trout is mortal is the fact that he, like every other hitter, hasn't put up great numbers when behind in the count. Last year, Trout's numbers when putting the ball in play while behind in the count - a .140 average and a .295 slugging percentage - were worse than the league average marks of .200 and .321, respectively.
In 2020, though, Trout's thrived even without count leverage, hitting .385 and slugging .615 while behind in the count. And his two-strike hitting has similarly improved; even though he's striking out a career-high 26.1% of the time, never before has Trout enjoyed so much success in two-strike counts:
|Year||OPS in two-strike counts||% HRs in two-strike counts|
And those are just the adjustments that stand out. Trout's also pulling the ball more than ever (44.1%), a development that suggests his power surge isn't a momentary thing. And despite his unusual strikeout rate and career-low 7.2% walk rate, Trout's actually been laying off pitches outside the strike zone better than ever - a career-low 14.9% rate.
In short, the game's best hitter appears to have markedly improved in multiple areas early on in 2020, and neither the de-juiced baseball nor this season's generally stingy run-scoring environment have been able to slow him down.
The irony is that this was ostensibly shaping up to be the year that Trout's path to the American League MVP would be the most fraught. As the truncated, pandemic-riddled season loomed, Trout was ambivalent about playing with his wife expecting. Even if he didn't opt out, the 29-year-old was destined to miss time following the birth. The short season and some well-placed luck could always allow others in the American League to match or exceed Trout's output.
Trout decided to play, though, missed only four games on paternity leave, and has so far continued his pattern of somehow getting better with each passing season.
Yes, it's still early, but baseball's perfect player is looking more perfect than ever. Given how successfully Trout has made adjustments throughout his career, there's a very real possibility it's more than small-sample noise or dad strength.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.