Mike Trout: Why do defensive metrics hate the Angels superstar?

Mike Trout is the best player in baseball.

You’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who has played the slightest bit of attention to Major League Baseball in the last few years to disagree with that statement. A reported five-tool player, Mike Trout does literally everything well. He hits for average and for power. He can steal bases. He routinely makes outstanding plays in the field. He’s a player that could run the table in the American League Most Valuable Player conversation for at least the next several years.

There’s just one crowd that Trout has yet to win over, and it’s not even a crowd of humans. It’s defensive metrics, which have not looked upon Mike Trout with anything resembling favoritism throughout his tenure with the Los Angeles Angels. And it’s continued into this year.

Standard defensive statistics would indicate that Trout has been the perfect fielder for the Halos this season. He currently sports a fielding percentage of 1.000, rolling without an error of either the throwing or fielding variety. However, statistics like fielding percentage and errors have fallen by the wayside in the advanced analytics community, to the point of almost complete rejection.

Instead, there has been more of a shift to statistics such as UZR and Defensive Runs Saved, which esssentially provide more of an indication of how a player’s defense translated to runs on the board, either of the positive or negative variety. Despite Trout’s perfect fielding percentage and absence of errors, UZR and DRS, among others, don’t seem to favor Trout in the way that one might expect.

FanGraphs has hit Mike Trout with a -0.1 Def rating, which wouldn’t appear to paint him as anything more than an average fielder. Additionally, while UZR cannot be used to be completely indicative of a player’s defensive play at this point in the season, his UZR per 150 currently comes in at -3.1, which labels him as closer to ‘below average’. Where he’s positive is in his DRS, where he has three so far on the season after back-to-back seasons of inexplicable figures of -9.

But it’s quite puzzling, almost to the point of becoming unnerving, as to why Mike Trout, who has been such a smooth and effective fielder this season, has been labeled as an average-to-below-average fielder by the standards of advanced fielding metrics, specifically UZR. To what should we attribute this? For the answer, we should probably look at what specific factors UZR takes into account.

FanGraphs takes the following components into account which make up UZR:

  • Outfield Arm Runs (ARM): This takes into account a player’s arm in preventing players from advancing through a measurement of runs above average.
  • Double-Play Runs (DPR): Not something that will really be taken into account with an outfielder.
  • Range Runs (RngR): Illustrates the amount of balls a player can get to against the league average.
  • Error Runs (ErrR): Measures the player’s tendency to commit more or less errors than the league average at that position.

That’s a very simplified version of how UZR comes into existence. FanGraphs has a much more in-depth look at UZR and how it’s calculated on their site.

Here’s how Trout stacks up in each of those categories:

  • ARM: -1.6
  • DPR: N/A (OF)
  • RngR: -0.3
  • ErrR: 0.9

There’s only one thing there that really gives a strong indication as to why Trout hasn’t been favored by advanced defensive metrics, particularly UZR, this season. His range is just about average, but his arm from the outfield is actually something that’s been in question for quite some time. This post is from 2014, but gives a pretty good breakdown of where Trout stands in relation to arm strength.

And that’s really what has largely accounted for his rough defensive metrics over the last few seasons. This is how his defensive numbers stacked up in the last few seasons, followed by a recap of where he stands so far in 2015 for additional context:

  • 2012: 13.3 UZR, 21 DRS, -3.8 ARM, 16.7 RngR, 0.4 ErrR
  • 2013: 4.4 UZR, -9 DRS, -1.7 ARM, 5.6 RngR, 0.5 ErrR
  • 2014: -9.8 UZR, -9 DRS, -5.1 ARM, -5.0 RngR, 0.3 ErrR
  • 2015: -3.1 UZR/150, 3 DRS, -1.6 ARM, -0.3 RngR, 0.9 ErrR

There are no shortage of interesting things just in that small grouping of numbers related to Trout’s defense. We can certainly consider 2012 an outlier. His range was off the charts and it helped to inflate his numbers across the board, to an extent, especially given that it has largely declined in the years since. Regardless of how many of these numbers shake out, though, there’s one real common theme here: his ARM.

In each of those instances, Trout has received a negative rating for his ability to throw opposing baserunners out or prevent them from taking that extra base on a hit. This is also reflected in his assists on the season, where he has just a pair, which ranks him 58th among Major League outfielders. It’s difficult to find a spot where Mike Trout isn’t head and shoulders above the rest of the league, but it looks like we found it.

That’s really where the explanation for Mike Trout’s rough defensive metrics lies: in his arm. While Trout’s range has diminished since that unbelievable 2012 campaign, it’s still at least average, if not slightly above. He can get to balls, with Out of Zone totals of 78, 85, and 72 in the last three years, respectively. He’s at 51 so far this year. Given everything that Trout does on the field and in the box, though, the Angels will likely take an arm that is ‘just okay’ any day of the week.

**Statistics via FanGraphs

Randy Holt is the managing editor for Statliners. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.

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