Before Mark Trumbo even reported to the Orioles after his trade during the winter of 2015, his offseason work delivered his swing to a place he felt it could produce the kind of league-leading power output that followed.
After hitting 47 home runs in 2016 and signing a three-year, $37.5 million contract to return to the Orioles in the offseason, Trumbo arrived at spring training with no such feeling — and ended up never truly finding it.
"When you go into the offseason, everyone takes a break — how long it is is kind of an individual preference, but I've always taken about the same amount of time off," Trumbo said. "Generally, when you pick the bat back up, it feels a little bit foreign for a while, just because you haven't been taking the reps and it's natural, and that's good, because you need to recover. Some years, it kind of clicks pretty easily and you feel like you're in the groove. This year, it wasn't one of those.
"I didn't start any later. I didn't do anything differently, but I kind of struggled in the spring to find a swing that I felt locked in with, and it's kind of continued most of the season. There's been a few small spurts of sustained success, but overall, it's just been far more inconsistent than I would have liked."
For a hitter as cerebral and in tune with his swing as Trumbo, the way he regards his yearlong slump in 2017 — when he batted .234 with 23 home runs and a career-worst .686 OPS — is steeped in something worse than frustration. Just as the 47 home runs, the .850 OPS and the Silver Slugger that came with it in 2016 seemed like a perfect storm of power in an era known for it, the other side of that all-or-nothing approach was laid bare in 2017.
"It's hard to explain," Trumbo said. "The things you hear when people are doing well or seeing it well — it's hard to explain that, and it's hard to explain the other side of it, too, other than you're either doing it or you're not. When it's going well for you, it's never easy, but sometimes it can feel like that. And hopefully, if you can string together enough success, your overall body of work is going to look pretty good at the end of the year, and if you're scuffling, sometimes no matter what you do, it doesn't feel like anything is quite working out."
The gulf in results between Trumbo's two seasons with the Orioles couldn't be wider. He was an All-Star in 2016, and his strong offensive season meant that even with poorly rated defense he was worth 2.2 wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs. This year, with Seth Smith and Trey Mancini in the fold at the corner outfield spots, Trumbo didn't have defense to weigh down his value and still ended up at -1.2 WAR, the second worst among qualified position players in the league.
Despite that dip in results, his peripheral stats weren't all that dissimilar to 2016. He swung at virtually the same percentage of pitches, and his whiff rate was stable. His strikeout rate actually dropped.
Of all the relevant peripherals, the biggest difference from 2016 to 2017 was his hard contact rate, which according to FanGraphs fell from 39.3 percent to 30.4 percent. According to Baseball Savant, his average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives dropped from 96.7 mph to 94.2 mph. Simply put, Trumbo didn't have the quality of contact in the air that put him at the vanguard of the league's 2016 power surge and saw it all pass him by.
That he mostly served as the designated hitter could explain part of his downturn. With five home runs in 125 plate appearances in right field and 18 in 467 as designated hitter, his home run rate at each position was essentially the same. But Trumbo had an .876 OPS when playing right field as opposed to a .635 OPS as DH. The difference wasn't as stark in 2016, but it was also better when he was in right field.
Trumbo, however, offered no excuses and said he continued working on his swing all year. Several rival evaluators said he looked adrift at the plate down the stretch, and while physical decline is always a possibility with veteran players, none expect the same poor results to carry over given Trumbo's background. That's his own hope as well, and the Orioles will undoubtedly echo it, given he's still owed $26 million for the next two seasons (including deferred money).
"The business side of it, you try and keep separate," Trumbo said. "It's inevitable that there's going to be some carryover, but the contract stuff, it might not always look as pretty for one side or another as you'd like, but sometimes it's just the way it is.
"I don't know how else to put it, other than some years you're going to be pretty good, some years you're going to be average, and some years you're not going to be very good. I've seen plenty of cases where guys have maybe had a down season, rebounded and played fantastic. I'd like to think that's what's going to happen with me and maybe a couple of the other guys that might be hoping for the same thing."