Sarasota, Fla. — When Orioles slugger Mark Trumbo enjoyed his career year in 2016, it came at a time when the way things that have occurred on a baseball field for generations were analyzed and categorized began to change.
After years of data creeping into traditional forums and becoming more common, Major League Baseball's Statcast data becoming public meant that barreling a ball went from a feeling to a quantifiable, countable stat. Solid contact was made better if it had the proper launch angle off the bat, measured to the tenth of the mile per hour.
Trumbo was up to speed on all of it, and at least at the time, the correlation was obvious. Yet all the batted-ball data the internet can hold couldn't help him string together consistently impactful at-bats in 2017. After an offseason of reflection, Trumbo has decided on a simpler way of characterizing how he hopes to approach everything in 2018.
"I probably would have been much happier a couple years ago just saying that I was able to be a more consistent version of myself, or the best version of myself," Trumbo said. "That would have been a better answer for me. But the way the game is now, everyone wants a little bit more than that. They want to be able to explain exactly why things are happening, so I think it was kind of a convenient time to say that I had improved a few of the trendy stats and figured out some recipe for success."
That's why at FanFest in January, Trumbo said his key to an improved season was to cure a mind that was "a little cluttered" with "a lot of numbers flying around and angles and things of that nature that really detract from the goal of squaring up the ball."
A resurgence in 2018 will be described in a lot simpler terms, ones he wishes would have been characterized as such when he hit a league-high 47 home runs two seasons ago. He insists he's not "blaming success or failure" on the proliferation of data in the game. "It's here to stay," he said. He's just trying to make success by those measures an offshoot of a more organic goal.
"I'd like to get back to a mindset that's more focused on hitting to the situation of the game, really try and get out of my own way in a sense," Trumbo said. "I think it's quite easy just to simplify things to the easiest possible solution, I guess. ... I think the cycle of hitting and struggling is going in with a great attitude, not having success and then constantly trying to fix it in whatever way you can. I think that's what I was really getting at — trying to get rid of some of that mental clutter."
Trumbo is right in that it was convenient to look at his success through the prism of baseball's information age. He freely acknowledged that the longtime mantra of any slugger, to hit it high and hit it hard, was now quantified by launch angle and exit velocity, and was a voice in several league-wide trend pieces about the practical application of those for modern players.
His 2016 numbers backed it up. That season, he was fifth in the game with a 93.9 mph average exit velocity on balls in play, according to MLB's Statcast data. According to FanGraphs, he posted a career-best 43.1 percent fly-ball rate, a jump from 40.3 percent the year before. And he was rewarded with a league-leading season and a second career All-Star appearance because his home run/fly ball rate jumped from 14.5 percent in 2015 to 24.6 percent in 2016.
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But everything dipped back toward his previous career marks last season, and limited to a designated hitter role because of the Orioles' crowded outfield, he had all too much time to think in between at-bats about how he might have been a little bit off.
The surface results — his .234/.289/.397 batting line with 23 home runs in 2017 — were backed up by a decline in all those numbers that explained so well what he did best in 2016. His 90.7 mph average exit velocity was 18th best in the game. His fly-ball rate and home-run rate were back at their career averages, and frustration mounted as he wasn't able to string together the type of production he wanted or the team expected after it brought him back in free agency on a three-year, $37.5 million contract.
"It's a self-defeating process to try and go up there and achieve results, but at the end of the day, our job is to go up there, get hits, drive the ball, and the less-is-more aspect of baseball is one of the hardest concepts you can really wrap your head around," Trumbo said. "To try and do less and achieve more, realistically, you know it's right but it's much harder to implement in a game situation in Yankee Stadium in a high-pressure situation."
In a limited spring training sample, some of his hit-to-the-situation focus has produced results, even if the hard contact hasn't come yet. On Friday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, he pushed a ground-ball single through the second base hole and scored a batter later on a home run by third baseman Tim Beckham. On Sunday, he came up with runners on first and third and one out and pushed home a run on a fielder's choice to second base.
While the analytical principles that led to his breakout undoubtedly contribute to individual and team success, Trumbo will take the productive at-bats like those over trying to create the perfect swing angle as he looks to bring things back to his career-best levels in 2018.
To explain what that will look like, it's a lot more traditional than technical.
"I'm kind of hard-wired to try and figure out what's going wrong and how I can make it better," Trumbo said. "It's just really hard for me personally to just disconnect from things totally and have fun. It's much easier to have fun when you're getting a few hits and contributing."