Nobody hits 'em where they ain't like Mike Trout

Mike Trout's career batting average on balls in play trails only that of Ty Cobb, Joe Jackson and Rogers Hornsby. What gives him such an edge? We go on the hunt for all his extra hits. Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports

Over the past five years, Mike Trout has been baseball's greatest offensive force. Chris Davis is stronger and has hit more home runs. Carlos Santana is more patient and has drawn more walks. Rajai Davis is faster and has stolen more bases. Trout's genius is in being nearly as good in all of these categories and being that way every day without slumping.

There is, however, one facet of offense in which no active player can top Trout: his batting average on balls in play. In his five full seasons, Trout's BABIP is the highest in baseball. If we include his brief debut at age 19 in 2011, his career BABIP of .360 is the highest in integrated baseball's history, trailing only that of Ty Cobb, Joe Jackson and Rogers Hornsby in the full modern era. Trout will likely fall down that leaderboard as he ages, but for now, he is singularly skilled at following Willie Keeler's foundational hitting advice: "I keep my eyes clear, and I hit 'em where they ain't."

Last year, Trout hit the ball 417 times, 29 of them over the fence. That left the opposing defense 388 chances to put him out. For a typical hitter -- with the league-wide .300 BABIP -- those 388 batted balls would produce 116 base hits. Trout got 144. I want to find those 28 extra hits.

We'll be relying mostly on MLB.com's Statcast data, which became fully available for the first time in 2016. The hunt for the 28 is on.

Step 1: Hit it better

Here's extra hit No. 1:

I count six fairly intuitive ways that a player can produce a high BABIP, two of which are simple: Get Lucky and Get Lucky's cousin, Play At Coors. We'll ignore those two and focus on the other four, the first of which is hitting baseballs at a trajectory more likely to produce base hits.

We know Trout hit 388 balls in play last year. If we knew nothing else about him, we would estimate that those 388 would be distributed thusly:

  • 72 fly balls (excluding homers)

  • 28 popups

  • 98 line drives (excluding homers)

  • 186 grounders

  • 5 unknown

Those are the league-average rates. Trout's batted balls looked like this:

  • 83 fly balls

  • 14 popups

  • 110 line drives

  • 176 grounders

  • 5 unknown

Line drives are, unsurprisingly, far more likely to turn into hits: Around 64 percent of non-homer line drives are hits, while less than 10 percent of non-homer fly balls fall into that category. Popups are the worst (around 2 percent), and grounders are in the middle (around 25 percent).

Trout hit more line drives than an average hitter, and that was mostly at the expense of ground balls. Turning 10 grounders (.250 BABIP expectation) into 10 line drives (.640 expectation) will produce, on average, four more hits. Trout also hit more fly balls than the average hitter, but those didn't come at the expense of his line drives. They came at the expense of his popups, another net gain.

If you now knew nothing about Mike Trout except how many balls he put in play and the trajectory of those batted balls, you'd expect him to have about six more hits than the average major league player. That gives us extra hits Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

Step 2: Hit it harder

Here's extra hit No. 7:

Trout doesn't just hit more line drives and fewer popups, though. More of his line drives turn into hits, more of his fly balls do, and more of his ground balls do too (but he went 0-for-14 on balls classified by Statcast as popups).

Trout hits the ball harder, which is the second intuitive way to get more hits. According to exit velocities recorded by Statcast, Trout hits the ball harder, no matter the trajectory:

Presumably, this explains some of his elevated BABIP, but determining exactly how much gets complicated. It's impossible to say what an extra mile per hour is worth; one extra might be enough to carry a shallow fly ball all the way to the left fielder, or it might be enough to give the shortstop time to charge a grounder and throw the runner out at first. An extra mile per hour on a popup simply means the ball is in the air longer, and that gives the fielder more time to settle under it. These types of hits -- for which harder is worse -- lead to the so-called "donut hole" theory as it relates to exit velocity. This theory is espoused by physics professor Alan Nathan, who states, "70 mph just clears [the] infield, 90 mph is a lazy fly ball, 110 mph is [a] HR."

We will attempt to settle this by putting each grounder, each fly ball and each line drive into one of five buckets based on how hard it was hit. For example, line drives will be put into buckets containing those hit softly (83 mph or slower), medium-softly, medium, medium-hard and hard (103 mph or harder). The ground ball and fly ball buckets will follow the same principle, but with different velocity ranges for each category. This will help compare hit types more consistently and (we hope!) get us around the "donut hole" problem.

Rather than bury you in tables, here's the summary:

• On grounders, Trout hits more soft and medium-soft grounders but also considerably more hard grounders.

• On fly balls, he hits slightly more soft fly balls, fewer fly balls in the three medium buckets and considerably more hard fly balls.

• Finally, he hits nearly twice as many hard line drives as the league average. He just smashes line drives.

To boil this down to a clear and concise conclusion: If all you knew about Mike Trout was how often he hit line drives, fly balls and grounders and how hard those line drives, fly balls and grounders were hit, you'd expect him to add about five extra hits based on his exit velocities: about half an extra hit on grounders, one-and-a-half extra hits on fly balls and three extra hits on line drives. He is now 11 hits ahead of the league.

Knowing this, we can identify extra hits Nos. 8, 9, 10 and 11.

Step 3: Be faster

The fact that Trout "hits more line drives and hits them harder" still isn't enough to explain his BABIP. What's left? Here is extra hit No. 12:

Take a look at the five ground ball buckets that we created a minute ago:

It isn't just that Trout hits more ground balls hard. Whether he hits hard or not, he's more likely to reach base. If all you knew about Trout was how often he hit line drives, fly balls, popups and grounders and how hard he hit them, you'd predict he would have 43 hits on ground balls. He had 55. That means 12 of those extra hits came from his being even better than his exit velocity on ground balls would suggest.

This raises the third intuitive explanation: He is fast! Trout isn't as fast as he was in his rookie year, when one veteran pro scout reported that Trout was the quickest to first base he had ever clocked, but Trout is still one of the league's better runners, according to Statcast data. His 90th percentile time to first was, on average, 4.17 seconds. That puts him in the top 25 percent of major league right-handers.

According to the scouting and data company Baseball Info Solutions, Trout had 18 infield hits in 2016, the 19th-most in baseball. The league-average hitter reached on an infield hit on about 3 percent of balls put in play; Trout did so on nearly 5 percent of balls he put in play. Perhaps not all of those are a direct result of his speed, but it's a nice proxy, so we'll credit those extra seven infield hits accordingly: Nos. 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18.

(Trout also reached on an error 10 times, by the way. That was the fourth-most in baseball.)

Now, if you knew how often Trout hit line drives, fly balls, etc., how hard he hit them and how fast he was, you'd expect him to have 18 more hits than the league-average hitter. Where are the final 10?

Step 4: Hit it everywhere

Here is extra hit No. 19:

Our fourth intuitive explanation is that Trout is difficult to defend; hitting 'em where they ain't starts by keeping fielders from bunching up where you're likely to hit 'em. Some hitters pull the ball so often that teams can load up the infielders on one side of second base. Some hitters are so slow that the infielders can stand a step or two deeper, which gives them more range on grounders and flares. Some hitters are so powerless that the outfielders can play shallower, catching more soft fly balls that just clear the infield. Trout, as our hypothesis goes, is none of those.

Here we get more speculative, but we can state a few things as facts:

1. Outfielders play Trout deeper than they play most hitters. On average, the opposing center fielder stood 324.3 feet from home plate when Trout was in the batter's box. That's the 16th-deepest positioning for any hitter in baseball, out of around 300 qualifying hitters. (The three "deepest" hitters were all Colorado Rockies, which illustrates how ballpark size can skew this measure.)

2. Infielders -- at least, shortstops -- played 1 foot shallower than average against Trout. Remember, he hits grounders harder than the average hitter, yet infielders play him shallow -- as shallow, in fact, as they play Jose Peraza, another speedy right-hander but one with negligible power. The spread between "deep" and "shallow" infield positioning is pretty small, but the difference between an out and a hit is often small too.

3. Infields do shift against Trout, but they don't do it routinely -- about one-third of the time in 2016. At Baseball Prospectus, Russell Carleton has found that the shift "works" against the most obvious shift candidates -- the dead pull sluggers -- but not against marginal candidates, against whom the league is increasingly shifting. Trout, who pulls ground balls more than the league average, is a marginal shift candidate.

Putting points 1 and 2 together, we might have an explanation for his extraordinary success on "soft" fly balls, on which he hit .500 (8-for-16) compared to the league average of .188 last year. It's perilous to claim anything from 16 batted balls, but we'll credit this for hits Nos. 19, 20 and 21:

Point 2 also suggests that Trout has an advantage on hard-hit grounders, as infielders have slightly less range against him than they would against a different hitter with similar hard-hitting ability. We'll call these extra hits Nos. 22, 23 and 24:

As for point 3, well, he got this hit because they didn't try to shift him and this one because they did:

Those are extra hits Nos. 25 and 26.

Step 5: Baseball

Finally, even Mike Trout deserves to get lucky every once in a while. That gives him extra hits Nos. 27 and 28:

It's probably fitting that the one discrete skill Trout boasts better than anybody else is, itself, an accumulation of skills. Other batters hit more line drives, other batters hit the ball harder, other batters are faster, and others are harder to position fielders against. But nobody is better at all of those things in concert than Trout. Which brings us right back to where we started: His defining feature is everything.

Thanks to MLB.com for the extra research assistance.