Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 8/31/12

Over the past month or so, who’s been the worst regular or semi-regular hitter in baseball? I’m actually asking you, because I don’t have the answer. I could look it up really easily but wouldn’t you know it, I haven’t looked it up. Huh. The answer might be Mark Trumbo. If the answer isn’t Mark Trumbo, then Mark Trumbo is probably close to being the answer, because over the past month or so, Mark Trumbo has just been terrible.

If you look at Trumbo’s game log, you might think that he showed signs of snapping out of this Thursday night. Against Jon Lester and the Red Sox, he finished 2-for-4 with an RBI. But one of those hits was a weak groundball single, the other hit was just a regular single, Trumbo struck out once, and Trumbo swung and missed several times. Also this was just one game. I don’t know what it’s going to look like if and when Trumbo returns to being something like himself, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we couldn’t recognize it at the time.

It’s a really bad slump that Trumbo has been in. You could simply take my word for it, because I wouldn’t lie about something like this on the front page of FanGraphs, but I’ll go into some detail anyway, just in case you were unaware of the slump or unaware of the magnitude. It wasn’t that long ago that Trumbo looked like an out-of-nowhere superstar slugger. His overall numbers are still terrific, but looking at the overall numbers ignores a trend and, as humans, we really like trends.

August Mark Trumbo has batted 113 times. That’s the second-most plate appearances he’s had in any month this season, and that’s a really meaningless fact that adds nothing to this article. He’s hit safely 21 times, and homered three times. He’s walked six times, and struck out 41 times. Put it all together and you get a .257 OBP and a .288 slugging percentage. The Orioles’ 2012 winning percentage is higher than Mark Trumbo’s August OPS.

And Mark Trumbo’s August BABIP is .295. To put it another way, Trumbo’s August BABIP is not weird. A lot of times, we can look at slumps and identify a correlation with reduced BABIP, and while that doesn’t necessarily mean the hitter will be fine, it means he’s probably had a lot of bad luck. Luck hasn’t really been Trumbo’s problem. Strikeouts have been Trumbo’s problem, and while strikeouts have been Trumbo’s problem before, they’ve never been a problem to such an extent.

36 percent of the time. That’s how often Trumbo has struck out in August. Before this August, his previous high strikeout rate in a month was 28 percent, then 26 percent. His career rate is 23 percent. And what we find behind the significantly elevated strikeout rate is a significantly reduced contact rate. That’s what we’d expect, but it isn’t always a given. Trumbo’s entire major-league career as a regular:

April 2011: 72% contact
May 2011: 76%
June 2011: 81%
July 2011: 77%
August 2011: 82%
September 2011: 73%
April 2012: 75%
May 2012: 73%
June 2012: 76%
July 2012: 76%
August 2012: 63%

Trumbo hasn’t posted the league’s lowest contact rate this month, but he almost has, and he’s posted easily the lowest monthly contact rate of his career. He’s made limited contact on pitches out of the zone, and he’s made limited contact on pitches within the zone. Nearly two out of every five swings Trumbo has attempted in August have missed the baseball completely, and one of the goals of hitting is to not do that.

Identifying the slump is the easy part. Finding the cause and developing an outlook are the harder parts. With any streak, good or bad, we have to wonder whether it’s sustainable, and we can never know for sure. Is Trumbo just fine? There is some probability that the answer is yes. Is Trumbo screwed forever? There is some probability that the answer is yes. Let us now engage in speculation and guesswork.

A guy who’s well aware of Mark Trumbo’s slump is Mark Trumbo. We can see it on TV but he’s lived it in real life! Perhaps something might be wrong with Trumbo’s swing? He doesn’t think so:

Trumbo, still leading the team with 29 homers while adding 73 RBIs and a .911 OPS, has watched intensive video of his swing recently and “everything has checked out,” he said.

Trumbo did mess around with an adjustment, though. From very recently:

Trumbo considered the source and heeded some of that advice over the weekend, modifying the ‘toe-tap’ timing mechanism he used to start his swing in favor of a leg kick that he used in the past.

The advice came from teammate Albert Pujols.

Here’s Trumbo on August 23:

Here’s Trumbo on August 28:

Here’s Trumbo on August 30:

So much for that adjustment, probably. Mark Trumbo listened to Albert Pujols just long enough for Pujols to not feel like he was being ignored. Clubhouse egos must remain in a delicate balance.

There is one thing. The correlation is almost too perfect. In pre-game batting practice on July 29, Trumbo injured himself. It was reported as both a dislocated rib and as a muscle spasm. Trumbo played anyway that day, and then took the next day off. He was back in action on July 31. Before July 29, Trumbo wasn’t slumping. After July 29, Trumbo was slumping something terrible.

Let’s treat July 29 as a possible watershed, just for the hell of it. Let’s look at Trumbo’s most recent 15 games up to that point, and at the next 15 games after. The splits are astonishing.

15 games before: .941 OPS
15 games after: .538 OPS

15 games before: 21% strikeouts
15 games after: 36% strikeouts

15 games before: 76% contact
15 games after: 56% contact

We can’t prove that things changed on July 29, but it works if we want it to. The problem is that Trumbo doesn’t want to just easily explain this away:

His previous rib-cage issue, Trumbo continues to say, is not an issue.

“There’s no excuses,” he said. “I’m letting loose, just not getting it done.”

Maybe Trumbo’s still feeling some discomfort and isn’t admitting to it in the heat of a playoff race. Mariners fans went through something similar to that with Justin Smoak in 2011, only without the playoff race part. Smoak played through injured thumbs and didn’t hit a lick, while refusing to admit that his thumbs were bothering him. Months later, Smoak and the team admitted that his thumbs were bothering him. Of course, Smoak is still terrible, so.

Maybe Trumbo’s still sore. Maybe Trumbo isn’t sore anymore, but maybe he’s fighting through mechanical inefficiencies initially developed to compensate for soreness. Maybe Trumbo’s slump has nothing to do with his injury at all. Just because it fits doesn’t mean it’s the only thing that could fit. Most realistically, it’s probably even a big ol’ combination of things currently at play.

The most important thing is that Mark Trumbo is slumping. In the first half of August, he struck out 35 percent of the time, and in the second half of August so far, he’s struck out 38 percent of the time. Trumbo might know in his heart what’s going on, or maybe he doesn’t. He’s showing few visible or statistical signs of progress. I don’t think you can blame this on pitchers taking advantage of Trumbo’s exploitable plate discipline because it all happened so suddenly, but whatever the case, there’s not much reason now to believe this’ll be resolved in the near future. Trumbo might need some rest, or he might need a few weeks or months of making adjustments. Or he could be just fine and awesome again beginning today, because sometimes baseball does that for no reason. I wouldn’t expect it, but lots of things happen that I didn’t expect. Like Mark Trumbo beginning this slump all of a sudden in the first place.


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