I don’t know if “Where in the world did Mark Trumbo‘s 2012 come from?” has quite the ring of “Where in the world is Carmen San Diego?” but it’s still terribly apropos for trying to figure out where Mark Trumbo’s 2012 surge is coming from.
Trumbo was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in 2004 out of Villa Park (California) H.S. in the eighteenth round as a combination pitcher and first baseman. He got a whopping 1.425 million to sign and was converted to first base upon signing. He signed too late to play in 2004, though he showed promising power and contact skills in his 2005 rookie-ball debut with the Orem Owlz, posting a .458 slugging percentage and a 21 BB:67 K ratio in just under 300 AB. That performance got him some attention from Baseball America, who named him the fourteenth best prospect in the Pioneer League.
While 2005 was encouraging, Trumbo essentially fell off the map after back-to-back disappointing stints Lo-A Cedar Rapids. He struggled mightily in 2006 (.648 OPS) though he had decent enough peripherals all things considered; his peripherals actually declined in his 2007 repeat at the level, but he improved his ball-in-play data considerably (and added a little power to the mix). With that said, 21-year-old first-base prospects repeating Lo-A with unspectacular numbers are essentially non-prospects, and as a result, Trumbo barely clung to the the Angels top 30 list on Baseball America (ranking 29th).
Trumbo saw a huge and surprising resurgence in his 2008 promotion to Hi-A Rancho Cucamonga, posting 26 homers, a reduced strikeout rate (just 15.3% of his plate-appearances), and a triple-slash of .283/.329/.553. You can take those numbers with a grain of salt considering it was the CAL League, but the power was interesting given that Trumbo was just 22. The Angels gave him a small taste of AA Arkansas where he continued to hit, and then left him there all of 2009, where he continued to show a strong strikeout rate (17.4% of his plate appearances) but saw his power diminish moving out of the aforementioned CAL league.
It wasn’t until 2010 that Trumbo really seemed like a viable candidate for a role with the Angels, when he posted a .301/.368/.577 triple-slash in the hitter-friendly PCL with Salt Lake. Shockingly, both his walk rate (up to 9.7%, the highest in his career) and strikeout rate (up to 21.2%, again the highest in his career) shot up, but he put up a mostly luck neutral line beyond that. It was fair to question some of his power and he still played a position that made it very difficult to be successful, but there was definitely something there after performances like that in two of his last three years.
Kendry Morales lingering injury situation after celebrating a walk-off homer gave Trumbo the opportunity he needed in 2011 to win the job. Trumbo posted a .254/.291/.477 triple-slash in 573 plate appearances in the bigs, mostly at first-base (with some opportunities in the OF as well.) His walk rate dipped to career-worst levels (4.4%) but his strikeout rate still remained acceptable (20.9%) and his IsoP was a whopping .223, remarkable for a rookie. He was perhaps a bit unlucky (.277 BABIP is a bit low for career norms) but it still looked like he would have to find another position as the performance was below-average for first-base. Fangraphs had Trumbo with a positive defensive rating at 1B (5.7 UZR/150) and a negative defensive rating in RF (-4.3 UZR/150). In short, any advantages of getting Trumbo’s bat in right were really offset by the loss of defensive acumen.
Fast forward to 2012, and the Angels continue to find AB’s for Trumbo, using him occasionally at 3B along with time at RF and 1B. He’s hitting a whopping .333/.388/.592 overall, and showing an improved walk rate (7.5%) to go with a consistent strikeout rate (21.5%). Now his average on balls-in-play is unsustainable long-term (.390), but there are reasons to think that there is something to this breakout. I already mentioned his improving walk rate with his stable strikeout rate, but he’s also showing a better line-drive rate (18% versus 15% last year) which should sustain his ball-in-play rate a bit, and he’s showing an improved IsoP (.259, up from .223 last season). His outfield defense is still shaky, and his third-base defense (new in 2012) is about as bad as it can get (an amazing -99.5 UZR/150, currently!) but the Angels simply need to get him in the lineup. It still appears his most valuable position is 1B, which is blocked by Albert Pujols, but he’s a more than acceptable option in the OF given his line.
I find Trumbo interesting because his ascension to the majors is so unusual. He could certainly regress to his 2011 numbers but it doesn’t seem likely given the real improvements he’s made. The question is what can we learn from Trumbo to try and identify in other prospects? Trumbo would trigger enormous red flags for me, the biggest of which being that he plays a position that is very hard to be successful at given the average performance at the position. He’d have to be an elite prospect to represent a potential above-average player at first base. It’s still not clear he can play another position but the Angels are certainly willing to try it, which adds to his value. Furthermore, Trumbo didn’t focus completely on hitting until the Angels took him off the mound in 2005, so it might have been reasonable to expect him to develop a bit more than a typical high-school hitter. Lastly, and most importantly, despite varying walk and power production across levels, Trumbo always made enough contact to allow his power to shine through. He never struckout more than 21% of the time at any level in the minors, and in fact had a very underrated 2008 campaign that I would have glossed right over if I weren’t reviewing it after-the-fact. Players who make contact give themselves the best chance to have success in the long-run.