The Angels went out this off-season and made a splash when they signed free agent super-slugger Albert Pujols to add power to their number three slot in the batting order and give them one of the best batting orders in baseball. The addition of Pujols has made the Angels a World Series contender just for his presence on the team. However, the Angels have higher aspirations for how much Pujols will help this season. They are looking to their new first baseman to be the cure for what ails some of the other Angels’ bats, like Vernon Wells’ slumping 2011 and Mark Trumbo’s itchy trigger finger.
As everyone is painfully aware, Vernon Wells did not have a smooth transition into the Angels outfield last season. His .218 batting average and .248 on-base percentage were the worst of Wells’ career and the major-league worsts for players with enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title. To put it mildly: he stunk.. Wells recognized that and re-worked his swing this off-season with hitting coach Rudy Jaramill and has predicted one of his best seasons in 2012. To help shake Wells out of his 2011 funk, manager Mike Scioscia has considered batting Wells second in the order, directly ahead of Pujols. Last year, he hit in almost every spot in the order but 2nd (3,4,5,6,7,9) and has spent the majority of his career hitting third or fourth. However, the Angels are intent on putting second baseman Howie Kendrick in an RBI position and Morales into the cleanup spot behind Pujols, which would leave table-setting duty for Wells if he can rediscover his offensive swagger. Scioscia explains his reasoning:
“The best fastbal hitter we have, and, maybe, in our league…you’re takling about Howie (Kendrick), Kendrys Morales, Vernon – these guys are really, really, maybe going to be put in a good situation when you have a presence in the middle of the lineup.
“He can create offense. He runs well. Last year he had some issues trying to get on base and with his batting average. But…he’s definitely a guy to consider if some other options don’t make sense.”
The large presence of Pujols in the heart of the Angels order is going to help the rest of the Halos’ hitters just by their proximity to him in the order. At least, that’s what the Angels are counting on. Pitchers are going to be more mindful of Pujols in the three spot, which means they’ll want to go after the guys around him, which means those guys will get pitches to hit. What they do with those pitches will determine how far the Angels go this season.
It’s not just opportunities for the guys hitting around him, though, that Pujols is being asked to help out. It’s also his spectacular plate discipline, a career .420 on-base percentage, that he brings to to the team that they hope will rub off on some of the younger Halo sluggers. In particular, displaced first baseman Mark Trumbo. Trumbo’s been showing off really impressive power this spring, knocking a 460 foot home run over the center-field batter’s eye last Thursday. The young slugger brings a lot of tools to the plate, including his great leverage, his ability to drive in runs, and his performance in clutch situations. The one thing he doesn’t bring to the plate is much discipline, walking just 25 times last year. His .291 OBP was lower than all but 10 major-league hitters with qualifying at-bats. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Trumbo swung at more pitches above the sticke zone than any hitter in baseball.
So, with the best hitter of a generation taking grounders next to him, Trumbo asked Pujols for some pointers for better controlling counts. Pujols told the young first (maybe third?) baseman to increase his preparation and learn opposing pitchers better and that he should never be afraid to take a third strike. Trumbo plans to take the advice to heart:
“You don’t want to strike out looking, but sometimes when you protect the strike zone you end up expanding it…I think it’s pretty realistic that I can improve in that department, it’s a goal, but you can’t compare yourself to Albert because he’s the best hitter on the planet.”
If have to learn, you might as well do it from “más grande del mundo” as long as he’s standing right next to you. A more patient and selective Trumbo would help to patch his biggest weakness as a player moving forward and get him on base a little more often and make his at bats less “feast or famine” than they were in 2011. Trumbo has shown an ability to get on base with a .368 OBP in his last year with triple-A, so the potential is in him. Scioscia doesn’t want Trumbo to sacrifice his power for a few more on-base percentage points, but he admits that nobody would say a postive bump in OBP from a player “isn’t a beautiful thing,” and the team is hoping Pujols presence and approach at the plate will be the example Trumbo needs.
This season won’t be the first time the Angels staff has used Pujols as an example for their hitters to follow. Last season, hitting coach Mickey Hatcher taught center-fielder Peter Bourjos how to shorten his swing by having him study tape of Albert Pujols while he was with the St. Louis Cadinals. Bourjos took to the lessons well, quieting his hands and simplying his swing to drop his strikeouts from 79 before the All-Star break to just 45 after it. Hatcher explains why Pujols makes such a great example:
“His swing is so simple…You would love to have every kid learn that swing and that approach. It’s what we preach with, because it’s so controlled, from the hands getting through the zone to where the head needs to be.
“He has very little movement, which allows you to see the ball better. It’s a fact. You’ve got the guys who have the leg kicks and everything, too much movement, the consistency’s not there.
“He’s a perfectionist, but he really understands his swing.”
The Angels couldn’t ask for a much better example for their hitters to follow. Pujols has never struck out 100 times in a season, and since his rookie season, hasn’t struck out more than 70 times. In 2006, he had nearly as many home runs (49) as strike outs (50). With Pujols now on the roster, it should make it even easier for him to mentor the younger hitters while he adds protection to those hitting around him. In short, the team is looking to Albert Pujols as the cure-all for the Angels offense this season. So, how much of an impact do you think he’ll have in 2012? Will he just produce great offense for himself or will his “aura of batting” elevate the lineup around him?