One of the biggest debates this spring surrounding the Angels is the “Trumbo Experiment,” in which the team is trying to find out if they can take Mark Trumbo, who enjoyed a breakout rookie campaign at first base in 2011, and move him across the diamond to third. The team tried once before, when Trumbo was first drafted, to make the transition but abandoned it after Trumbo didn’t seem to have the agility to play the hot corner, but coaches vouch that the young former first baseman has improved his quickness and is ready, willing, and, most importantly, able to make the move this time. With the start of the season just over a week away, what are the chances that Trumbo makes it as an every-day third baseman?
This experiment became necessary when the Angels went out and signed Albert Pujols to man first base for the next decade, effectively bricking over that corner’s glass ceiling and ending Trumbo’s chances of really breaking through there. The logjam of talent in the outfield, with arguably five startable options for three spots, made a transition to the outfield, where he’s played sparingly coming through the Angels’ farm system and during the 2011 season, unlikely at best and impossible to justify. Becoming the primary DH also went out the window when the team re-signed Kendrys Morales and committed that role to him. That left third base, where the steady but unexplosive Alberto Callaspo held things down in 2011. The decision became simple, then; see if Trumbo could learn to play third well enough to keep his power in the lineup. Couldn’t be simpler, right?
Historically speaking, it may be quite difficult. According to ESPN’s David Schoenfield, since 1950, only 24 players have played 300 or more (enough for a couple of seasons) games at first and third base, which would be enough to prove they effectively made the first-to-third (or third-to-first) transition. Of those 24, only one made the switch the way Trumbo is going, first to third. Enos Cabell came up in the Orioles system as a first baseman and played a total of 418 games there for Baltimore. He was eventually traded to the Astros where he transitioned to a full-time third baseman in 1976 and played there for five seasons. That’s the whole list.
Even when Schoenfield broadens the criteria to just 200 games at first and third, there are only 43 players since 1950. Those that played first and then went to third all played significant time at the hot corner during their minor league careers, or came up as utility players, like Ty Wiggington. Taking a quick gander at Mark Trumbo’s career starts at third base prior to this spring, we can quickly surmise he doesn’t have the same experience as some of the other guys who’ve made this switch with a grand total of…zero starts at third. Through his minor league career, Trumbo has played 624 games at first base, a handful of others in the outfield, but hasn’t taken a single inning of live baseball that counts at third. So with history working against him, Trumbo doesn’t even have some experience to fall back on.
So, while everyone knew Trumbo would need a bit of a learning curve at third, but how long is his leash going to be defensively? While flashing some excellent defense at first base last season, he’s working with a size disadvantage when he moves over to third. Specifically, he’s too big. At 6’4″ tall and 225 pounds, Trumbo is a big dude, which opens him up to questions about his range and quickness. Add in the foot surgery he went through during the offseason, and you begin to wonder how much the big guy can really move.
However, Angels fans will remember another large gentleman who did just fine at the hot corner for the Halos in Troy Glaus, who played the corners from 1998-2004, and was even bigger than Trumbo at 6’5″. Glaus hit 182 home runs for the Angels in his seven-year stint with the team, including 47 in 2002, while never having a fielding percentage at third lower then .923 in 2003. Not a Gold Glove candidate, but definitely serviceable defensively. But is Trumbo the next Troy Glaus? Though he’s shown he has the bat to be, he may have some work to do in the field. This spring, Trumbo has committed three errors at third in 60 innings of work for a fielding percentage of .833. For comparison, Collaspo has a career .966 FPCT at third base in 294 games.
Let’s be perfectly honest, though. The Angels aren’t moving Trumbo to third to win Gold Gloves. Mike Scioscia wants him in the lineup to build off his 29-home run 2011 campaign and add another big bat to an already pretty potent lineup. But is the offensive output of Trumbo really that much better than the man he’s replacing in Callaspo? If we look at their 2011 numbers, Trumbo did hit 23 more home runs than Callaspo, but Callaspo posted an on-base percentage that 75-points higher than Trumbo’s, which turned out to be more significant. In 573 plate appearances last season, Mark Trumbo created 71 runs for a rate of 4.47 runs created per 27 outs. Callaspo, on the other hand, created 68 runs in 536 at-bats, for a 5.22 runs created per 27 outs. In short, Callaspo’s ability to get on base and sustain rallies with base hits was more valuable than Trumbo’s power in 2011.
Now, the team has been working diligently with Trumbo to improve his approach with the sole purpose of improving his plate discipline and bringing up his OBP. If he’s able to do that, and close the chasm between his ability to get on base and Callaspo’s, then Trumbo’s power will give him an offensive edge.
So is Trumbo the best option for the Angels at third? With a new vote of confidence from the team about his improvement in the field, and if his new approach at the plate sticks without bringing down his power, then it’s easy to see Trumbo taking the majority of the starts this season at the hot corner. At worst, he’ll fall into a utility role, splitting his time between third, first, DH, and occasional spot starts in the outfield. The team doesn’t need him to be the best defensive third baseman, just not the worst, and they’ll be able to live with him. He’s a work in progress, without a doubt, but at 26, he’s still growing as a baseball player. If he keeps putting out the effort and willingness to change that he has so far this spring, we could see him grow into a pretty decent third baseman, and the answer for the Halos hot corner for years to come.