The Angel Who's Improved

Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels first baseman Mark Trumbo celebrates after hitting a home run against the Toronto Blue Jays at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. The Angels won 6-2. Credit: Kelvin Kuo-US PRESSWIRE

The 2012 regular season has not quite gone as the Los Angeles Angels planned. But one player in particular seems to have elevated his game.

Last December, the Angels swooped in and signed Albert Pujols as a free agent. They signed C.J. Wilson too, at pretty much the exact same time, but more importantly, they signed Albert Pujols. That meant something entirely different then than it does today. Today, everybody's wondering what the matter is with Albert Pujols. Back then, he was Albert Pujols, and nothing was yet the matter.

Pujols was to play first base. He's historically been an excellent first baseman. That would displace Mark Trumbo, and further displacing Mark Trumbo was the return of Kendrys Morales. Again, that was supposed to be a good thing. And it mostly has been a good thing so far, as Morales owns a 120 OPS+. But with Pujols at first and Morales at DH, Trumbo would find his playing time reduced after a successful full season.

Mark Trumbo made for an interesting conversation topic. Last season, he finished second in the voting for the American League Rookie of the Year. He batted nearly 600 times, and while he posted a .291 OBP as a first baseman, he also posted a .477 slugging percentage. I present to you the standard Mark Trumbo conversation:

Person 1: He posted a .291 OBP!
Person 2: But he slugged .477!
Person 1: He posted a .291 OBP!
Person 2: But he slugged .477!
Person 1: He posted a .291 OBP!
Person 2: But he slugged .477!

It was interesting, even though I now realize that doesn't look interesting. Mark Trumbo was a rookie who hit for a lot of power in a pitcher-friendly ballpark. Mark Trumbo was also a rookie who struck out 120 times and walked 25 times, where six of those 25 walks were intentional. Mark Trumbo's approach was basically "swing hard and try to hit it", and so different people had different ideas of what he could become.

There were Trumbo believers. There were Trumbo skeptics. There were people who thought Trumbo's power could carry his game. There were people who thought Trumbo was too undisciplined and couldn't make enough contact. Mark Trumbo's future was uncertain, and by signing Albert Pujols, the Angels gave indications that they figured Trumbo would regress. Or they simply jumped at the chance to bring in one of the greatest all-around players in the history of baseball. Potato, potato. Say those out loud, differently.

Okay, now it's the middle of May in 2012. The Angels haven't gotten off to the start that they wanted to, in no small part because Albert Pujols has inexplicably collapsed in on himself like Mount Mazama. But they are not without reasons to feel a little good. For one thing, Pujols probably won't stay like this. For another, Morales has produced. Mike Trout has been productive and appeared comfortable. Jered Weaver's been mostly outstanding. And there in the numbers is Mark Trumbo, with a 185 OPS+ after nearly a hundred trips to the plate.

It's almost a little bittersweet, with Trumbo producing so much out of an irregular role, but to go with his power he's already drawn nine unintentional walks. That's not a lot, but that's a lot for Mark Trumbo. Writes Ken Rosenthal:

The encouraging part is, [Trumbo] worked to get better.

"I read quite a few of the comments (about his plate discipline) last year, took it for what it was worth. I have more of an old-school mentality (about being aggressive)," Trumbo said.

"But I understand the importance of grinding at-bats, swinging at pitches you can hit. I did various drills (last off-season) to try to shore up which pitches I chose to swing at."

Here's one way of looking at things: last season, Trumbo swung at 41 percent of pitches out of the strike zone. That was the fourth-highest rate in baseball among regulars. So far this season, he's swung at 32 percent of pitches out of the strike zone. That's 81st out of 314 regulars and semi-regulars. Trumbo has still been swinging at more balls than the average hitter, but he's cut his rate down significantly, which, well, that's good. That is an improvement.

Here's another way of looking at things. From Baseball Heat Maps, Trumbo's swing pattern against righties in 2011:

Trumbo2011_medium

And Trumbo's swing pattern against righties in 2012:

Trumbo2012_medium

You see that he's been doing a better job of restricting his swings to pitches in or near the strike zone. He's gone after far fewer pitches in off the plate. He's gone after far fewer pitches high, above the zone. There are pitches out of the zone that Trumbo is able to punish, but chasing those pitches leads to more bad results than good results, so by chasing fewer of those pitches, Trumbo has lifted his results.

It's early - early enough that Trumbo's plate discipline could regress toward his 2011 numbers. We'll have to re-visit this later in the summer to see if Trumbo has made a real, substantial improvement. But so far, it looks like Trumbo has made a real, substantial improvement, and while he's still not Jack Cust or A.J. Ellis, success with this approach seems more sustainable than success with the old approach. Trumbo can hit strikes and some balls a long way. Now he's swinging at strikes and fewer balls.

So often, young players show up in the majors and then struggle to improve their discipline. Trumbo showed up in the majors and appears right now to have improved his discipline. That's good news for him and good news for the Angels, even if it only complicates things a little bit for Mike Scioscia. A productive Mark Trumbo doesn't make up for an unproductive Albert Pujols, but at least there's a productive Mark Trumbo available.

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