Albert's work ethic dazzles new teammates
TEMPE, Ariz. -- We got it. He's Albert Pujols.
At Albert's introductory press conference, Angels owner Arte Moreno immediately thanked "our partners at Fox." The partners wanted Pujols, because it is all about entertainment in Los Angeles. And Moreno knows that when the Dodgers get their new ownership, the war for the second biggest market will be intense and costly.
But what the Angels have learned in a month with one of the greatest hitters who ever walked the planet, is that, in Torii Hunter's words, "Albert's just a plain dude." One teammate pointed out that he's a one locker guy, in the corner with Hunter and Vernon Wells. A coach observed that "he may be a star and may have earned a big paycheck, but there's no act, no entourage, no special treatment. If his routine schedule is two games on, one game off or three games on and one game off, he sticks to it, whether the games are at home or on the road."
Has he bought a house in the Hollywood Hills or in San Clemente? "No, we're still looking," said Pujols, although one can guess that the Pujols family won't be living at a Residence Inn the first couple of months of the season.
"He's an incredibly hard-working man," said Peter Bourjos. "He's very strict in his routine, in how he prepares to make sure his swing is perfected every day." Which is why hitting coach Mickey Hatcher said the best way to describe the sport's number one star is "a cage guy."
Hatcher has taken young players like Bourjos, Mark Trumbo and Mike Trout to observe how Pujols prepares in the cage daily, a routine that is so regimented that it sometimes irks the gaggle of media seeking time with Albert. "I am who I am," Pujols said. "I know that sometimes that doesn't make some people that happy, but I have my routine, my program, and I have to stick to it." Without interruption, just as one can imagine Mozart demanding no distractions.
And, oh yes, if Pujols were to waver outside his routine and was hitting .278, what would be the salary-to-production perception? "A lot of great athletes have very particular routines," said Hatcher. For instance, Wade Boggs spent seven years in the Minor Leagues, thrice went through the Rule 5 draft, and when he finally made the majors, took ground balls at precisely 4:22 daily, ran at 7:11, ate chicken for every meal ... and went to Cooperstown.
"What I like other players to see is how he hits in the cage," said Hatcher. "He doesn't go in there and prepare his swing by volume, taking as many swings as he can in a certain period of time. It's all about the perfection of the swing, and he's amazing in the way he knows his swing. He'll take three, four or five swings, then step back and think it out, making certain he's getting it right.
"He constantly takes the step back, breathes and thinks out his mechanics," Hatcher said. Added Bourjos: "It's been a great learning process for me. Just watching him is teaching me how to prepare my swing. I have a long way to go, but I've learned a lot."
The other thing that Hatcher immediately noticed is that Albert likes to recreate game conditions as much as possible, something that isn't going to happen with a coach or BP pitcher throwing 65-70 mph. "Albert wants the pitching machine turned up to full speed," said Hatcher. "He wants it as hard as it can come, 90-something mph. He wants the machine to fire out the hardest slider possible and work his swing off that. He's got Torii, Vernon and a lot of guys doing it now. I don't know if I've ever seen anything like it."
Angels manager Mike Scioscia said Pujols is also unique "because he's a table-setter and a run producer at the same time in the heart of the order." Getting runners on base was a problem for the Angels in 2011; they were 11th in OBP at .313, 10th in runs, and their 1-2 hitters had a combined OBP under .320. They hope Erick Aybar (.313 OBP at leadoff) will improve, especially since Pujols has taken him under his wing.
They need runners on for Pujols. With Kendrys Morales (who returned Thursday), Hunter, a seemingly rejuvenated Wells, Howie Kendrick and Trumbo behind Pujols, the Angels should be a very dangerous offensive team -- to back one of the league's best pitching rotations. Morales singled in his first at-bat against the Royals, went first-to-third, demonstrating what Scioscia had seen in his three Minor League games and all his sliding, secondary lead and running drills.
Kendrick is the staff's pick to click in 2012. He did hit 18 homers with an .802 OPS at second base last season, but Hatcher points out "he got to the point where he worried too much about going the other way. He got a little caught in-between, but looks much more confident about knowing what pitch he wants to hit and driving it." About that 33-119 walk-strikeout ratio? Kendrick believes it's a matter of being more confident in what he's looking for and what he wants to do. "Watching Albert helps me understand my own swing better," said Kendrick.
Albert Pujols eschews the billboards. Oh, he got Moreno the TV deal and he packs Spring Training games, and from the addition of his bat and that of Morales in the middle of the order, he transforms a team that was 10th in the league in runs in 2011. He'll get a house and he'll do a bit on Jay Leno, sometime, but for now what his new teammates have found they have added is a "cage guy."
"I am," said Pujols, "who I am."
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.