Angels determined to rise to Trout's level
After falling short past two years, team hopes to ride superstar to October
CLEVELAND -- The shame is not so much that Mike Trout does not have an American League Most Valuable Player Award to show for his astounding first two seasons in the big leagues, because awards are nothing more than arbitrary judgments made by mortals.
No, the real shame is that Trout's contributions, whether you calculate them with new-fangled numbers or stats as old as baseball time, were essentially wasted efforts in Angels seasons that went nowhere.
Trout arrived too late to salvage the wreckage of April 2012 -- though darned if he didn't try, for the Halos had the third-best record in the AL from his April 28 arrival until season's end. And 2013 was a dead end saddled by a brutal back end of the rotation, plus injury-riddled or ineffective seasons from Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton.
That brings us to 2014, in which Trout has convincingly reasserted his claim to the mythical title of Best Player in Baseball, while the Angels have done a better, though imperfect, job of supporting him.
Their greatest imperfection revealed itself Thursday afternoon, when Ernesto Frieri's rough season reached perhaps its lowest point. Brought into a sticky situation -- bases loaded, one out -- Frieri retired David Murphy before leaving a fastball down the middle for the struggling Nick Swisher, whose grand slam handed the Angels a 5-3 loss. It was the eighth time this season the Halos have lost in their opponents' final at-bat.
It has become increasingly clear that the bullpen needs to be addressed in some fashion before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, and not just because it lacks a left-handed look. The shoulder inflammation that landed Fernando Salas on the DL earlier this week created yet another hurdle.
"That's the kind of thing that people might see as small," general manager Jerry Dipoto said, "but it can really test you."
If the Angels can pass this test in the 'pen, they could go far. Dipoto's efforts to deepen the rotation have yielded fruit, and Trout and his supporting cast are providing ample offense.
Remember when Trout was slumping? You know, that one day? Man, that was a turbulent time.
Actually, Trout hit just .164 over a 19-game span from April 29 to May 19, striking out 24 times in 67 at-bats. It was not the Trout we were accustomed to seeing, though maybe, in retrospect, it was a worthwhile reminder that the guy is, in fact, a human being.
Trout has recovered quite well, thank you. In his past 22 games, he is batting .407 (35-for-86) with eight home runs, nine doubles and just 15 strikeouts.
In so doing, Trout has reclaimed his spot atop the Wins Above Replacement leaderboard and, in fact, put himself in position to soon overtake Ty Cobb for the highest career WAR by a player through his age-22 season.
"I'm just seeing the ball better," Trout said. "[When you struggle], you don't want to change things too much. You just get back to the video and back to your old ways, and things will turn around."
Trout is the perfect hitter for his time. He's a premier low-ball hitter in an age in which the sinker has taken on particular prominence. It's being thrown about 38 percent of the time, three percentage points higher than 2007, the first year Pitch-f/x tracking was available, and Trout has certainly capitalized.
Of course, that doesn't preclude Trout from going through the occasional rut.
"I'm sure he's going to have the 100-at-bat segments throughout his career where balls aren't quite falling in, or he's not squaring balls up," manager Mike Scioscia said. "But that's not unlike any great hitter in this game."
The Angels invested $365 million to have two great hitters batting behind Trout, but this year, they're getting more bang for their buck.
Pujols has recovered from his past knee and foot woes to post a respectable .257/.315/.482 slash line, though his two-run single in the top of the 10th on Thursday was more exception than rule for a guy who had a .157 average with runners in scoring position coming in.
Hamilton is still being pitched fundamentally different than he did in his 2010 AL MVP Award-winning season with the Rangers, seeing significantly fewer fastballs. But he's shown less proclivity to chase than he did in a difficult '13.
"No matter how little they throw me fastballs, I'm still going to sit fastball every pitch," Hamilton said. "I can't say I'm going to sit curveball and react to the fastball. Right now, for some reason, I'm not seeing righties well, but lefties I'm seeing great. I'm going to keep working on it."
Of course, the biggest key to the Angels' relevance and current contention for an AL Wild Card spot is the revived rotation, in which Garrett Richards (6-2, 2.87 ERA) has asserted himself as a stud. Tyler Skaggs' impending return early next week creates a difficult decision for the Halos, who can either ride the hot hand of Matt Shoemaker (he allowed two runs in eight innings on Tuesday) or stay the course with the improved Hector Santiago.
Either way, the Angels could use their rotation excess to help their bumbling bullpen, which has an argument as the worst in the league. The good news there is that relief help qualifies as a relatively cheap and easy find each summer in the trade market, so the Halos should have ample opportunity to address their most obvious imperfection.
That's little consolation in the wake of yet another last at-bat loss. But on the whole, the Angels are in better position this year to make sure Trout's MVP-type efforts don't go to waste.