Amid Halos' stars, Aybar quietly having his best year
Among game's elite shortstops, he's also leading AL in RBIs at his position
ANAHEIM -- Surrounded by superstars Albert Pujols, Mike Trout and Josh Hamilton, Erick Aybar doesn't draw much attention. That suits him fine. Aybar has replaced his early mentor, Vladimir Guerrero, as the shy Angel.
Brilliant with the glove and a versatile weapon offensively, the 30-year-old athlete from the land of shortstops -- the Dominican Republic -- is by most accounts enjoying his finest of nine seasons. Ask Aybar if he agrees, and this is what you get: a shrug.
"I don't know," Aybar said. "Maybe. I'm doing OK."
Pujols is not as shy about expressing his view.
"To me," King Albert said, "Erick's a great player, one of the best shortstops in the game."
Aybar has 38 RBIs, more than any shortstop in the American League. His 112 OPS+ -- on-base plus slugging, taking into account ballpark effects -- is matched only by Asdrubal Cabrera of the Indians among AL shortstops.
Aybar's .283/.322/.423 slash line is right there with the AL's best shortstops. A Rawlings Gold Glove Award winner in 2011, his .982 fielding percentage is the league's best at his position.
Production notwithstanding, Aybar is not among the top five in the fan balloting for the All-Star Game starters. He has yet to appear on an AL All-Star team. Aybar's manager, Mike Scioscia, doesn't hesitate to campaign for him.
"Whether he gets selected to the All-Star team or not," Scioscia said, "he's an All-Star. Erick belongs on that team."
Critics will point to Aybar's pedestrian analytics, placing his range factor at a below-average 3.75. These numbers are widely questioned by managers and coaches, who point to a wide range of variables -- including the trend toward position-changing shifts -- clouding the validity of defensive analytics.
"None of those statistics are definitive," Scioscia said. "They make no sense with Erick. He's having a terrific season defensively."
Pujols, assuming Guerrero's old role as Aybar's confidante and compadre, looks to the little guy at the locker to his immediate right and sees one of the game's most underrated players.
"He doesn't get the credit he deserves," Pujols said. "I've known Erick a long time, and he's always had the skills. He can do a lot of things; he's fun to watch.
"I think he's more mature as a player. You're supposed to mature as you get older. You've got to keep learning, understanding what the pitchers are trying to do to you. He's always been smart -- very smart. He's learned from mistakes and is more mature in the little areas of the game."
Overshadowed early in his career by an electric Angels cast featuring best buddy Guerrero, Torii Hunter, Garret Anderson, Bobby Abreu and Chone Figgins, Aybar remains comfortably in the background in the midst of a new star-studded cast, taking his place alongside middle-infield partner Howie Kendrick and Trout as reliable backbones in the middle of the field.
"Erick is always clutch in the key situations," Pujols said. "He bats second, fifth, eighth, ninth -- all over the lineup. It doesn't matter. He just wants to win."
Aybar is as old school in his ways and attitudes as Trout, the irrepressible one.
Critics hone in on Aybar's free-swinging nature and modest on-base percentage as liabilities. This doesn't diminish his many positive qualities. Along with his defense, baserunning and clutch hitting, Aybar ranks among the top three in the league in bunting and executing the hit-and-run in annual surveys of AL managers.
"I'm an aggressive player," Aybar said. "I like to hit, but I will be patient and take a walk. My job is to get on base, score runs and drive in some when I get the chance."
Aybar's 38 RBIs have him on course to exceed his career high of 59 in 2011. He knocked in 58 the previous season.
Aybar's blazing speed has enabled him to produce almost as many career triples (41) as home runs (43), and he has 115 steals in 158 career attempts. He is constantly trying to balance his natural aggression with smart decisions.
"He's helped me get better," Aybar said, nodding toward Pujols. "He's shown me a lot of things."
Pujols appreciates the gesture, but he waves off any kudos.
"I don't take any of that credit," he said. "I tell him, 'You have to allow yourself to get help.' He's a good listener. He doesn't turn his back on you and think he's got everything figured out.
"I'm just doing my job, what other people did for me when I was young [with the Cardinals]. I'm telling him to play the game the right way. I had great teammates in my career, and now it's my turn to help my teammates."
Aybar was a valuable member of the Dominican Republic's 2013 World Baseball Classic champions, batting .333 as the team's primary No. 2 hitter. But he was overshadowed, as always, by the likes of Robinson Cano, Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes.
"That was a great team," Aybar said. "We had a great time."
Having appeared in three consecutive postseasons, 2007-09, as part of AL West title clubs, Aybar burns to make it back to October and take it the distance.
"We have great players in this clubhouse," the quiet Angel said. "It's just a matter of going out and doing it."
Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.