- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
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CONSIDER MARK TRUMBO, the largest bit player in the big leagues. He was turned into an everyday utilityman with the arrival of Albert Pujols and relegated to an afterthought amid the national paean to Mike Trout. Trumbo's season-long excellence, his .903 OPS through mid-August, in only his second full season? It's not much more than background noise these days.
But as the Angels try to chase down a playoff spot over the final six weeks, Trumbo is key. With Trout perpetually on base and Pujols (finally) back to normal, Trumbo and his tape measure power have the capacity to single-handedly dictate the playoff race.
One problem: He stinks right now. As he stands in the visitors clubhouse in Oakland one day in early August, he's got five hits in his past 32 at-bats. He's fixated to an admittedly unhealthy degree. He can't think of anything else. He's cerebral, driven to study himself and other hitters, obsessed with finding a mechanical solution to his problem -- hands might be too high, shoulder might be opening up early, front foot might be late getting down.
He also realizes the problem might be simple -- "Something even the casual fan can see," he says. The mystery eats him up and makes it nearly impossible to consider a broad assessment of his season.
"When things are going well on the field, you never think about it off the field," he says. "When you're scuffling, it's the only thing you can think about."
It's rough being a perfectionist. For one thing, there's very little room for joy. The successes are expected, the failures torturous. Asked if it costs him sleep, Trumbo nods and says, "There have been some nights when I've devoted too much time to thinking about it."
We don't think much about stress in 26-year-old major league All-Stars, especially in one whose liquid swing produces the easiest 420-foot homers since Adam Dunn. Their lives, from the couch or the stands, look undisturbed. Stress is for people who work, not play, for a living. For Trumbo, it cuts both ways: The sheer hatred of failure makes his success -- 29 homers, 73 RBIs and a .903 OPS through mid-August -- almost a necessity.
"People say I'm too hard on myself," he says. "But that works to my advantage too. I'm not going to accept mediocrity." Says Angels manager Mike Scioscia: "He does expect a lot out of his talent. When he's struggling, you know he's going to blast out of it, because he expects himself to be the kind of player he was last year and this year."
Trumbo's path was -- and is -- unique. A phenomenal high school pitcher, he
was ranked the No. 31 prospect in the country his senior season at Villa Park High School in Orange County (Calif.). The Angels drafted him to pitch in 2004, but he was switched to first base in 2005 after a physical revealed the likelihood of future arm trouble. First base worked for a while, through the minors and 2011, his first full season in the majors, when he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. Then, last December, the Angels signed Pujols, at which point Trumbo was switched to third base. ("First wasn't on the table for me anymore," he says. "That was a no-brainer.") Third base worked until it didn't, which was shortly after it started. That's mostly because it's difficult to learn a new position at the big league level, especially one that is essentially the geometric opposite of the one he'd been brought up to play. Four errors in his first 14 chances -- a Ruthian .714 fielding percentage -- ended the experiment. Trumbo was switched to the corner outfield spots, which the Angels can tolerate because he can flat-out hit and needs to be in the lineup.
Through Aug. 9, his OPS was seventh best in the AL, a significant feat of concentration considering he's started 42 games in left, 29 in right, 17 at DH, 8 at third and 5 at first. It's a good thing for the Angels that Trumbo has been both productive and versatile. If only everything went as smoothly. Despite the offseason signings of Pujols and C.J. Wilson and the return of Kendrys Morales, the Angels find themselves chasing the wild-card spots. Outside of Jered Weaver, the starters have been inconsistent enough to necessitate the deadline deal for Zack Greinke, whose first three starts were anything but messianic. The bullpen is one loose board from being condemned.
Trumbo, despite his current predicament, qualifies as a rock in the rapids. After a rookie season in which he hit 29 homers but drew just 19 unintentional walks in 573 plate appearances -- a dreadful .291 on-base percentage -- he set out to change his reputation as an undisciplined hacker. This season, through 105 games, his batting average was .287 and his on-base percentage was .341. He had 29 walks, just three intentional, which
doesn't make him Rickey Henderson but is a marked improvement. "I'm trying, but I'm a middle-of-the-order guy," he says. "If I get a pitch to hit, I need to do some damage."
Now, if he could just get out of this slump.
In the fifth inning of the third game of an early-August series against the Athletics, he hit a low rocket up the middle for a hit. As he headed back to first after rounding the bag, a smile ever so briefly crossed his face. Two innings later, he smashed a Grant Balfour slider into some of Oakland's finest concrete for his 29th homer. His hands stayed back, his shoulder stayed closed and the ball stayed hit. A load was lifted.
It felt like the same one he's carried -- and will carry -- until the Angels' last pitch.