By Joe Lemire
Since assembling a heart of the order for the ages -- anchored by Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton -- the Angels have been waiting to reap the benefits.
Pujols had intermittent struggles with previous injuries before looking more like his future Hall of Fame self this season. Hamilton had a poor 2013 season, his first in Anaheim, but crushed the ball for the first eight games this year, before tearing a thumb ligament and landing on the disabled list for six weeks. Trout, meanwhile, was the Energizer Bunny of the trio, the one who kept on hitting.
Now, however, Pujols is tied for third in the AL with 13 home runs and Hamilton may return as soon as Monday, but Trout has slowed for the first time since becoming a big-league regular. He is just 12 for 65 (.185) in May with two home runs and one stolen base, and for the season he leads the American League with 56 strikeouts.
"I've been going through a rough stretch, but it's baseball and I've still got 400 more at-bats," the Angels centerfielder said in a telephone interview on Wednesday afternoon before he missed that evening's game with a tight hamstring. "[I am] just staying positive. We're winning. It's not like we're losing."
Trout noted the Angels were already eight games below .500 at this point of last season; this year's club is six games over .500 thanks to a 12-7 mark this month. They are in second place in the AL West, trailing Oakland by four games. He lauded the turnaround of ace Jered Weaver and raved about breakout star Garrett Richards, the pitcher drafted 17 picks after Trout in 2009 and with whom he advanced through the minors.
Pujols, Trout said, has been a font of good advice in the dugout, clubhouse and even in the on-deck circle. The future Hall of Famer has been known to give pointers to Trout mid-at-bat.
"Just keeping me calm a little bit and not being too anxious," Trout said. "When he's hitting behind me, he's in the on-deck circle and if I swing through a pitch, he keeps positive and makes me shorten up a little bit."
In all likelihood, Trout's May swoon will just be a blip on the back of his baseball card, with season numbers barely being depressed. In April, Trout was his usual superlative self, concluding the month batting .314 with five home runs and a .971 OPS. Even with his subpar May, his season are numbers are awfully good: He's batting .270 with an .872 OPS that, though 100 points lower than his standard, still ranks 15th in the league.
A recent Baseball Prospectus article on Trout's swing mechanics illustrated some changes since last season. Namely, Trout is standing more upright and with his hands lower, which, the writer suggested, has led to his swing path being delayed and his hip rotation generating less power. When asked about the seeming adjustments, Trout said none of it is intentional.
"No, I just think, over time, it just happens," Trout said. "I'm not trying to do it. You get so comfortable sometimes in the box you don't even think what you're doing. I've looked at some film over the past couple days and last week or two, and we've seen what we need to do. It's coming back, for sure. I've hit some balls hard lately."
He hit no ball more emphatically than his first career walk-off home run, which he deposited into the Angels' bullpen, an estimated 433 feet from home plate, off the Rays' Brad Boxberger on May 15. He's 4 for 14 since that blast but left Tuesday night's game in the fifth inning with hamstring tightness before sitting Wednesday in advance of Thursday's scheduled day off.
There's little reason to think he won't snap out of this slump, which has lasted only three weeks.
The man has always hit, batting .531 as a high school senior while hitting a New Jersey state record 18 home runs -- and needing only 81 at-bats to do so. He was a first-round pick who needed fewer than 300 minor-league games before sticking in the big leagues for good, winning AL Rookie of the Year and finishing second in highly contentious MVP balloting. Oh, and he only turned 21 in August of that season.
As well as Trout hits, runs, throws, fields and, well, does anything else you might want him to do on a ballfield, it's natural to assume he has never struggled. Never slumped. Never faced the adjustment-inducing adversity that befalls every big leaguer. Is slumping a new experience for him?
"I don't think so," Trout said. "I went through a stretch in Double-A, I think I was, like, 3 for 50 my first month in Double-A. I just stayed positive."
People can be prone to exaggeration when trying to make a point, and ballplayers subjected to a monotonous minor league routine might find their memories blend together. A review of his game logs on Baseball-Reference.com, however, indicate nothing resembling the 3-for-50 slump that Trout described (an Angels representative said it may have been in the Arizona Fall League in 2011). A 12-for-49 stretch, which computes to a .245 average, is the worst I could find in April 2011, his first month in Double-A, though that may have felt like 3-for-50 given to what he was used to: He batted .352 in 2009 and .341 in '10. The only stretch of his pro career comparable to the drought he refers to was his first big league cameo in July 2011, when he batted 7 for 43 (.163). He returned to Double-A and promptly began mashing again.
Observers have taken note of these fallow few weeks because Trout has been so historically good these last two seasons that expectations are exceedingly high. Off the field, his stature is growing, too. No longer is Trout merely the Sabermetric poster child of MVP debates with the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera, but he has also landed some national endorsements (most recently teaming up with Kobe Bryant and Buster Posey, among others, for the sports drink BODYARMOR). He's growing more comfortable with his celebrity, regularly popping up during televised baseball games for his ad campaign with Subway and looking nothing like the shy, largely unknown New Jersey high schooler who was the lone draft prospect to attend the league's first televised draft at the MLB Network studio in June 2009.
"It's been so quick these last couple of years," he said. "It's like a blink of an eye and I'm back in Secaucus."
Surely, in even less time, Trout will be back on track.
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Joe Lemire is a former Sports Illustrated staff writer and current New York-based freelance writer who can be found on Twitter at @LemireJoe.