Born and raised in the suburbs of Detroit, Bill Plunkett has worked at daily newspapers since 1983 while covering everything you can think of – from rodeo and golf to boxing and the NFL. Bill has covered Major League Baseball on and off since 1989 and joined the Orange County Register in 1999. He worked the Dodgers beat for a years and has chronicled the Angels' triumphs and travails since 2007.
1. Mike Trout is having an historic season, trailing just Ty Cobb and Mel Ott in OPS+ among hitters getting 150 or more plate appearances during their age-20 campaign. What aspects of Trout's game have impressed you most?
His superior athleticism is the first thing that jumps out at you – he has an NFL running back’s combination of speed and strength. I remember seeing him for the first time in a spring exhibition game (against the Colorado Rockies in Tucson, I think) in 2011 and immediately being impressed by that.
The other thing that has been striking this year is how savvy his approach is at the plate. There are few 30-year-olds let alone 20-year-olds who can be in charge of every at-bat the way Trout seems to be these days. The skill set was obvious when he made a big-league cameo last year but that didn’t surface as much until this season. I don’t think there was ever a doubt in Trout’s mind that he belonged in the majors. But he was a little bit wide-eyed and overanxious last year. That is gone this year. I have the sense watching him on a daily basis that we are watching the early stages of a special career.
2. Albert Pujols' Angels career got off to a brutal start, as he went homerless and had a .570 OPS in April. He has been at least moderately productive since by tapping into his power. How has Pujols' approach changed since May?
I think there were a number of factors all at work in the worst six-week stretch of Pujols’ baseball life – I’ve used the ‘perfect storm’ cliché/analogy. I think the jump to the American League was more difficult than he expected (let’s be honest – the level of competition is simply better in the AL). Facing a steady diet of unfamiliar pitchers was difficult. Uprooting himself from the only baseball home he had ever known – the only baseball manger (LaRussa) he had ever played for in the big leagues – and being 1,800 miles away from his family was more difficult than he would admit. And I don’t doubt the pressure of trying to live up to the massive expectations that came with his contract was a huge factor (something else he will not admit).
That all led to him pressing at the plate. He was chasing pitches he would never have swung at in the past or got caught being too passive at times because of his unfamiliarity with pitchers. It put him on the defensive in way too many at-bats and pitchers exploited that. He seemed to be down 0-and-2 in the count before he even left the on-deck circle during April -- and then bounced a ground ball to third base.
Most of those factors finally started to dissipate in May and Pujols has started to look more like himself since. The team around him has played better too – Trout’s arrival breathed life into a dysfunctional offense – and that has allowed Pujols to relax. He was actually giddy after last night’s game (well, by his standards) talking about playing with Trout for years to come.
3. If you're Angels GM Jerry Dipoto, who are you targeting at the trade deadline in hopes of staying in the AL West race?
Dipoto has already addressed the Angels’ two most urgent needs – leadoff (by promoting Trout) and the bullpen (by acquiring Ernesto Frieri). I think he will be less inclined to make a big move at the trade deadline now.
The rotation could be an issue if Ervin Santana doesn’t straighten himself out. But I think bullpen depth will probably be No. 1 on his trade deadline agenda. You could see the Angels target someone like Mariners right-hander Brandon League or Houston’s Brett Myers. But I think it’s more likely Dipoto and his staff will try to find another buried treasure like Frieri in someone’s bullpen and get him at a much lower trade cost.