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Albert Pujols Providing the Co-Star Mike Trout Has Desperately Needed

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 16, 2015

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Earlier in June, Albert Pujols insisted that the Los Angeles Angels were not "the Mike Trout show." This was despite all evidence to the contrary, as the Angels had been on Trout's back all season.

But here we are a couple of weeks later, and time has proven Pujols wise. The Angels are no longer The Mike Trout Show. Now they're what they were supposed to be: The Mike Trout and Albert Pujols Show.

After getting off to a painfully slow start with a .235 average and .702 OPS through May 27, Pujols has made it impossible to ignore what he's has been doing since then. ESPN's Baseball Tonight sent out this tweet Friday morning that highlighted Pujols as arguably the game's hottest hitter:

He has refused to cool down over the weekend. The 35-year-old first baseman went 5-for-11 with a double and a home run—the 538th of his career, putting him 10 shy of Mike Schmidt for 15th all time—in a three-game series against the Oakland A's. Even after taking an 0-fer Monday night against the Arizona Diamondbacks, he's still hitting .369 with a 1.284 OPS and 10 homers since May 28.

Mike Trout and Albert Pujols are basically Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed right now.
Mike Trout and Albert Pujols are basically Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed right now.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

In the meantime, Trout has also stayed hot. Though he hasn't quite kept up with his slugging partner in crime, he's hitting a rock-solid .297 with a 1.038 OPS and seven home runs since May 28. 

Thus have Trout and Pujols re-emerged as one of the American League's top offensive duos. Trout is having the better season with a .958 OPS, 18 home runs and eight stolen bases, but Pujols' .863 OPS and 18 dingers hardly make him look like a slouch.

And now that it's sipping on Mike and Albert's Secret Stuff—like Michael's Secret Stuff, except more potent—the Angels offense is looking more like what it was supposed to be. 

Per Baseball Savant, here are the splits:

Angels Offense Before and After Albert Pujols Got Hot
SplitGAVGSLUGRuns/Game
Through May 2747.233.3593.7
Since May 2817.258.4294.5
BaseballSavant.com

When it was Trout doing all the heavy lifting earlier in the season, the Angels offense was one of the most punchless units in MLB. Since Pujols came alive, it's looked a lot more like the league-best offense that led the Angels to a league-best 98 wins in 2014.

It makes you wonder: How, exactly, has Pujols' bat caught fire in such a hurry?

According to the man himself, it's a case of talent finally combining with luck.

As Pujols told Michael Kolligian of MLB.com: "I've been swinging the bat well all year long and, if you stay with that approach, sooner or later they're going to fall.”

And as he told David Adler and Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com: "It's the same thing I've been doing since Day 1, since Opening Day. I told you guys that. Just better luck, I guess. Instead of hitting balls right at people, I'm finding some holes. It's a good feeling."

It's a reasonable explanation. Pujols is one of the greatest hitters to ever play the game, after all. And though his best days are undeniably behind him, the guy did just OPS .790 with 28 home runs in 2014, for cryin' out loud!

But while Pujols' current mega-hot stretch could indeed be a case of his collecting on overdue good luck, I'd like to propose an alternate theory: This is what Pujols looks like when he's angry.

Jun 10, 2015; St. Petersburg, FL, USA;Los Angeles Angels first baseman Albert Pujols (5) on deck to bat during the third inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Let's hop in the TARDIS and go back in time to May 25. 

On that day, the Angels found themselves locked in a 3-3 tie with the San Diego Padres heading into the bottom of the ninth inning. In the blink of an eye, there were runners on first and third, and Trout was striding to the plate.

With a base open, the Padres could either pitch to Trout or give him four wide ones and take their chances with Pujols. Trout entered the game with a .944 OPS, whereas Pujols had a .709 OPS. So, now-former Padres skipper Bud Black played the numbers and passed on Trout to bring up Pujols.

Here's what happened:

That there's a walk-off single. And if you watch to the end of the highlight, you'll see Pujols glaring at the Padres dugout immediately after the ball left his bat and all the way down the first base line. He was effectively saying, "Take that!" And not at all in a jokey, light-hearted manner.

That wasn't the first time an opponent intentionally walked Trout to bring Pujols to the plate. After it happened again in a couple of subsequent games, Jill Painter Lopez of Fox Sports West caught up with Pujols to get his thoughts.

His response: "I don't think about that, dude. It's part of the game. They can do that 100 more times. That doesn't bother me. I've been on the other side, too."

A diplomatic response, to be sure. In fact, Pujols made it sound like he checked his annoyance with the first intentional walk at the door as soon as the situation was over.

Looked at from another perspective, however? Maybe not. Since the Padres challenged him to live up to his career track record back on May 25, Pujols has been a different hitter.

Suddenly, Pujols is going up there hacking.
Suddenly, Pujols is going up there hacking.Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

One way we can tell is by looking at his approach in the batter's box. According to Baseball Savant, Pujols was swinging at 46.1 percent of the pitches he saw through May 25, which FanGraphs tells us was in line with his career norms. Since May 26, however, he's swinging 51.3 percent of the time. 

Thus, he's gotten more aggressive. We're witnessing Pujols in attack mode.

Normally, what you worry about when you see a hitter swinging more aggressively is more wild swings that result in too many easy outs for the pitcher. Or, as they're colloquially known, "strikeouts."

But those haven't been a problem. Pujols was only striking out 12.5 percent of the time to begin with through May 25. Since then, he's struck out in only 5.1 percent of his plate appearances. The exact numbers: four (four!) strikeouts in 79 plate appearances. 

So, Pujols hasn't just been a more aggressive hitter since that fateful IBB. He's been a more aggressive hitter who's making lots of contact. 

And this extra contact has been of the loud variety. Here's how Pujols' average exit velocities split up:

  • Through May 25: 90.9 mph
  • Since May 26: 94.3 mph

Because we now know that batted balls really become dangerous once they get into the mid-90s and beyond in velocity, the leap Pujols has made is a significant one.

And if you go looking for hitters who have been crushing the ball like he has since May 26, you get a list that includes the likes of Paul Goldschmidt, Giancarlo Stanton and, naturally, Trout.

So, Pujols hasn't just turned into a more aggressive hitter who's making more contact. He's turned into a more aggressive hitter who's making contact and punishing the ball when he does.

If it wasn't already taken, The Force Awakens would be a darn good title for a movie about the transformation that Pujols has undergone since the Padres dared to test him. And for the Angels, the result has been the rejuvenation of the Trout/Pujols duo and, with it, their offense as a whole.

Now, it should go without saying that Pujols can't possibly keep this up for the rest of the season. What he's doing right now would result in a 90-homer campaign over a 162-game sample, which says enough about the sustainability of his performance. And as Rob Neyer of Fox Sports noted, Pujols isn't drawing walks or using the opposite field like he usually does.

However, the hitter Pujols is right now is more reflective of the hitter he's supposed to be than the hitter he was before. The big projection systems see him managing an .800-ish OPS with around 17 homers the rest of the way. That's probably asking a bit much. But he should be able to come reasonably close to being that good as long as his anger mode is kept on "BERSERK."

And if that's the case, the Angels lineup will continue to be a challenge. It could be beaten when it was all about Trout. It's a lot harder to top now that it's all about Trout and Pujols.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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