Angels' Albert Pujols is swinging better this spring

The success of Albert Pujols will hinge more on the players hitting before him in the order than behind him

The difference in Albert Pujols is evident to Angels hitting coach Don Baylor, who has watched the slugger rifle line drives all over the field for more than a month now.

"He's driving off his back leg, swinging with conviction and hitting balls out on a line," Baylor said of Pujols, who is healthy after battling injuries to his right knee and left foot the last two seasons. "He could lead the league in runs batted in because he's swinging the bat a lot better this spring than he did last spring."

Whether Pujols will have many opportunities to drive in runs this season will probably hinge more on the players hitting before him in the order than behind him.

Pujols hit third in the Angels lineup last season, and cleanup batters Josh Hamilton (82 games), Howie Kendrick (39), Raul Ibanez (20) and David Freese (16) combined to hit .247 with a .329 on-base percentage and .386 slugging percentage, their .715 OPS (on-base plus slugging) from the fourth spot ranking ninth among the 15 teams in the American League.

They hit 15 homers (14th), drove in 79 runs (11th) and struck out 177 times, third-most in the league. In other words, they did not pose the kind of threat that would prevent opponents from pitching around Pujols in key situations.

Yet, Pujols still hit .272 with 28 homers and 105 RBIs, the Angels led the majors with 773 runs and had an MLB-best record of 98-64.

Pujols' success had more to do with the batter in front of him, speedy center fielder Mike Trout, who hit .287 with 36 homers, an AL-leading 111 RBIs and 115 runs and won the most valuable player award.

"Baseball has kind of changed from where you expect guys batting fourth to be 30-homer guys," Baylor said. "You have to adapt to what you have. You can have a cleanup guy who hits 15-17 homers, but when you have a Trout hitting second, you kind of go with what won you 98 games."

This season, Matt Joyce and Freese are expected to hit behind Pujols in the order.

Pujols, now 35 and in his 15th season, is a three-time National League most valuable player with a .317 career average, 520 homers and 1,603 RBIs. Plate discipline has always been a strength — he has more walks (1,115) in his career than strikeouts (906).

"For a power guy with 500 homers, Albert doesn't strike out a lot, so he's going to make you pitch to him," Baylor said. "With two strikes, he'll make the adjustment, cut down his swing and put the ball in play. He's been productive no matter who is around him."

Pujols came up twice with two runners on in Thursday's spring training game, and delivered a run-scoring double and a prodigious three-run home run. He is batting .326 (14 for 43) with four homers and 14 RBIs. The key, he says, is not getting caught up in the situation and instead focusing on his at-bats.

"I don't change my approach," Pujols said. "It's not my job to think about who's in front of me and who's behind me. I can't control what Trouty, Joyce, Freese and [Erick] Aybar are doing. All I can control is myself."

Lineup protection was a hot topic when Vladimir Guerrero was leading the Angels to five division titles in six years from 2004 to 2009, but Guerrero never had a player like Trout hitting in front of him.

"If you're setting the table in front of the guy, the guy is going to get his swings," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "If you are struggling to set the table in front of him, then the guys behind him are going to have to do it. Both are important."

Joyce, who will bat cleanup against right-handed pitchers, and Freese, who will bat fourth against left-handers, are not huge power threats. Joyce averaged 16 homers a season over the last four years in Tampa Bay, and Freese averaged 13 homers over the last three seasons for the Cardinals and Angels.

But having Trout and leadoff man Kole Calhoun consistently on base in front of Pujols should prevent opponents from pitching around him.

"You have one of the best players in the game hitting in front of you and you're an RBI guy?" Baylor said. "I'd take my chances."

There will be times when Calhoun or Trout is on second, first base is open and pitchers will take the bat out of Pujols' hands. But if Joyce and Freese can deliver, opponents will think twice about pitching around Pujols.

"There will definitely be situations where they'll pitch around Albert and bring in a tough left-hander to face me — I expect that," said Joyce, a career .189 hitter against left-handers but a .261 hitter against right-handers.

"I'm going to do everything I can to be as prepared as possible for those opportunities. Obviously, you're not going to come through every time, but I relish those opportunities. I look forward to them."

Twitter: @MikeDiGiovanna

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