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David Fletcher's improvement in outfield boosts his value to Angels

David Fletcher's improvement in outfield boosts his value to Angels
The Angels' David Fletcher takes a swing during the fifth inning Sunday. (Will Newton / Getty Images)

There’s no element of surprise remaining in David Fletcher’s game.

The Orange County native and recently minted utility man for the Angels has just about filled his tool belt. Despite being the Angels’ weakest power hitter, he can hit home runs (he has three this season). He makes contact 96% of the time he swings at a pitch inside the strike zone, making him one of the Angels’ best options to lead a lineup. He can flash the leather across the infield.

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He can play left field as though he hadn’t just started playing the position this year, which Fletcher did out of necessity when Mike Trout sustained a groin strain two weeks into the season. The injury forced manager Brad Ausmus to use Fletcher in the outfield for six straight games.

“Fletch is unique,” Ausmus said. “He has an extra gene that allows him to adapt to any position, I think.”

Fletcher reminded the Angels of that uniqueness Sunday. In the Angels’ 5-1 loss at Camden Yards, the Baltimore Orioles loaded the bases with two outs against reliever Luis Garcia in the eighth inning. Rio Ruiz jumped on the first pitch he saw from Garcia — a 96-mph fastball over the heart of the plate — and drilled it to left field. The ball seemed destined to fall and clear the bases. But Fletcher, playing the outfield for only the second time this month, ranged to his right on rain-dampened grass. He splayed his body and made a diving catch for the final out of the inning.

Fletcher, a sixth round pick of the Angels in the 2015 draft, had never played in the outfield until he made his major league debut last year. He worked out in left field for this first time during spring training in February.

He had never made a catch like the one he made Sunday.

“It was good,” he said. “Hurt a little bit. Knocked the wind out of me.”

Less than a month ago, Ausmus had expressed hesitation about using Fletcher in the outfield regularly. Within about 10 days, Ausmus had changed his tune.

“He’s been really good,” he said, a hint of astonishment coloring his words April 16. “His jumps have been good. There was a line drive right at him and I was like, ‘Oh God.’ But he was right on it, came charging in. Those are the toughest ones, the ones right at you.”

The Angels may not use Fletcher in the outfield regularly in the future. Brian Goodwin wrested everyday control of the position from Peter Bourjos, who was designated for assignment and released last week. Whenever he recovers from the toe sprain that put him on the 60-day injured list at the start of the season, Justin Upton will get priority in left field. But Fletcher, 24, has acquitted himself well there and will continue to get chances to play outfield.

“There’s nothing he can’t do,” Ausmus said Sunday. “Fletch always seems to amaze not only me but his teammates. He’s got very good baseball instincts. You could probably drop him anywhere on the field and he’d be fine.

“I no longer think of him as an infielder playing the outfield.”

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