Albert Pujols strolled into the Angels’ clubhouse at Tempe Diablo Stadium at 9 a.m. Tuesday, the remnants of the physical exam he took upon arrival here still visible on his left arm.
He dropped off his backpack and started to sort through the mountain of shoes structured in front of his locker. Jered Weaver stopped to say hello. Clubhouse managers came by to ask what he needed.
After a few minutes, Pujols turned around, ripped off the gauze that covered the blood-test wound, and began to address the media.
He did not repair the injured plantar plate on his right big toe until November, he said, because he first tried to let the injury heal without surgery. When, after some time off, he tried training again, the pain let him know he needed to take action.
I was like, ‘Oh my God, are you serious? This is unreal.
He visited two doctors and had the surgery with Dr. Robert Anderson in Charlotte, N.C. Within three days, he said, the pain had decreased noticeably, so much so that he stopped taking pain medication.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, are you serious?’” Pujols said. “This is unreal.”
The foot had pulsed with pain since he stepped awkwardly to first base on a double-play groundout during an Aug. 28 game in Cleveland. After surgery, he kept a protective boot on the foot for seven weeks, and then resumed hitting one month ago.
“I wish I would have done it earlier, but we took the risk to wait and see if it came down,” Pujols said. “I’m happy with where I am right now and what I’m able to do. I talked to Dr. Anderson and he said, ‘Albert, I’m going to tell you the truth, you just need to be really, really patient. That’s the key to recover well.’ I listened to that, and that’s how I feel how I feel now.”
First was a week hitting exclusively off a tee, then he started to swing full-out, and Pujols said the results were encouraging enough to give him confidence he can be ready for opening day.
It seems unlikely the 36-year-old slugger will be playing first base on opening day, at least. Pujols said Tuesday he does not care if he plays the position or starts at designated hitter, as long as he is in the lineup, and the odds are higher he will be deemed fit to hit by the opener on April 4.
That stance is a marked departure from earlier in his tenure with the team.
“I’m a first baseman. I’m not a DH,” Pujols said in July 2014. “As long as I’m feeling good — and I’m fine — I’ll be in the field. That’s my natural position.”
“I don’t know what the difference is between playing first base and DH,” he said Tuesday.
Scioscia said the Angels are “absolutely” better when Pujols is playing the field. But they are better when he is the lineup than on the disabled list, and penning him at DH may help him remain in the lineup.
Pujols said the team the Angels put together for 2016 is “decent,” and he said he will continue to believe it can reach the World Series.
“If you can stay healthy, we have the ballclub we can go out and compete with everybody,” he said. “The paper doesn’t look too good, but you can’t go by that. You have to go by what you do in the field and do whatever you have to do.”
For the Angels to contend, Pujols must be better than he was in 2015. By most measures, it was the worst full season of his career. He hit a career-low .244 and got on base at a career-low .307 clip.
Scioscia said Pujols’ line-drive rate was up last season, indicating his poor batting average was a product of poor luck. Fangraphs.com’s metrics show Pujols’ rate of line drives went down from 18.9% in 2014 to 15.9% in 2015 and his hard-hit rate from 36.1% to 33% last season; Scioscia said unspecified internal metrics he checked in September showed an opposite result.
“I don’t think he needs to change anything,” Scioscia said.
“Last year was last year,” he said. “This is 2016. So I could care less about last year. How many home runs did I hit last year?”
He clobbered 40, the most he had hit in a half-decade.
“I’m starting on zero this year,” Pujols said. “So I could care less about that.”