It’s a side he rarely shows reporters, and fans don’t see it, but spend enough time around Angels first baseman Mark Trumbo, and you notice.
“You can see his swagger,” veteran right fielder Torii Hunter said of the 25-year-old rookie who is hitting .261 with a team-leading 22 home runs and 63 runs batted in entering Tuesday’s game against the New York Yankees.
“He walks with a chip on his shoulder. He stares with a chip on his shoulder. It’s a little smirk like, ‘I told you.’
“You always have to have some kind of motivation. If it’s to prove your critics wrong, that’s fine.”
Trumbo has had his share of critics even though they have been silenced this season as the former Villa Park High star emerged as a leading rookie-of-the-year candidate. But their words still sting; they still rattle around in his head and push him.
“It wasn’t any one thing in particular,” Trumbo said of the magazines and websites that cover minor league baseball, “but unless you’re a can’t-miss type of guy, a lot of them tend to focus on whatever weakness you have and hammer those home.”
“Where do you want to start?” he said. “My swing was too long. My uppercut wouldn’t translate [to the big leagues]. I was a poor breaking-ball hitter, a poor defender, a minus runner.
“Power was my one plus, but the general consensus was that I would never pan out, that I’d probably never make it out of Class-A ball. . . . You pour yourself into it and get bad report cards at the end of the year. I think that would motivate anyone.”
While Baseball America was enamored of infielder Brandon Wood, who was rated the Angels’ top prospect from 2006-2008, Trumbo was barely a blip on the radar of the sport’s preeminent authority on minor league prospects.
An 18th-round pick who signed for first-round money ($1.425 million) in 2004, Trumbo did not crack the magazine’s list of top 10 Angels prospects from 2005-2008, though players such as Steven Shell, Dallas McPherson, Tom Mendoza and Nick Green did.
After a 2006 season in which he batted .220 with 13 homers, 59 RBIs and 99 strikeouts in 118 games at Class-A Cedar Rapids, Trumbo fell from 12th in the rankings (before 2006) to 29th before 2007 and 2008. He then rose to No. 8 before 2009 before falling to 11th before 2010.
Even after batting .301 with a Pacific Coast League-leading 36 homers and 122 RBIs last season at triple-A Salt Lake, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound first baseman was rated the organization’s ninth-best prospect going into 2011.
“He doesn’t chase off-speed stuff away like he once did, but he swings and misses too much to hit for a high average,” Baseball America wrote in its 2011 review. “Detractors question whether he has the bat speed to hit the very best fastballs.”
That would be news to Seattle ace Felix Hernandez, the 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner, who threw a 93-mph fastball to Trumbo on Sunday that was launched an estimated 471 feet to left-center field, the longest home run in Angel Stadium this season.
In the same review, Baseball America wrote that Trumbo “doesn’t have glaring holes in his swing, though he’s still a little too tempted by high fastballs.”
One of those letter-high fastballs from Minnesota left-hander Brian Duensing was crushed by Trumbo last Tuesday for a three-run home run that traveled an estimated 457 feet.
“He’s one of the strongest guys I’ve seen in my 19 professional years,” Hunter said. “He’s right up there in raw power with Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco.”
In 2010, MinorLeagueBall.com wrote that Trumbo “looks like a guy who will get buried as a minor league slugger.”
Even after Trumbo hit 11 homers for the Angels in the first two months of 2011, the same website, after the team drafted Utah slugger C.J. Cron in the first round on June 6, wrote:
“Cron obviously fits the physical profile of the power-hitting first baseman, and considering Kendrys Morales’ injury and Mark Trumbo’s middling skills, the Angels will presumably have a place for Cron in their lineup if he’s ready in two or three years.”
If it weren’t for Trumbo’s “middling” skills, the Angels, who are getting minimal production from middle-of-the-order hitters Hunter, Bobby Abreu and Vernon Wells, probably wouldn’t be in the middle of a division race with the Texas Rangers.
“I’d hate to think where we’d be without him,” bench coach Rob Picciolo said
Trumbo is not a finished product. His on-base percentage (.301) is low, his ratio of strikeouts (82) to walks (19) is high, and his defense, while improving, is nothing close to Gold Glove-caliber.
But although Wood was a bust and was released by the Angels in April, Trumbo has been able to make adjustments that will help him thrive, not just survive, at the big league level.
Through July 17, Trumbo was batting .197 (14 for 71) with runners in scoring position. In 18 games since, he is eight for 24 (.333) with runners in scoring position, with 20 RBIs in those games.
“I was definitely trying to do too much, maybe feeling pressure because we weren’t scoring many runs,” Trumbo said. “Now, I have a more relaxed attitude. I realize it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get him in.”
When the Angels signed left-handed-hitting Russell Branyan on May 26, it appeared Trumbo, a .212 hitter against right-handers at the time, would have to share the first base job.
Trumbo has hit .275 against right-handers since, 17 of his homers and 44 of his RBIs this season are against right-handers, and Branyan has started one game at first since June 22.
“He’s a rookie, and he has a long road ahead of him, but he’s making a statement right now,” General Manager Tony Reagins said. “If you make a mistake to him, you’re going to pay.”
Trumbo is also praised for his work in the video room and the dugout, where he studies pitchers.
“If he’s defeated for a couple of days, he works, works, works, and then gets out of it,” Hunter said. “It’s hard here [in the majors] because you have way more scouts, and once they figure out you can’t hit something, they keep throwing it. I haven’t seen many young guys make the adjustments like Mark has.”
Trumbo has holes, but they’re not easy to expose. He has hit home runs against several elite pitchers, including David Price, Jon Lester, Tim Hudson and Hernandez (twice).
“He has a lot of Vladimir Guerrero in him,” Angels batting coach Mickey Hatcher said. “His strike zone is a little bigger, but his swing stays through the zone a long time. If he’s late, he can hit it out to right field. If he’s early, he can hit it out to left field.”
And if he squares a ball up perfectly, as he did twice in the last week, he can hit it a mile — far enough to put some distance between Trumbo and the criticism that fueled him.