DETROIT -- In the Angels' clubhouse, they laugh about the miniscule measurements assigned to Mark Trumbo's titanic blasts in last week's State Farm Home Run Derby. Like the one Trumbo hit to the top of the Royals Hall of Fame, well beyond the left-field wall at Kauffman Stadium. That one was measured at 428 feet. "He got cheated," teammate Torii Hunter said. "That's no 428. Believe me, I know 428, and that was no 428!"
Of course, this was a mere batting-practice-type blast, so if the estimation was erroneous, it's no big deal. But in games that count, Trumbo has already hit 26 home runs in his sophomore season, and they've averaged about 420 feet, which is why #Trumbomb has become worthy of trending-topic status. "He has natural power," said Albert Pujols, "and he knows how to use it." The Angels knew the power they had in their possession with Trumbo, who went deep 29 times in his rookie year. But what they didn't necessarily know was where to put him on the field or in the lineup. They signed Pujols to play first base, which was Trumbo's 2011 position, they had Kendrys Morales coming back from his leg injury, ready to assume the designated-hitter duties, and they had Hunter, Vernon Wells and Peter Bourjos in the outfield, with Mike Trout on the horizon. So here was this 26-year-old dude with the size and ability to brutalize baseballs, and the best the Halos could do with him was play him out of position at third base. The results were, perhaps predictably, a defensive wreck, and soon Trumbo and his bat were reduced to part-time status. "Ultimately," he said, "I just wanted a place to call home. Until you get to that point, you've got to remain flexible." Trumbo would DH one day, play left the next, shift back to third, fill in at first, then head out to right. Seriously, that's not an exaggeration; he followed precisely that schedule in a five-game stretch in mid-April. The utility role, for lack of a better term, wasn't ideal, but it wasn't an impediment to Trumbo's offensive production, either. He was batting .348 with a 1.023 OPS on May 20 -- the day Wells, some would say mercifully, sustained the right thumb injury that assured Trumbo would have a regular spot in the outfield. And now Trumbo is simply one of the best sluggers in baseball. After belting a three-run blast in Tuesday's 13-0 walloping of Jacob Turner and the Tigers, Trumbo's .634 slugging percentage is the best in the American League, 11 points ahead of Josh Hamilton's. And because of the strides he's made in selectivity, Trumbo has a .311 average and .361 on-base percentage to back up the blasts. Last year, the homer heroics were offset, in some measure, by the substandard .291 OBP that came with it. If Trumbo didn't homer, he was too easy an out. That's all changed, and what the Angels have now is not one but two burgeoning superstars in Mike Trout, whose 20-year-old feats are looking more and more MVP worthy, and Trumbo, who is proving to be more than a one-trick pony. "We're both very competitive," Trumbo said. "He really inspires me to lift my game each day, and I hope I do the same for him." Together, they've lifted the Angels to new heights, from April doldrums to Wild Card contention, with the AL West-leading Rangers still in sight. And Trumbo's offensive exploits have earned him not only a lineup spot but a prominent one. On Tuesday, manager Mike Scioscia moved the right-handed Trumbo to the cleanup spot, behind Pujols, against the right-handed Turner. It's a spot where Trumbo is expected to stick. Scioscia also expects to stray from his first-half practice of pulling Trumbo in the late innings to improve the outfield defense. His bat has become too indispensable to the offense, and his defensive play has improved. "I think he's always had the potential to do what he's doing," Scioscia said. "But some of the holes he had last year, he's starting to shrink from. It's just experience, and it's great to see. I won't say it's surprising, because Mark is a student who always studies the game. But just to see the tangible improvement, pitch to pitch, I think it's a talented guy getting more comfortable in his Major League experience. He's definitely taken big strides forward." Though he's made the biggest strides in the OBP department, Trumbo is still a big swinger at heart. He's lowered his strikeout rate ever so slightly (from 20.9 percent last year to 20.6 percent this year), and his walk rate is up (from 4.4 percent to 6.9), but he knows how his bread is buttered. "First and foremost," he said, "my goal is to go up there and hit the ball hard." He can, however, sense his at-the-plate intelligence improving. That comes with knowing opposing pitchers, how they like to work him, how much their breaking ball moves, what they like to throw in different counts, etc. And after, in his words, "erring on the side of aggression" in his rookie year, he's learning how to take advantage of what the defense and pitcher are doing to him in certain situations, knowing when to let the singles speak for themselves. "When I see people putting a shift on me, my eyes light up," he said. "I'm not just going to try to hit home runs when there's other things available. The quicker I realize in an at-bat that they don't want to throw me anything to hit, the easier it is for me to pull the reins back and take some close pitches." This is the maturation of Mark Trumbo, who, like Trout, has become one of the best stories in baseball in 2012. The Home Run Derby might have been his national coming-out party, even if the measurements seemed skewed, and the statistics he's piling up make it clear that when Wells does come back in a couple weeks, he certainly won't be stealing any time from Trumbo. "I'm definitely thinking Trumbo's a mainstay," Hunter said. That estimation does not seem erroneous.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.