For Pujols and Trout, class is always in session
ANAHEIM -- Albert Pujols was the first to spring off his perch on the Angels' dugout steps, just ahead of Mike Trout, who was just ahead of the rest of his teammates.
It was Wednesday, in the 13th inning of their series finale against the Astros, and the Angels thought they'd won. With the winning run on third base, Houston reliever Chad Qualls had clearly balked, his front knee breaking during his stretch.
The balk wasn't called, but that didn't matter -- the Angels won on Taylor Featherston's walk-off single the next at-bat. What was interesting was the Angels' reaction to Qualls' flinch.
All the Angels saw it, but Pujols and Trout reacted a split-second before everyone else, jumping up and pointing at Qualls. Maybe that's random. Or maybe two of the game's elite hitters, defining players of consecutive generations, notice some things just a little bit quicker.
"Albert is fixated on pitchers and watches the game probably more closely than anybody I've seen as far as a player," manager Mike Scioscia said. "I think that influence is important for Mike, because he's understanding the importance of details, looking at little things -- whether it's the pitcher's delivery, noticing a balk, whatever. So no, it doesn't surprise me."
Pujols doesn't put much stock in noticing the balk.
"A balk's a balk, bro," he said, and if you play the game, you know what one looks like. But the 15-year veteran saw Qualls' faster than anyone, and that probably has to do with how he studies pitchers.
"It's not just for that type of thing -- you always focus on the pitcher for the delivery," Pujols said. "To see, like, what angle does he deliver the ball? Because obviously, as you know, you're gonna have to go hit again. It was Qualls; I have many at-bats against him. But I always try to stay focused on the pitcher and be in the game as much as I can, try not to have any distractions."
Actually, Pujols doesn't think he's so effective at picking up pitchers' smallest tendencies -- at least, not like his teammates in St. Louis, Jim Edmonds and Eduardo Perez. They were great.
"I'm not good at it like that," he said with a laugh. "I've been with great players that have been really good in the past, but for me it's pretty tough -- you have to be really obvious. But I try not to look for stuff like that -- especially if I know what's coming, I can get too anxious, too."
According to Scioscia, though, the Angels' first baseman has contributed invaluable insights. "Trade secrets," Scioscia calls those nuggets; Pujols, similarly, terms Edmonds and Perez's observations "secret information."
"Albert, he's got a unique eye, and blended with experience -- he's been doing it for a long time," Scioscia said. "Albert picks up as much as anyone I've ever been around."
Does that rub off on Trout? Well, Trout's explanation of how closely he watches pitchers for things like Qualls' balk is strikingly similar to that of Pujols.
"We're not just looking for balks. We're looking at different things -- what he's trying to do to hitters," Trout said. "We're always involved in the game, so when you see a little movement like that -- we thought it was a balk."
So when Pujols and Trout are standing together at the Angels' dugout entrance, they're not only watching intently, ready to react; they're often in discussion.
"Yeah, for sure -- we talk about our at-bats, what the pitcher's trying to do in that game," Trout said. "What pitches he's got, what he throws the most of, what the pitch is doing. Other than that, nothing too crazy.
"[Pujols] has a pretty good idea of what the pitcher's trying to do to him in his at-bats. ... I just ask him a lot of questions, and he usually gives me the right answers. I don't try to think about it too much, but every little piece of information helps."