4/6/2014 7:36 P.M. ET
Catchers, pitchers working on slowing baserunners
By Alden Gonzalez / MLB.com
HOUSTON -- If there's one department on the Angels that needs to improve from last season -- and surely there is more than one -- it's shutting down the running game. They ranked 28th in the Majors in caught-stealing percentage in 2013 (21.1 percent), while giving up the second-most stolen bases in baseball (131).
"I don't care about the numbers; it needs to get better for us to win," Angels catcher Chris Iannetta said. "It's tough to go no outs, one out, guy on first base and you have a double play in order, and all of a sudden it's the same scenario with a runner on second or third and now they're in scoring position. We need to keep guys out of scoring position, keep a double play in order so we can get a ground-ball double play."
Iannetta gunned down 19.2 percent of would-be base-stealers and Hank Conger's rate was 24.2 percent (the Major League average is 27.2 percent). But the consensus on the Angels -- from the coaching staff to the pitchers to the catchers themselves -- is that the pitchers have to be quicker to the plate to give Iannetta and Conger a chance.
The Angels' struggles with opponent stolen bases came to a head from Aug. 6-7, when the Rangers stole a combined 13 bases in two games. After that, though, the Angels put a greater emphasis on pitchers being quicker to the plate and got a little better in that department, with an opponents' stolen-base percentage that ranked 13th.
"Before that," Iannetta said, "we were terrible at it."
The Angels, who had thrown out two of five runners heading into Sunday, should be better with three lefties in the starting rotation this year. But that won't matter if C.J. Wilson, Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs aren't holding runners well.
"If you're slow to the plate and you don't give catchers and middle infielders a chance to make a play, then it doesn't matter [if you're right-handed or left-handed]," Iannetta said. "You have to be able to hold a guy close and they have to not be able to outrun your leg kick, too."
Hamilton, Pujols start season in opposite directions
HOUSTON -- The regular season's first week has concluded and the Angels' two high-priced superstars have started off in opposite directions.
Josh Hamilton, who had one hit in his first 21 at-bats last season, is batting .500 with two homers and nine other hits in 22 at-bats. Albert Pujols, fully healthy after a season hindered by plantar fasciitis, is batting .200, with five hits, one RBI and zero walks in 25 plate appearances.
"It's a little frustrating at times because I'm getting some pitches I know I can do damage with," Pujols said after Sunday's 7-4 loss to the Astros, "but at the same time, it's part of the game. You can't let it get to you. Trust me, what I went through in 2012, I think I learned from that. I don't think this game is going to get to me with what I went through in 2012. That's the worst thing that can happen to a player."
Pujols, who was referencing his zero home runs and .194 batting average through the first 27 games of his Angels career, is still searching for his timing. The 34-year-old has gone 3-for-13 in the first three of a four-game series at Minute Maid Park, and seven of his plate appearances have resulted in grounders to the left side.
Pujols' last at-bat in each of the last two games has been a hard line drive to left-center field, the last of which resulted in his only hit on Sunday.
Now he needs to carry it over.
"It will carry over," Pujols said. "It's just a matter of time. Right now, I'm in between or out in front. You take as many swings as you can in Spring Training, but for me, it takes half the month of April, close to 100 at-bats, for me to start feeling good at the plate. If I have a great start, awesome, because it can take the pressure off you, but I still have a lot of at-bats left."
Hamilton was in desperate need of a good start, perhaps to prove to himself that the .909 OPS he posted in the final 45 games of last season was no fluke. Hamilton -- back to his customary 240 pounds -- has already drawn three walks, and he bounced back well in the first two games in Houston.
The 31-year-old struck out four times on Wednesday, with three of them coming off a lefty, but went 3-for-3 with a homer off righty Jerome Williams in the Angels' next game on Friday, then went 3-for-5 with another homer off lefty Dallas Keuchel on Saturday. That's a good sign for someone who posted a .596 OPS against southpaws last season.
"It's how you want to feel -- relaxed, pitch-to-pitch," Hamilton said. "You feel like your swing. You know it, and if something's not right, pitch-to-pitch, you change it. It would be really nice if it stayed that way."
Angels still navigating new home-plate rules
HOUSTON -- It's the first week of the regular season, and there's still plenty of confusion with regards to how catchers can block home plate.
Another scenario popped up in the second inning of the Angels' 5-1 win at Minute Maid Park on Saturday night, when Angels third baseman David Freese came around to score on Howie Kendrick's double. Astros catcher Carlos Corporan thought he had Marwin Gonzalez's relay throw in his glove when he shifted his weight to block the plate, but the ball squirted out and Freese was ruled safe with a head-first slide that almost injured his left hand.
Freese -- back in the lineup on Sunday -- said home-plate umpire Eric Cooper told him he would've been ruled safe anyway because Corporan didn't give him a lane to slide through when he didn't have the ball, and straddling the plate doesn't qualify as providing a lane.
But Astros manager Bo Porter disagreed, saying: "I think Corporan gave him a sliding lane. If Corporan would have come up with the ball and made the tag, he would have been out and Corporan dropped the ball, so it's a moot point."
A similar situation occurred in Toronto that same day, and umpires sided with Porter's point.
Blue Jays catcher Josh Thole straddled home plate to receive a one-hop throw from Colby Rasmus and tag out the Yankees' Francisco Cervelli. Umps reviewed the play, to make sure it adhered to the new Rule 7.13, and the on-field call was confirmed -- even though Thole was technically in Cervelli's way before he had the ball.
"The home plate dynamics are still evolving," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said regarding the play in Houston. "It looked like he was in the path before he had the ball. It's the trade-off of catchers not getting hit to the lane that a runner is entitled to, and it's something that's going to take some getting used to for sure."
Freese says he rarely goes into home plate head first, but felt he needed to because he didn't have much of a path to home plate.
"I regretted it when I was in midair," Freese said, smiling.
• Angels manager Mike Scioscia credited John McDonald's defense at third base, particularly on a couple of tough grounders, as a big reason why Tyler Skaggs gave up only one unearned run in eight innings on Saturday. But for the foreseeable future, David Freese will not be subbed for defense if the Angels have a late lead.
• Freese has switched to a bigger glove, going from a 12 1/4-inch Rawlings to a 12 1/2-inch Rawlings. Luis Jimenez made a similar switch last year. Third basemen can afford to field with bigger gloves because there aren't many situations where they have to make quick transfers.
• Dane De La Rosa "looked good from the reports we got" during a rehab outing for Double-A Arkansas on Saturday night, Scioscia said. De La Rosa, who gave up a hit and struck out a batter in his lone inning, seemingly remains on track to be activated off the disabled list when the Angels host the Mets on Friday.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.