This September, Orioles slugger Mark Trumbo finds himself in an unfamiliar situation.
He'll be ending the 2016 season with his fourth different club in as many years, and the previous three were complete non-entities at the end of the regular season. The 2013 Angels were also-rans from the jump, never holding a winning record after Opening Day. The disastrous 2014 Diamondbacks fell two games shy of the 100-loss mark. And the 2015 Mariners were already out of the pennant chase by the time they acquired Trumbo in June, ultimately limping to the finish line of a 76-86 season. For those clubs, September meant nothing more than playing out the string, watching wistfully from the distance as more talented teams geared up for the postseason hunt.
This year, the shoe is on the other foot for Trumbo and the playoff-hopeful Orioles.
The O's entered September in the thick of a postseason battle, going into the final month with a claim on an American League Wild Card slot while lingering in the AL East race for good measure.
For Trumbo, who has tallied more than 800 career games in the majors without ever making it to the playoffs, the chance to play meaningful baseball in September marked a refreshing change of pace.
"That's why we play," Trumbo said. "That's why we're here. I think this is by far the best team I've ever been part of. I think we've done a great job so far this year. This is going to be a huge month for us, obviously. But the guys in here know what it takes, and we're just going to give it everything we've got."
It's a feeling Trumbo hasn't experienced since 2011 and 2012, his first two full seasons in the majors, when the Angels were contenders into the final week. In both cases, though, the club ran out of steam and was eliminated during the season's final days. (The Angels' 2012 elimination, as it happens, clinched a postseason spot for the Orioles that year.)
The question remains: will the Birds have enough legs to finish the job those Angels couldn't?
"You don't want to compare," Trumbo said. "Basically, we just need to win enough games to get there. There's no magic formula other than getting it done on the field. It just comes down to us executing the things that we've done all season, and we probably need a little bit of luck at some point in there too, but I like where we're at."
A tough September schedule and a crowded field of AL contenders promised to make life difficult for the Orioles, however. With a multitude of teams vying for precious few postseason berths, the O's entered the final month knowing any hiccups could doom their playoff chances.
According to Trumbo, though, the Birds weren't feeling any undue pressure or a frantic need to scoreboard-watch their competition.
"Not near as much as people might think," Trumbo said. "You're obviously aware of kind of where you are, and this is crunch time, but it's totally in our hands. We're going to play the teams that are in the race basically the whole month, and we need to do what we need to do to get to where we want to be."
Trumbo has done his part to help the Orioles get there.
Trumbo started the 2016 season like a house afire, instantly making a good impression on his new club after the O's acquired him from the Mariners during the offseason. Trumbo went 4-for-5 on Opening Day and didn't look back, going on an offensive tear that left him with a .288 average, .923 OPS and a league-leading 28 homers at the end of the first half. Trumbo was named to the AL All-Star team for the second time and participated in the Home Run Derby in San Diego.
At the halfway point of the schedule, Trumbo already had more home runs than he'd hit in an entire season since 2013, a blistering power pace he attributed to a few mechanical adjustments at the plate.
"I tried to improve my timing a little bit this year," Trumbo said. "I subtracted a little bit from some of my load. In the past, I've used a few different mechanisms to start the swing -- high leg lift, I have a toe tap kind of thing. I've always wanted to eliminate those, but they always felt like they put me in a real powerful position, so this year I've actually done a little bit less, and the power's actually been more. So I think I'm fairly happy with where I'm at right now."
Since the All-Star break, Trumbo's overall offensive numbers have normalized, with much lower marks in batting average and on-base percentage during the second half. But he hasn't stopped hitting home runs. Trumbo continued to lead the majors in round-trippers late into the season, becoming the first player of 2016 to reach the 40-homer mark, a feat he achieved Aug. 28 during his 129th game. He was the fifth-fastest Oriole in franchise history to reach 40 homers in a year, and he shattered his previous career best of 34 blasts in 2013.
"He's just putting [together] a lot of good swings," manager Buck Showalter said. "Mark hasn't had a lot of ebb and flow to his season, even though his average isn't what it was obviously a month or two ago, it doesn't seem like he's had a lot of inconsistencies. He's been a threat every time he walks up there. He's pretty strong. He's a real student of hitting. It's about a lot more than just trying to hit balls over the fence.
"There's no secrets up here. It's like a pitcher where you know exactly what they're going to do and they still do it. Everybody knows what Mark is doing, and he's still able to do it. And they've thrown the kitchen sink at him. They're tried everything."
Playing half his games at homer-friendly Camden Yards, Trumbo is a good fit for his home ballpark. But that's not a huge factor in his home run surge in 2016. Trumbo -- to use a technical term -- hits baseballs very hard. According to MLB's Statcast, Trumbo's average exit velocity when he makes contact is 95.1 mph, fourth best among MLB regulars.
In addition, Trumbo -- to use another technical term -- hits baseballs very far. Of his first 41 home runs, all but five of them would've cleared the fence in at least 20 major league ballparks. Those blasts weren't Camden Yards cheapies.
"Don't talk to me about the ballpark," Showalter said. "The balls that he hits, it doesn't matter where he's playing. It really doesn't."
Where Trumbo hasn't excelled, however, is in right field. By both advanced metrics and the eye test, his defensive work has been shaky at best, hazardous at worst. As of mid-September, FanGraphs pegged Trumbo at negative-eight defensive runs saved. Baseball Reference was similarly unkind, grading Trumbo's fielding with such poor marks that they nearly negated his 41 homers, ranking him as the Orioles' ninth most valuable player overall in wins above replacement.
For Showalter, though, Trumbo's offensive contributions outweigh whatever deficiencies he may carry with his glove.
"In the outfield, he throws well, and he's engaged in it," Showalter said. "He wants to be as good as he's capable of being, and he's done some good things for us out there. He's obviously done some good things offensively. He's not going to try to make a case as a Gold Glover, but he's been adequate for us. And especially when you couple it with the offensive things he's done, I would've been real happy with it coming out of spring. There was a lot of unknown there."
There's also a lot of unknown about Trumbo's future in Baltimore. He's eligible for free agency after the 2016 season, which could make him a one-and-done Oriole, similar to fellow slugger Nelson Cruz in 2014.
All else being equal, though, Trumbo would welcome a return to the Orioles in 2017.
"I'm having a great time here," Trumbo said. "It's been great. Obviously, I don't have a crystal ball. I think this is an awesome place for me personally. It's inspiring to come to work every day, and it's been nothing but positives."
Only one thing could make Trumbo's 2016 experience even better: a long-awaited trip to the postseason.
Issue 225: September 2016