MIAMI — As the Angels season has slipped away, revealing one problem after another, Luis Rengifo is doing all he can to show that he’s not one of them.
The 25-year-old infielder has teased the Angels with his tools for years, but lately he’s been providing reason to believe that perhaps he can be a part of the solution.
Over his last 57 plate appearances, Rengifo is hitting .309 with three homers and an .897 OPS.
That hot stretch has raised his season numbers to .241 with a .685 OPS, which doesn’t sound like much but it is almost exactly the major league average (.244 and .687) for a middle infielder. Against lefties, the switch-hitting Rengifo has a .294 average and .895 OPS.
Angels third base coach Mike Gallego has watched Rengifo progress ever since the Angels acquired him in a spring training trade in 2018.
“The main thing is he’s playing with a lot more confidence,” said Gallego, who was the farm director when Rengifo joined the organization. “This is something that we were hoping for, and there’s a lot of people in the organization that have stuck behind him.”
Rengifo explained he was just as frustrated as everyone else with his inconsistency.
“I didn’t want to hit .200,” he said. “I put the goal in my mind that I have to be better. Right now, I’m feeling it.”
Manager Phil Nevin said it starts with Rengifo’s plate discipline, which has improved even since spring training.
“His swing decisions are so much better today than they were in the past,” Nevin said. “He’s swinging at a lot of strikes.”
He’s also getting the bat on those strikes.
On a team that leads the major leagues in strikeouts, Rengifo has the lowest strikeout rate (16.6%) among anyone with 50 plate appearances. When they struck out a major-league record 20 times on Sunday, Rengifo was the only starter who didn’t strike out at least twice. He also hit a homer to provide one of the Angels’ two runs.
“My pitch selection is better now,” Rengifo said. “I feel a lot more comfortable.”
He’s also improving defensively, enough that the Angels are comfortable enough to now have him as their regular shortstop. He had been playing second, but they promoted Michael Stefanic to play second, which will move Rengifo to short.
Gallego, the Angels’ infield coach before he moved to third base coach, said he believed that Rengifo could be a big league shortstop when he first saw him in 2018.
One of his major hurdles was mental errors, and Gallego said he’s been getting better, to the point that they now trust him to overrule the analytics when it comes to defensive positioning.
“He’s taking pride in his positioning,” Gallego said. “He’s owning it. He’s actually communicating. Benji (Gil) and I will look at him, and we want him in a certain spot and he’ll say ‘I see a different swing happening. I’m going to stay right here.’ And we’re like, ‘OK, if you see it, we trust you.’
“That’s what you’re hoping for from these young kids. And that’s exactly what he’s developing out there.”
If Rengifo could develop into an everyday player, it would be the culmination of a journey that has included plenty of peaks and valleys since the Seattle Mariners signed him out of Venezuela.
He was traded to the Rays, and then to the Angels for C.J. Cron in the spring of 2018. Since then he’s bounced between Triple-A and the majors, performing inconsistently but always providing reason for optimism because of his talent.
The Dodgers and Cleveland both wanted him in trades that fell through over the past few years.
This spring the Angels went into camp with David Fletcher at one middle infield spot and a competition at the other including five players: Tyler Wade, Andrew Velazquez, Matt Duffy, Stefanic and Rengifo. Although each of them had different strengths and weaknesses, the consensus was that none of them had the overall tools and ceiling of Rengifo.
When Rengifo struggled in the spring and was sent back to Triple-A, it was another speed bump in his development.
Rengifo insisted that he never felt the ticking clock of his career as he struggled to reach his potential.
“No pressure,” Rengifo said. “Just play the game. Have fun and do your job. That’s all you have to do.”
Angels (RHP Noah Syndergaard, 5-6, 3.86) at Marlins (RHP Sandy Alcantara, 8-3, 1.95), Tuesday, 3:40 p.m., Bally Sports West, 830 AM