HOUSTON -- The one aspect of Mike Trout's game that has ever prompted even the slightest bit of criticism, and kept observers from calling him a true five-tool player, is the strength of his throwing arm.
Don't think he hasn't noticed.
"He's got a little chip on his shoulder that he's trying to prove people wrong," said Angels bench coach Dino Ebel, who works with the outfielders. "That's the good thing about him. Like Albert [Pujols]. If you say he can't do something, he's going to prove you wrong. That's what Trout's mindset is -- 'I'm going to show everybody that I do have this arm strength, and I'm going to go out and do it.' And he has."
Trout did it on Friday night, when he fielded Jesus Guzman's single to center field and delivered a strong throw home to easily gun down Marc Krauss, giving him his first outfield assist since September 2012.
In the Spring Training that preceded Trout's historic rookie season, the Angels' 22-year-old center fielder was limited greatly by tendinitis in his right shoulder. And when he was optioned to Triple-A Salt Lake in March, he vowed to Ebel that he would improve his throwing.
Ebel believes Trout has "an average to above-average arm right now."
"He was on that fringe of average," Ebel said. "Now, he's past that. He's average to above-average -- when everything is right, his footwork."
Arm strength is probably the toughest aspect to improve because, as strength and conditioning specialist T.J. Harrington noted, the three muscles that account for how hard you throw -- the teres major, teres minor and infraspinatus -- are small and almost impossible to strengthen.
"Just look at bodybuilders," Harrington said. "You can bulk up and look great. It doesn't mean that you have functionality to do anything. You just look good. We'd rather have the joint strong, then put muscle on top of it. Now you can do whatever you want. But if you're bulking up on top of the muscle, you still don't have shoulder stability. You need that stability."
Resistance-band exercises, which Harrington has his position players do twice a week, helps strengthen those muscles, but there's no one exercise that can make you throw harder. The best way to improve arm strength, Harrington said, is through better mechanics and muscle memory, a byproduct of long-tossing.
Trout's arm was considered below average as he came up through the organization and even as he navigated through his first full season in 2012. But there was room for upside, because he entered the organization as a 17-year-old with raw throwing mechanics, and because he played in the Northeast, where harsh winters prevent players from throwing year-round.
Since his first full season, Ebel says Trout's arm is "way better."
"He's improving on it every day, he's working at it, and that's something he's taken pride in from Day 1," Ebel added. "He's doing the weight program, the shoulder exercises, we're throwing to bases more now, he's throwing more long-toss. He's showing an above-average arm now."
Hansen's advice to Cowgill key to outfielder's approach
HOUSTON -- Three years ago, when backup outfielder Collin Cowgill was with the D-backs and assistant hitting coach Dave Hansen was with the Dodgers, Hansen -- fourth all-time in pinch-hits -- provided some key advice that helped Cowgill on a day like Saturday.
"He said to show up every day like you're starting," Cowgill recalled, "that way it's not a surprise when you are."
Cowgill -- only 27 years old, but already on his fourth team -- made his first start of the season when he batted leadoff and played right field against the Astros in the second of a four-game series. Seven days earlier, he got word that he had beaten out J.B. Shuck for the backup-outfield job, even though Shuck batted .293 while playing in 129 games the prior season.
Cowgill figured his right-handed bat and versatility went a long way towards landing that role, and he's right. He called finding out he won the job "bitter-sweet," because it also meant Shuck would go to the Minors.
"We're teammates, we're friends," Cowgill said of his relationship with Shuck. "There's no hard feelings when that happens. You're both fighting for the same thing. That's just the way the game is, that's the way baseball is. Every spring is going to be like that, where there's guys that are battling. I went through it with the Mets, I went through it with the A's. And every team you go through, there's going to be competition. Especially this team, with the mainstays in this lineup."
Striking out at high rate early, Ibanez gets day off
HOUSTON -- Of Raul Ibanez's 16 plate appearances with the Angels, one has resulted in a home run, two have been singles, none have been walks and nine have been strikeouts. Ibanez isn't necessarily a high-strikeout guy, as evidenced by the fact that 121 players punched out at a higher rate from 2003-13. But he led the Majors through the first five days.
The 41-year-old thinks he knows exactly what's wrong.
"I've been stepping and swinging at the same time, instead of striding to hit," said Ibanez, who sat on Saturday with a lefty on the mound for the Astros and a day game on Sunday. "It's a step and a hit at the same time. I think that causes a lack of recognition. But it's like everything else. You go through spurts. It goes like this now, and then maybe you don't strike out for a week. Yesterday I was encouraged that I was able to barrel up three balls hard in one game."
Burnett throws simulated game, needs 'bit of work'
HOUSTON -- Sean Burnett threw a second simulated game on Saturday, "but he needs a little bit of work," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said of his rehabbing lefty reliever.
Burnett -- recovering from August elbow surgery and coming off a season that was limited to 13 appearances -- has been throwing bullpen sessions since March 13, though he had a minor setback due to a bad reaction to an arthritis shot on March 21. Saturday's sim game, in Arizona, was his second, occurring three days after he threw his first at Angel Stadium, but he isn't ready to venture out on a rehab assignment just yet.
"He needs to be in a controlled environment right now," Scioscia said.
Asked if it's realistic that Burnett can be back by the end of April, Scioscia said: "I think the next 10 days will give us a little bit better indication of what's happening. He hasn't gotten close enough to really make a call on how close he's going to be and how long."
Prior to Wednesday, the last time Burnett had even faced hitters was in a regular-season game on May 26 of last year.
"He really hasn't done this basically for a year," Scioscia said of Burnett, who is in the final guaranteed season of a two-year, $8 million contract. "You're not going to all of a sudden feel good, throw a couple 'pens and go out there and pitch in a game. There's a progression, and right now he's really going through what you'd hope would be Spring Training for him. So it's going to take a little bit of time."
• Dane De La Rosa (right forearm strain) pitched a scoreless inning for Double-A Arkansas on Saturday, giving up one hit and striking out one. De La Rosa is on track to be activated off the disabled list by Friday.
• David Freese hurt his left hand sliding head-first into home plate and Albert Pujols was hit by a fastball in the right arm during Saturday's 5-1 win, but both said postgame they were fine and will play on Sunday.
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.