By Jonathan Northrop (@Angelsjunky), AngelsWin.com Senior Writer
Before the season began, I predicted that the Angels would go 91-71, with a good chance of earning a wildcard berth. At the time, I doubted my own prediction - as @Dochalo half-jokingly remarked, he and I did the same thing every year: Wrote a long, stat-heavy post that showed how the Angels could be better than expected. And they never were.
But this year seems different - and more so, I'm starting to believe. Not only my own prediction, but that this is a very good club.
Before getting into that, I'm going to take a stroll down memory lane, to provide the context from which the current team arose. If you're not interested in all that, just skip to Part 2.
1: A History of Mediocrity and Disappointment
As a four-decade Angels fan, I'm used to the unsavory but familiar mix of mediocrity and disappointment. Except for a single, shining year in 2002, Angels history has been characterized by it. In fact, one of my first memories of fandom was my father telling me that the Angels lost to the Brewers in 1982 playoffs; I was outside playing ball--kids actually played outside back then--and I remember kicking it in frustration, but then quickly moving on to something else. While my fandom goes back to around 1980, I only really started following the team closely in 1987; I would have before then, but lived overseas for the previous two years, so in the pre-internet days, wasn't really able to follow them (so I thankfully missed the '86 postseason).
Now consider my first fifteen years of serious fandom, 1987-2001. The first five years of that period was one of the worst, with the Angels signing a smorgasbord of declining former stars as free agents, and never really amounting to much, even though they had a core of young homegrown players in Wally Joyner, Devon White, Jack Howell, Mark McLemore, Mike Witt, Chuck Finley, Kirk McCaskill, Jim Abbott, etc. They did win 91 games in 1989, but other than that the teams of 1987-94 were par for the course for Angels: mediocre, through and through.
1995 was the original "magical season." The Angels were playing good ball, 39-30 at the All-Star Break, and then went on an absolute tear, winning 17 of their first 20 games after the break, and 25-8 over 33. On August 15, they were 64-38, 10.5 games ahead in the AL West.
It was an exciting team, with many young players - including that great outfield of Tim Salmon, Jim Edmonds, and Garret Anderson, and fueled by veteran spark-plug Tony Phillips. Again: 64-38, 10.5 games ahead in 1st place. They then proceeded to win only 9 of the next 37 games, somehow managing to fall into 2nd place. But as bad as that was, to add insult to injury, they went on a five-game winning streak to finish the season, tying the Mariners for 1st place and forcing a one-game playoff. What commenced was my personal worst day in franchise history. They had to face Randy Johnson and, through six innings, were only losing 1-0. Then, in the worst moment of the worst day, Luis Sojo comes up to bat against Mark Langston with the bases loaded. Sojo hits a broken bat ground ball that got by JT Snow at first base, bounced around in the benches along the wall - everyone scored, including Sojo (it is ruled a double). If you want to re-live this improbable play, here it is:
Again, this was the low-point of my Angels fandom - not simply because they lost, but because it was the culmination and reversal of a "magical year" that turned sour. And after that, for the next six years, the Angels reverted to mediocrity, winning between 70 and 85 games each season (sound familiar?).
And then 2002 happened - and that was an actual magical season. One of my favorite elements of that season but barely gets a mention when it comes up in conversation, is that the Athletics were also having a magical season, including a 20-game win streak in August and September. But the Angels were also white-hot, and only lost a few more games. But even so, the Angels began to fade in the last two weeks, going 5-8, and the Athletics took the division. But the Angels earned a wildcard berth.
After losing the first game of the Division Series to the Yankees, it looked like the Angels would go quietly. Top of the 8th in game two, and the Angels are down 5-4...it wasn't looking good. But then the Angels scored 3 runs in the 8th, including two solo shots by Anderson and Glaus, and Troy Percival closed it out. The Angels took the next two games and the series, and then dispatched the Twins handily in the AL Championship series, 4 games to 1, going to their first World Series.
The first four games were a back-and-forth, the Angels winning games 2 and 3. But then the Giants blew them out in game 5, 16-4. One problem is that the Angels simply couldn't get Barry Bonds out: he hit an absurd .471/.700/.1.294 in the Series. So through five games, the Angels are down 3 games to 2.
If that Luis Sojo at-bat in 1995 was my worst moment in franchise history, the 7th and 8th innings of game six were my best. Down 5-0 in the bottom of the 7th and, well, you know the rest. Actually, you can watch the whole game on Youtube, but if you want to just watch the 7th and on, start at 2:02:22 (or if you want to see Bonds strikeout, start at 1:58:45).
I actually watched that game in a Northern California retreat center, surrounded by Giants fans. I left the room after the Giants went up 5-0, unable to bear the cheering of the NoCalers. Then, driving home, I turned on the radio and the Angels had two men on based in the 7th, and the rest is history, and the names Scott Spiezio, Darin Erstad, Tim Salmon, Garret Anderson, Troy Glaus, and others will be forever carved into Angels history.
2002-09 is sometimes called the Golden Age of Angels baseball, for obvious reasons: it was, by far, their most successful period. Not only did they win the World Series in 2002, but then reached the playoffs in five of six years, from 2004-09. But as great as that era was, it was marred by continual disappointment in the playoffs, illustrated by their 4-17 record in playoff games during that span.
The Angels came back down to earth in 2010, going 80-82. In response, what commenced over the next few years--as the Angels failed to get back to the postseason--was a series of panic moves that disastrously hampered the franchise for the next decade, starting with the head-scratching trade for Vernon Wells in January of 2011, then the massive contracts to Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Despite the arrival of the franchise's best player ever, Mike Trout, the 2010s felt like a return to the mediocrity of the 1990s: one playoff appearance, but a 3-0 exit, and mostly teams that were a few games above or below .500.
Perhaps the biggest factor in the team's mediocrity was the almost comical rash of injuries to the young pitching staff in the 2014-16 period. A talented young group, all of them disappointed - and GMs Jerry Dipoto and Billy Eppler couldn't find the pieces to make up for it.
Fast forward to last year. It was supposed to be different: Not only did they have a new GM in Perry Minasian, who had, at least, the air of confidence, but they had two superstars in Trout and Rendon, plus the ever-promising Shohei Ohtani. But injuries to Trout and Rendon yielded another disappointing year, the Angels finishing 77-85. Yet there were glimmers of hope - Ohtani's massive breakout, Walsh's emergence as another plus hitter, and the arrival of top prospects Brandon Marsh and Jo Adell in the majors. So before the 2022 season, I wrote yet another post or two, pointing out how this year could be different. Again. For realz, this time!
2. The 2022 Team
When I scan over the 2022 team, it is easy to justify my pre-season prediction: it is a team with no major weaknesses. But it isn't a perfect team, and behind the pretty facade there are a few points of concern, which can be illustrated by contrasting them with the team's strengths:
- The starting rotation looks very good but beyond the 1-5 starters, there's a steep drop-off, with an assortment of guys with limited upside, question marks and/or little major league experience.
- The lineup is explosive but rather top-heavy and a bit weak in the last third or so.
- The bullpen is vastly improved but still a little soft around the edges.
- The defense is surprisingly good but largely dependent on a guy who is hitting .176.
In other words, and this is the key point: behind the first line of players, there's questionable depth. There is some depth, but it is mostly minor league filler, with no top prospects waiting in the wings.
We're only 32 games into the season, with no major injuries to any key players (unless you count David Fletcher). It is likely that someone gets injured at some point, but as traumatized as we are, it is worth noting that some teams escape seasons without any major injuries to their best players. It can happen!
All that said, at this moment in time, 91-71 looks conservative. Or rather, I think it is actually realistic - it accounts for the team's talent and some possible injuries to come. The implication being that if the Angels escape the season relatively unscathed, they could win more than that.
In other words, whereas to start the year I thought 91-71 was on the optimistic side of the range of likely outcomes, now I see it more as an over/under, or even a baseline. The team is 21-11, a .656 winning percentage; to finish 91-71, they need to go 70-60, a .538 winning percentage, which is an 87-win pace over a full year. With this team's talent, they'd have to face significant adversity to not play the rest of the season at that pace.
Meaning, 91-71 is the number below which--by season's end--meant the Angels faced significant challenges, above which meant they had just a normal amount of mild to moderate injuries.
As Billy Beane once said, in paraphrase, you use the first third of the season to see what you have, the next third to get what you need, and the last third to cruise into the postseason. The Angels are still seeing what they have - and there's another 22 games before the first third is done. But if we look at the team, what do they seem to have?
- A dynamic offense, with power, patience and speed. They lead the majors with 44 HR and a 127 wRC+, way ahead of the Yankees at 118, and are 8th in walk rate at 9.7%, and 5th in SB with 19.
- An overall strong pitching staff, 8th in ERA with 3.39, with the starters 9th with a 3.35 and relievers 14th with 3.45.
- A good defense which, despite being only 16th in Def Runs at -5.7, looks much better than that with the eyeball test.
But three potential cracks in the facade:
- Despite an 8th best ERA, the pitching staff has a 16th best 3.79 FIP, meaning they could come back down to earth and be more of an average staff over the course of the full season.
- A huge portion of that team 127 wRC+ is due to Trout's 245 and Ward's 244, both of whom will inevitably come down to earth. That said, others are rising: Walsh is now at 137, Marsh holding steady at 127, Ohtani at 126, and even the struggling Rendon is at 108. Meaning, Trout/Ward performing at non-Bondsian levels could be balanced by other players improving.
- The ever-looming possibility of injury, whether to one of the Big Three hitters--Trout, Ward, Ohtani--or to one of the starters. As said, while the depth behind the regulars isn't terrible, there's still a significant drop-off, especially when you consider replacing Trout at-bats with Adell at-bats, or Ohtani starts with Junk starts.
3. Summing Up: Some Remaining Questions
Injury aside, what are the question marks, as the team currently stands?
The Middle Infield: 2B/SS remains the soft underbelly of the lineup. Everyone wants Andrew Velazquez to hit enough to justify him being the everyday shortstop due to his stellar defense, but he's still hitting just .176 with a 52 wRC+. That said, he's got 5 hits in his last 14 at-bats, hitting .357 over his last four games. With his defense and speed, he doesn't need to be Barry Larkin - he just needs to be Mario Mendoza and hit about .200 or so. As for 2B, the Angels have added Luis Rengifo to the mix, and so far, so good. With David Fletcher out for a couple months--a blessing in disguise--they still need to figure out who among Rengifo, Wade, Duffy, and perhaps Mayfield, will be Velazquez's partner (assuming AV can hold down the job). And there's also Michael Stefanic to consider. But again, with the rest of the lineup as good as it is, they simply need adequate offense from 2B/SS; defense being the priority, especially at SS.
4th Outfielder: Trout and Ward are locks, and Marsh has been playing well enough and Adell poor enough that the Angels couldn't justify platooning them, so Marsh is the everyday leftfielder. With those three, a good 4th outfielder seems a luxury, but they'll want a defense-first guy they can bring in, thus the promotion of Aaron Whitefield and the signing of Juan Lagares to a minor league contract. They've also got Magneuris Sierra, Dillon Thomas, and Monte Harrison in AAA. If any of the starting three get injured, Adell will get another look (and he just walked 4 times in a AAA game!). Meaning, all they really need right now is a guy who can play good defense, and not embarrass himself in the occasional emergency start.
6th/depth starters: Jose Suarez lost his job in the rotation, at least for the time being, but given his success last year in the bullpen, the Angels might audition other pitchers to fill his role and bring Suarez back up as a reliever, especially given that Griffin Canning should be back in a few weeks. Jhonathan Diaz, Davis Daniel, Janson Junk and Kenny Rosenberg look like adequate depth pieces, but probably not players you want in a playoff-bound rotation. The wildcard is injured Chris Rodriguez, but one would think that whenever he returns, the Angels will baby him. 2021 draftees Sam Bachman, Ky Bush, and Chase Silseth could also factor in by season's end, but probably only if the Angels fall out of contention, and are more considerations for 2023 and beyond.
Back-end of the bullpen: The bullpen is the best its been in years, led by veterans Iglesias, Tepera, and Loup, but also solid contributions by Herget, Ortega, and Barria, and improving performance from Bradley. That's probably enough, but the Angels will still rotate different guys through the remaining spots, with Barraclough the most recent experiment.
Bench configuration: The bench configuration will largely be determined by how the middle infield pans out - whether Velazquez holds onto his starting job, and if anyone emerges as the regular second baseman. There are lots of possible configurations, from a more tradition starting pair at SS/2B to a continual platoon, involving some or all of Velazquez, Wade, Duffy, Mayfield, Rengifo, Stefanic, and eventually Fletcher. Moving over to catcher, the stellar performance of Chad Wallach, filling in for Kurt Suzuki, has to turn Joe Maddon's head. While it is hard to see Maddon releasing the veteran Suzuki, Wallach has a few more games to try to convince him. Anyhow, this is one area in which the Angels really could use a bolster - someone who can provide plus hitting playing multiple positions (Ahh, Chris Taylor, if only...).
To end this, it is almost concerning that there's nothing really to be concerned about. Or rather, the biggest concern remains possible injury, and the questionable depth behind the everyday players. But this is a talent-laden team, and despite the depth concerns, can take some bumps before imploding.
One final note. I was inspired to write this after last night's remarkable game, which had an almost mythic quality that I haven't experienced with the Angels in many years - even since 2002 (I know, I shouldn't have). In a way, it joins my personal list of best franchise moments: if game 6 of the 2002 World Series is the best postseason moment, this is in the running for the best among regular season games. Watching the joyful camaraderie of the team upon Detmers completing his improbable no-hitter, as well as the offensive barrage and even the crazy left-handed HR by Rendon - it was the stuff of legends.
But even if reality sets in and it ends up being a great moment in merely a good year, this is a talent-laden team, and one that--at the least--should remain a blast to watch for the rest of the year.