Back in May, it seemed like the Los Angeles Angels were headed for big things. But life, somehow, is never that simple for this team. Just as the Halos were looking like they’d finally deliver on their long-promised potential, the team promptly lost 14 straight games. Then-manager Joe Maddon, who expressed little concern for what he considered temporary setbacks when I spoke to him early in the losing streak, was no longer the Angels’ manager by the end of that skid, replaced by Phil Nevin.
What’s happened since that 27-17 start is unprecedented in baseball history — a 12-36 period leading straight into the All-Star break, reminiscent of the disappointing Angels we’ve come to know for years. Shohei Ohtani? Brilliant. Mike Trout? Spectacular. Wins? Not so much.
“Everybody’s clamoring for [Trout] to be in the playoffs, and we all are, especially this year,” Maddon told me back in May. “It just needs to happen and needs to be seen. When you get generational talent like him and Shohei, even Anthony Rendon and others that are ascending within our group, it’d be wonderful for the country at large to be able to see them more consistently.”
Nevin echoed that sentiment when I caught up with him in Baltimore earlier this month. For his part, Nevin is absolutely convinced the 27-17 Angels team is still in there, something he said he emphasizes to this group as it falls further out of contention.
“Yeah, certainly, a lot,” Nevin said. “You go back and look at things from when we were playing well, no excuses. We’ve had some injuries, but I think every team in the league has had those by now. To getting that feeling back, I mean, we come in here, the guys come in here every day with a good attitude. You expect to win, you can feel that in the room.”
It is understandable optimism. Again, teams that start 27-17 simply don’t rattle off 12-36 stretches. The 44-game start is a significant enough chunk of the season that, on average, those that have begun 27-17 in 162-game seasons since 1901 ended up with 85.3 wins and 76.7 losses, which would put Los Angeles squarely in the wild card hunt. Even if we expand the sample to teams winning between 25 and 30 of their first 44 games, they still can expect to go 85-77 on average.
So what’s changed? Well, not Ohtani. Through the first 44 games of the season, he clocked in with a slash line of .256/.319/.459 at the plate, with nine home runs. Since the … um, unpleasantness began, he’s been better at the plate, at .261/.376/.516 with 10 home runs.
You may have heard that Ohtani pitches, too, and if anything, he’s improved on the mound as well. His first seven starts for the Good Angels? A 2.82 ERA and 53/9 K/BB rate in 38 ⅓ innings. Since then, with the Bad Angels? A 2.03 ERA and 70/13 K/BB rate in 48 ⅔ innings.
Trout has seen a dropoff, from a .328/.436/.693 start in those first 44 games to .214/.301/.510 since. But it is hard to blame a plus-defensive center fielder with an OPS north of .800 for a team’s woes.
Isolating the problem proves difficult, as nearly everything that had been working fell apart all at once as the team embarked on its losing skid. If we use FanGraphs’ “plus” stats to index each major offensive and pitching category relative to league average (which is always set to 100), we can see that since May 24, L.A. batters stopped walking as much, started striking out more and began hitting for far less power. Meanwhile, their pitchers started walking more batters and giving up more home runs — though, oddly, they’ve also struck out more batters. In terms of the quality of contact allowed, Angels hurlers are now giving up many more line drives, and whether due to lousy defense or bad luck, opponents are hitting for a higher batting average on balls in play.
|Category||On May 24||On July 17||Diff|
|Category||On May 24||On July 17||Diff|
|Line drive rate||98||106||+8|
|HR per 9 IP||96||102||+6|
Crucial performers, like Taylor Ward in the outfield, Anthony Rendon at third base and Michael Lorenzen among the starting pitching, have tailed off, been lost to injury or tailed off and then been lost to injury, respectively. Lorenzen had rediscovered his sinker, and the pitch revolutionized his arsenal. Now? He’s out for the foreseeable future.
Even so, there’s been plenty of hard luck, and Patrick Sandoval, the Angels’ second-best starting pitcher this season, is proof of it. For all his excellent work — a 3.00 ERA over 81 innings — he has a 3-5 record to show for it.
“We definitely have the talent, definitely have the desire to go out there and win,” Sandoval told me, standing at his locker in Baltimore earlier this month. “We had a rough stretch where some things just didn’t go our way — we were in games and then somehow found a way to lose, whether it was a one-run game or just like one bad inning, implosion, whatever.”
Sandoval proved prophetic. One day later, on July 9, he pitched into the seventh inning at Camden Yards and did so brilliantly — allowing just one earned run with 10 strikeouts. His offense provided him no help at all, however, and Anthony Santander’s RBI single made the difference in a 1-0 Angels loss. Los Angeles went on to be swept by the Orioles.
The Angels’ high-end talent has never been their problem; rather, it’s always been about what the team can get from the rest of the roster. That roster understands the stakes, too.
“Obviously, everyone wants to see Mike and Shohei shine in the postseason,” Sandoval said. “I think I saw, back in November, Mike’s had, what, three games in the postseason? So, yeah, we’re all, without it being said, we’re all fighting to get the stars we have on this team a chance to shine in the postseason.”
But after an encouraging start, each week seems to slice more probability off of that chance to shine. With 2 percent playoff odds at the All-Star break, according to FiveThirtyEight’s model, and just two wins in their past 14 games, it’s seeming more likely that the Angels will look back at the early promise of the 2022 season and wonder just how they let such a strong opportunity slip away.
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