For years, the narrative around the Los Angeles Angels has been this: Mike Trout good, teammates bad. Trout has consistently been the best player in baseball according to wins above replacement1 — a metric that has always been Trout’s steadfast ally in MVP debates and all-time rankings — but he’s never had the supporting cast to help him win a postseason game. So when the Angels signed All-Star third baseman Anthony Rendon last December, potentially giving Trout his most productive teammate ever, the Angels had reason for optimism in their first season under new manager Joe Maddon.
Rendon has been even better than advertised, with both a higher adjusted on-base plus slugging (OPS+) and more WAR per game than in 2019, so we might expect L.A.’s fortunes to be positively soaring at midseason. But instead, the Angels are 11 games under .500 and mired in last place. How is it possible that Trout finally got some real help, in the form of an MVP-level teammate, and his club is somehow worse than ever?2
Trout himself is not without blame. His OPS+ has dipped to 163, the lowest mark he’s had in a season since debuting in 2011. He’s hitting .277 — nearly 30 points below his career average — with a significantly worse strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.06) than a year ago (1.09). The trademark “little things” that famously added up to a big advantage in Trout’s previous WAR wars have now become liabilities; Trout has been just slightly better than an average base-runner (0.8 runs above average)3 and has been worth 4.6 fewer runs than an average center fielder, with negative total defensive value after adjusting for position.
As underwhelming as this all sounds, Trout is hardly having a poor season. He is tied for third in MLB with 12 home runs and has 1.04 WAR in 35 team contests — meaning he’s playing at a 4.8-WAR pace per 162 games. That’s an All-Star campaign by full-season standards. However, it’s also a far cry from Trout’s usual output. In fact, it’s Rendon, playing at an 8.2 WAR pace per 162, that has Trout’s usual statistical production — a radical reversal of the Angels’ normal dynamic:
Perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising that Trout has bigger things on his mind than playing at his usual GOAT level. Before the season, he had expressed doubts about whether he would even play as MLB attempted to start its season in a pandemic. “Honestly, I still don’t feel comfortable,” Trout said in early July, citing concerns about his pregnant wife, who was due to have their first child during the season. “We’re risking our families, risking our lives to go out here and play for everyone. … I want to play. It’s just a tough situation. I’ve just got to play it by ear.”
Trout did eventually decide to play, but he also left the Angels briefly around July 30, when his son was born. He still has come to bat 141 times, though, which works out to about 653 plate appearances per 162 team games. (For comparison, Trout had 600 PA in last year’s American League MVP season.) So the downturn in WAR isn’t simply a function of playing less — Trout just hasn’t been anywhere near as dominant as we’re accustomed to seeing. (After all, this is a player who usually tracks to have the most career WAR ever for a player his age.)
Trout is far from the only disappointing Angel this season. Two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani struggled as a pitcher before suffering another arm injury in his second start; as a hitter, his OPS is 22 percent worse than average as a designated hitter, helping yield just -0.3 WAR in total this season. Andrelton Simmons has barely played because of an ankle injury, while left fielder Justin Upton (who’s hitting .130) is ice-cold to start the year. At 40 years old, Albert Pujols (0.0 WAR) remains in the mix at first base — and remains L.A.’s second-highest paid player. Touted rookie right fielder Jo Adell is hitting .181, learning the major league game on the fly. Last year’s horrid starting pitching (30th in WAR in 2019) is barely better (22nd) in 2020, and the bullpen (4.49 ERA) has been average at best.
Just about the only bright spots for the Angels so far have been Rendon’s MVP numbers, the ongoing development of versatile infielder David Fletcher and a solid ace-level performance from starter Dylan Bundy.
Everything else has been underwhelming, which has added up to make Los Angeles arguably MLB’s most disappointing team in 2020 — and that’s really saying something, given the competition from a dreadful Boston Red Sox team and a listless title defense (so far) from the Washington Nationals. Even if Trout were playing at his established level of performance, that wouldn’t be nearly enough to fix the Angels’ season by itself.4 But the irony is still undeniable: After years of excellence undermined by inferior teammates, Trout has been the fourth-best player on a legitimately bad Angels team so far. And with just a 2 percent chance to make the playoffs, there isn’t much time left to salvage any of the promise L.A. seemed to have going into the season.
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