Which Team is the Real 2019 Angels?

The 2019 Angels have been confusing, to say the least. After opening the season in Oakland and pretending that nobody (sans Mike Trout) had ever held a baseball bat in their lives, they continued their road trip to Seattle and made Marco Gonzalez look like Randy Johnson. The Angels didn’t score more than 3 runs the entire road trip, short of 6 runs in the 8th and 9th inning of their second game. The sluggish start carried over into the home opener against the Rangers, and Angels’ fans were primed to experience even more disappointment than they were used to. While the offense had come alive a tiny bit with a 4 run showing, the pitching made Homer Bailey seem like an ace, allowing 11 runs to really damper the mood of the home opener. After a 1-5 start with a -14 run differential, Angels’ fans were practically already hoping for the #1 overall pick to help Trout in two or three years.

Then something clicked. I don’t know exactly what clicked. But it was something. The Angels proceeded to win the next six games in a row, taking the final three games from the Rangers, with the home stand culminating with a sweep of the reigning NL Central champion Brewers. In those six games, Angels pitching didn’t allow more than 2 runs in any of the wins (short of a collapse allowing Milwaukee to score 8 runs, a game in which the Angels scored 11 and Tommy La Stella became the greatest player in Angels’ history). Note: all stats mentioned are as of the start of play on Thursday, April 11.

While the offense has certainly been lackluster as a whole, there have been some bright spots. For one thing, that Mike Trout guy is still pretty good. I really don’t need to give you more, but he has already accumulated 1.8 bWAR this season, which puts him on pace for roughly 20 bWAR for the season. His .592 OBP is such a ridiculous number, yet it also wouldn’t be completely ridiculous if he sustained an over .500 mark, particularly with how much he gets walked with Justin Bour being less than intimidating in the 3 hole. It’s scary to think that Trout might be getting better. Trout’s BB:K ratio currently sits at 13:4. He’s only had one season where he walked more than he struck out, which came in his injury shortened 2017 season when he walked 94 times compared to 90 strikeouts. Trout is absolutely superhuman; he said he wanted to improve on his defensive metrics entering 2018, and he did just that. If he can seriously just pick something to improve and then actually improve it, we may be seeing him hit 50 home runs soon.

Image result for mike trout
Mike Trout could somehow be getting better. | Jae C. Hong / Associated Press

And now to the non Mike Trout part of the analysis. Brian Goodwin is somehow the only other bright spot in the lineup, slashing to a tune of .333/.394/.533/.927 after being brought on as outfield depth when Justin Upton went on the IL. After Trout and Goodwin, it looks like a AA lineup was trying to compete with major league pitching (truth be told, the Angels’ minor league teams could probably hit better than this). The next highest OPS on the team comes from the immortal Tommy La Stella at .728. After TLS, you have to go all the way down to Albert Pujols at .630. Yikes is an understatement. Zack Cozart is rivaling Chris Davis with his 1-30 start, and quite frankly looks like he’s just discovering what baseball is. Taylor Ward was brought up in anticipation of a Cozart IL stint, but Cozart ended up not needing a stint, and Ward proceeded to equal Cozart’s hit total for the season in his one start. Andrelton Simmons’ bat is coming around, with 7 of his 11 hits for the season coming on this winning streak. Simmons will never be an elite bat by any means, but his ability to make good contact is something the Angels will need him to continue as they wait for Upton and Ohtani to return.

The starting pitching can be described with a single word: meh. Trevor Cahill has been pretty good, with a 3.50 ERA through three games started to go along with a .889 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, and only 7 H/9. Tyler Skaggs has a 2.45 ERA, although his strikeout rate is not where it should be, and Felix Pena is basically what you want from the back of the rotation. He’s somewhat inconsistent, but he will be the type of guy who will generally limit runs. Chris Stratton has been bad, pitching to a 6.48 ERA while only averaging four innings per start, and striking out only two batters in 8.1 innings. Matt Harvey has been a disaster. After a very respectable debut allowing two runs to the A’s, he got blown up for eight runs against the Rangers in the home opener, and settled down for six runs allowed against the Brewers. This gives him a very impressive ERA of 10.05, impressive only for the fact that nobody expected him to be this much of a train wreck early on. The peripheral numbers don’t even do him justice, only striking out batters at a rate of 7 K/9 and giving up homers at a ghastly rate. The Dark Knight may have been born in darkness, but unless he can turn this around very soon the Angels might banish him to the darkness for good.

Now to the true strength of the 2019 Angels; a bullpen that will find itself in the top 7 once the year is over. After 11 games, the Angels’ bullpen ranked 1st with a 1.69 ERA, 3rd with a 3.79 K/BB ratio, 5th in batting average against with a .187, and 7th in innings pitched with 48.0. It’s only 11 games, but the bullpen has been heavily relied on in the early going. Through five innings, Cody Allen’s control problems from spring seem to have subsided. Ty Buttrey will stick his name in the conversation to be a top 20 relief pitcher by the end of the year, and currently has a negative FIP with a strikeout rate of 14.3 K/9 while not allowing a walk. Cam Bedrosian is looking more and more like the guy who had a 1.12 ERA in 45 games in 2015. Justin Anderson still struggles with walks, but still had the stuff to get out of a bases loaded, nobody out jam that he was thrust into. I still don’t trust Noe Ramirez, but he’s yet to allow a run in four innings of work, and Luis Garcia has a 1.50 ERA in his first six innings of work. Although struggling against the Brewers, Luke Bard has also been pretty strong to open the season. Hansel Robles is now the new Undertaker, and he’s better than the old Undertaker ever was.

Did you notice anything about the names that I listed in the bullpen who are performing? It’s not that any particular name should necessarily stick out (except Ty Buttrey. Remember Ty Buttrey), but the fact that I’m able to list eight relievers who are all performing at a relatively high level to start the year. Most bullpens are accentuated by their high profile stars, such as the 2018 Brewers with Hader, Jeffress, and Knebel. Some bullpens are ranked by the strength of their closers, like the 2018 Red Sox and Craig Kimbrel. The Angels have a beautiful mix of the two, with more depth than any bullpen in baseball can hope to ask for. Cody Allen is performing like the Cody Allen we grew to know in Cleveland, and provides a stable anchor for the bullpen. Ty Buttrey will soon be mentioned with the likes of Dellin Betances (and the rest of the Yankees bullpen) as one of the best non-closers in baseball. Justin Anderson can be an electric stopper out of the pen, with swing and miss potential on every pitch. Hansel Robles appears to have ironed out his mechanical issues, and becoming a legitimate 8th inning option in high leverage situations. Do you see what I’m getting at here? The 8th best option for the Angels could be a 4th option for other teams, and they still have guys at the top to make the bullpen as lethal as it is deep.

Did I think the Angels were going to be a team that could sweep a team that appeared in the NLCS last year without two of their top three bats? No. Do I think that they’re that team going forward? Also no. Even when Justin Upton and Shohei Ohtani return to the lineup? No, which is Spanish for no. However, the Angels proved that they could be that team this year, even if they won’t be. I think this series will open up a lot of eyes around the league, marking the Angels as a legitimate threat instead of the pushover they may have been expected to be. While the offense will still largely struggle while Upton and Ohtani remain on the shelf, the much improved pitching staff should be able to keep them in many games, and late game leads look as safe as ever with their unheralded bullpen.

UPDATE: After its first real blemish of the season in the form of a 3 run outing against the Cubs on Saturday, the Angels’ bullpen ERA still stands at a pristine 2.08 for the season. They have still yet to blow a save opportunity with Cody Allen wiggling out of trouble (somewhat controversially), but the offense is still mightily struggling to the tune of a .650 team OPS. Their success against the powerful Brewers and Cubs is certainly promising, and I believe this team will begin to show its true colors as the season continues.

Brian Schlosser

Rockies, Angels, and general baseball fan. I love talking about baseball more than I love writing about it, and I'm always open for discussion on Twitter @brian_slosh.

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