The Angels find themselves in a similar spot. Entering play Friday, they are 42-40, and sit 3.5 games out of a Wild Card spot at the halfway point of their season. Even with their fair share of injuries, the Angels have stayed afloat. The offense has clicked this season, ranking top 10 in many offensive categories, while the pitching staff has struggled. Let’s look at who has impressed this season, and who has failed to live up to expectations.
Coming as a surprise to no one, Mike Trout has had another Mike-Trout-esque first-half. Even despite a month-long “slump” — when he still slashed .238/.395/.416 with four homers — he still ranks 2nd in Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement with 5.3 on the season, just behind Cody Bellinger. Through 82 games this season, Trout is leading the American League in on base percentage, wRC+, slugging percentage, walk percentage and WAR. In the prime of his career at age 27, Trout will make his eighth straight all star appearance, and his seventh consecutive start at the 90th midsummer classic next month in Cleveland. Oh, and he signed a 12-year contract extension just before the season started. Sit back and enjoy the greatness we’re watching.
Tommy La Stella
Getting limited playing time over the past four years with the Cubs left some untapped potential for a breakout, but no one saw this coming. Over 828 at-bats over the past five seasons, La Stella hit only ten home runs and owned an OPS of .711. Through 267 at-bats this season, La Stella has emerged as a serious power threat, hitting 16 dingers, and sporting an OPS of .846. La Stella’s contact-based approach has him striking-out only 9.2% of the time, placing him as the third-toughest hitter to strike out in the majors. The power surge could be due to an increase in launch angle. Last year his average launch angle was at 8.1 degrees, whereas this year, La Stella’s launch angle is 13.4. With the power surge, he has earned his way into the All Star conversation, advancing from the primary election to the starters election alongside D.J. LeMahieu and Jose Altuve of the Yankees and Astros, respectively. La Stella has been one of Billy Eppler’s finest acquisitions as Angels general manager, and has his final year of club control next year.
Canning was the first starting pitcher to be drafted, developed, and make his major league debut with the Angels since Garrett Richards in 2011. The second-round pick in the 2017 Draft out of UCLA has impressed in his short time with the big club. Entering Thursday, Canning holds a 3-4 record, but does have a 3.70 ERA, and has compiled 1.5 bWAR in his short time in the majors. While Canning has arguably been the best pitcher in the Angels rotation, but he could pitch less over the 2nd half — considering the Padres sent one of their better starters, Chris Paddack, to minors in an effort to limit his innings pitched. Paddack was able to throw bullpen sessions and simulated games, but never got into a game situation before the Padres called him back up. The Angels could do the same with Canning who has thrown more than 115 innings in only one season before: his final year at UCLA. I would expect the Angels to limit Canning’s innings, and try to keep him around 120-130 innings pitched this year. While we may not see as much of Canning down the stretch, he is under club control through the next 6 seasons, and looks to have the upside of a number-two starter or even an ace.
Due to the starters lack of efficiency and ability to get into the later innings of games, the Angels bullpen has been overworked, pitching the most innings in the majors. In order to get fresh arms for the pen, a continuous shuttle to AAA Salt Lake has been in place. The bullpen as a whole has combined for 1.7 fWAR ranking them 11th in the Majors, while there ERA ranks 19th with 4.52. Holding down the bullpen have been four main relievers: Hansel Robles, Ty Buttrey, Cam Bedrosian, and Noe Ramirez.
Robles has been the teams closer this season, converting 11 saves in 13 opportunities and holding opponents to a 3.19 ERA. Ty Buttrey has been the Angels fireman, coming in whenever Brad Ausmus feels the situation is most urgent. Buttrey has came in as early as the fifth inning, and even closed out a couple of contests, all the while compiling 1.1 fWAR in 38 appearances. Cam Bedrosian and Noe Ramirez have both had various roles in the first half of the season. Bedrosian has been an opener for the Angels 7 times, usually setting up for Felix Pena, or whoever is the primary pitcher that day. When Buttrey or Robles are unavailable to pitch, he is often Ausmus’ go to reliever for either the 7th or 8th inning. Bedorsian’s WHIP is at a career low at just 1.017 going into Thursday’s contest and is having his best year since 2016. Noe Ramirez, barely made the Angels Opening Day roster, but has proven to be an effective reliever. Originally used in multi-inning, low-leverage situations, Ramirez has proved he is capable of key spots. Since the start of May, Ramirez owns a 2.84 ERA while holding opponents to a .202 batting average against. These four relievers have all held very different roles, but have helped to stabilize a bullpen that has constantly been changing.
What’s Gone Wrong
Free Agent Acquisitions
The Angels signed five players to major league contracts this past offseason. Matt Harvey, Trevor Cahill, Cody Allen, Justin Bour, and Jonathan Lucroy were brought in to fill the Angels most pressing needs, and help them compete for a playoff spot. At the midway point of the season, these five have combined for -1.5 fWAR, with Justin Bour being the only player with a positive WAR (0.1). Cody Allen, who was the Angels closer to start the season, was designated for assignment after a decrease in velocity led to a 6.26 ERA and a discouraging 8.36 FIP. Cahill and Harvey have combined for a 4-10 record across 21 starts, resulting in Cahill moving to the bullpen. Matt Harvey has landed on the IL with a back injury, and isn’t expected back until after the All Star break. Lucroy has handled the pitching staff well, but his bat has cooled off in the past month, as he has a wRC+ of 69 since May 15, and leads the league in wild pitches allowed. Justin Bour’s abysmal start had him sent to Salt Lake for just under a month, but after being called back up he owns an OPS of 1.205 with four home runs in 23 at bats since returning. The Angels could use second-half rebounds from the four players who are still on the roster.
Upton, who has been a liability on defense for the Angels, made his worst defensive mistake as an Angel. In an exhibition game vs the Dodgers, he sprinted after a fly ball down in the corner, and after missing the catch, jammed his toe into the wall. What looked to be a minor injury, was anything but that, as Upton went on to miss the first 72 games of the season. Upton, who slashed .257/.344/.463 with 30 home runs and mainly hit third behind Mike Trout, or fourth behind Shohei Ohtani, left the Angels with a massive hole in the lineup. While Brian Goodwin surprised and filled in admiralty for the Angels, adding a four-time all star back to the lineup gives the Angels the needed protection for both Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani.
Injuries will always play a major part in professional sports, and the Angels have had their fair share this season. In addition to starting the season without Upton, they also started the season without Shohei Ohtani (the hitter) and Andrew Heaney. Ohtani’s injury was expected as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, but Heaney had unexpected elbow issues that delayed his season debut until late-May. Tyler Skaggs and Andrelton Simmons also both missed time with ankle injuries. Skaggs only spent the minimum of 10 days on the Injured List, and Simmons, who had a grade-three ankle sprain (typically a 8-12 week recovery time), is expected back any day now, as he has miraculously already recovered. Zack Cozart hit a measly .124 with 2 extra base hits across 107 plate appearances, before landing on the Injured List with an issue in the same shoulder that ended his 2018 season in June. Injuries have hurt the Angels, but with Simmons, Upton, and Ohtani all together in the lineup for the first time Thursday night, the Angels stand to make a playoff push.
Considering the Angels early-season injuries, and free agent struggles, the Angels record of 42-40 is pretty surprising. With a healthy and stacked lineup, they could carry a sub-par pitching rotation towards an October run. Fangraphs currently gives the Angels a 5.5% chance to make the postseason, and if the Angels are buyers at the trade deadline, these odds could stand to increase. While there are a lot of American League teams shooting for the 2 wild card spots, a strong second half could propel Mike Trout to experience postseason baseball for the first time since 2014.