To my future kids in 2050: what if I told you there was a team with five potential Hall of Famers on it. What if I told you that team had the best player of my generation, maybe the best player the game has ever seen, alongside the rarest talent in baseball, someone who can throw 100 miles per hour on the mound and hit 110 mph, 450-foot bombs into the bleachers. Now, what if I told you that team had the best defensive shortstop of all-time, one of the best hitters we have ever seen, a top-five prospect, added one of the best third basemen in the game and a pretty good catcher on both sides, and topped all of that off with some guy named David Fletcher. That sounds like a really good team, right?
What if I told you that by late August, that same team would be 9-19, projected to finish the season at 25-35. Their playoff odds had dropped from 57.4% to 8.7% in that time frame. The best bright spots on the team was the best player in the world, that guy named David Fletcher, and a breakout star pitcher.
First, you would probably question why this team only played 28 games in late August, and would only finish with 60 games. I take the next three hours to explain what happened in 2020. Then you would ask “well, what team faltered that badly?” That team, young child, was the Los Angeles Angels.
Now, both the future child and the person reading this in the present time is reading that again and saying “that can’t be possible, they aren’t that bad”. You would be correct.
There are some individual positives in what has been an abysmal season for the Angels. Fletcher, filling in at shortstop for the injured Andrelton Simmons, has turned into a very good baseball player, matching with his popularity among Twitter just for uttering his name. After a stretch of time where he did nothing but walk or homer, Anthony Rendon (.445 wOBA, 188 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR) has turned into an absolute threat behind Mike Trout. Jason Castro, Brian Goodwin, Max Stassi (yes, the same Max Stassi that put up a 5 wRC+ season last year), and Tommy La Stella — who is walking 13% of the time while striking out at just a 5% clip, do I need to say more? — have all been good offensively.
Meanwhile, Mike Trout is having his worst offensive season…at a .987 OPS, .400 wOBA, and 158 wRC+. His worst season is many different stars best season(s). Oddly, his BB% has dropped from his 2018 and 2019 percentages, but his chase rate sits at a career-low 15.3%. That’s something that could be tied to Anthony Rendon behind him in the lineup. 54.2% of pitches seen by Trout have been in the strike zone; he hasn’t seen 50% of pitches in the strike zone in any other season in the Statcast era. Either way, his xwOBA still sits at a godly .435. He hasn’t gone anywhere from this Angels lineup.
That’s where the positives end offensively for the Angels. If those six guys (Stassi/Castro platoon at catcher) I mentioned above were your top six hitters in the lineup, the last three might as well be a dark hole. Outside of the first week of the season, Shohei Ohtani (68 wRC+) has been a no-show, and for someone that is currently limited to DH, that’s even worse. Luis Rengifo — the sole player the Angels would have given up in the infamous botched Joc Pederson and Ross Stripling trade — has been awful (25 wRC+, -0.2 fWAR). Jo Adell (33 wRC+, 41.3 K%) has had about as bad a start to a career on both sides of the baseball diamond. Albert Pujols has been on his last leg (literally) while Justin Upton has been one of the worst players in baseball (-0.8 fWAR, worst on the Angels).
Meanwhile, the one thing that was bound to struggle coming into the season has been a struggle. The only starter that has been good is highly expected breakout stud, Dylan Bundy. His success deserves a separate article, but he is allowing the softest contact of his career and putting up career highs/lows in BB% and K%. This has led to an impressive 2.48 ERA (57 ERA-), and a career-best 3.46 xFIP and 3.37 SIERA. Other than that, Andrew Heaney‘s luck has not sided with him (5.52 ERA compared to 3.17 FIP and 4.35 SIERA), and the other six starting pitchers that the Angels have used this season have been horrendous. Felix Peña (1.98 ERA, 3.06 SIERA) has been a pleasant surprise out of the Angels’ bullpen, but after that, everyone else not named Peña or Mike Mayers has either not performed up to their peripherals (Jacob Barnes), overperforming or getting all the luck (looking straight at Ty Buttrey and Noe Ramirez), or straight up horrendous (Kyle Keller and Hansel Robles). Things might be looking better if they weren’t the fourth-worst defensive team in baseball (-5.3 Def. Value), a majority of that coming from the outfield and Albert Pujols.
Still, no one could have projected the team’s record to be this bad. As of the time that this article is published, the Angels are 9-19, the worst record in the American League (the Mariners are 10-19), and just six-tenths of a percentage better than the league-worst Pittsburgh Pirates. Seven of those nine wins (Athletics (4) and Mariners (3)) have come against just two teams. They rank dead last in starter ERA, mid-tier in reliever ERA (and 8th worst in SIERA), and despite the starpower that they have received, rank 15th in wRC+ and 13th in position player WAR. A team that was expected to compete for a postseason berth before COVID-19 cut down the season, then expected to make it, no questions asked, in a 16-team postseason, they are now closer to securing a top-five pick than they are making the playoffs. Again, with the best player in baseball, a two-way talent, and the addition of the best third baseman in baseball, that’s not where you want to be.
It is not the spot that Angels fans want or expected to be in. However, now is not the time to panic.
Before any underwhelming team, not just the Angels, decides to go into sell mode ahead of next week’s trade deadline, it is important to remind ourselves that we are still playing in the middle of a pandemic. Since Opening Weekend, there has not been a single day where all 30 teams have played. Things off the baseball field may factor and affect a baseball squad more than it ever has. Even if we were just doing this whole short-season thing for fun, it is a 60-game schedule, and even though whoever wins the World Series this year will count, it is impossible to factor a full 162-game schedule into 60. Remember, the World Series champion Washington Nationals were 19-31 through 50 games last year. The Angels could finish with less than 25 wins this year and there would still be wonders on what they would do in a full season.
What I am trying to say: the Angels should not go into complete sell mode. Their current -28 run differential would suggest otherwise, but this could all be one giant fluke for the Angels. They could stay put now, go on a run, and steal that final wild-card spot from what will likely be the loser in the AL Central sweepstakes or one of the Orioles or Blue Jays. Yes, maybe La Stella and Goodwin, two Angels who likely do not fit on this roster post-2020, can be used as bait. Trading David Fletcher, who at the very least, is one of the better defenders around the field, and has four more years of club control, would not be a good optic. And even if they do successfully tank and land one of the top two picks in the draft, baseball is NOT the sport where you should ever tank for one player. Despite their Vanderbilt pedigrees, Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter still have high odds of becoming busts at this stage.
That does not mean that the Angels should suddenly try for that last-ditch run. Trading away prospects from a bottom-10 farm system for an 8.7% chance to make the postseason is not a smart move. General manager Billy Eppler has spent a lot of time fixing a farm system that was the worst in the history of baseball, according to Keith Law, to something serviceable that has produced Adell and Brandon Marsh. No, he has not done the Vinnie Pestano for Mike Clevinger-type move yet, but Arte Moreno is certainly the guy that would force him to do so as he did with Jerry Dipoto. Maybe if you can grab an underrated arm (like Bundy) for some mid-level prospects or controllable players, you would do it. But going for the Hail Mary at this juncture would certainly cause someone to get fired.
So what am I proposing? I am proposing that the Angels stay put. This was a team that I boldly assumed could put together a “super team” this past offseason if they really wanted to, and even at the team’s current stage, I still believe that. Mike Trout, Jo Adell, Shohei Ohtani (DH and/or pitcher), Anthony Rendon, and Andrelton Simmons/David Fletcher (yes) is a core that almost all other teams around the league (basically except the Dodgers, Astros, and Yankees) would wish to have. This isn’t a bad team, it’s an unlucky one. These last 32 games could go anywhere with this team. They could check out of the rest of the season and fall to one of those coveted spots anyway. They could rally around each other, finish over .500, and steal the final wild-card spot, and potentially make noise in the postseason. Waiting until the offseason to make these potential franchise-altering decisions would be the much better choice instead of making the decision to sell or buy now.
The overall point is this: the Angels are in a tailspin, a bad one. They have been bit with bad luck since they had the best record in the American League in 2014. And yet, despite whatever happens in this 60-game season, there is still hope for the future.
Follow Payton Ellison on Twitter (@realpmelli14).