At 9-16, this is a team that has massively underperformed expectations, and is already seven games back of the Western Division-leading Texas Rangers. And Monday night was easily the season’s low point, with the team losing a 19-inning marathon to the Oakland Athletics on a walkoff home run by Brandon Moss, with the game ending at about 1:37 a.m. local time. And that’s not even mentioning that the Angels led 6-2 in the eighth inning, or that the team lost center fielder Peter Bourjos (its only .300 hitter) to the disabled list after the game.
That’s a bitter, bitter pill to swallow if you’re a desperate team trying to turn things around.
The good thing for the Angels is that this is probably about as bad as it gets from here on out. It’s been oft noted that the team got off to a very similarly slow start last season, before becoming one of baseball’s best teams from May through the end of the season. Likewise, based on the way the Angels have performed so far this year, the team is setting itself up for a repeat of last season’s arc — likely with the same playoff-less end.
The reason the Angels have to be better is twofold: injuries and underperformance. The fact that the team lost ace Jered Weaver two starts into the season with a freak broken arm cannot be understated. The way the team’s rotation is built, the Angels were always known to be heavily relying on Weaver and No. 2 starter C.J. Wilson to lead it. Behind them, the rotation was designed to be solid but unspectacular, with three pitchers — Tommy Hanson, Joe Blanton and Jason Vargas — who would eat innings and rely on a prolific offense to get wins.
With Weaver out of the mix, however, the rotation’s lack of upside is being thoroughly exposed, with a 5.09 ERA, good for 25th in baseball. Moreover, the Angels’ starting pitching looks even worse considering how the offense has performed.
Looking at the lineup is an easy way to figure that the Angels basically have to be better from here on out. In short, the vaunted trio of Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton hasn’t lived up to its billing, with OPS figures of .755, .709 and .590, respectively. It doesn’t take a sabermetrician to figure out that those three will be better than that, and will raise those numbers significantly by the end of the season given their track records.
This all being said, no matter how the team performs for the rest of the season, it may be irrelevant to their playoff hopes. The AL West is a tough, if not deep division. Both the Texas Rangers and A’s are solid, fundamentally sound teams with playoff expectations. So, as good as those two squads are, it’s difficult to see the Angels being five and seven games better, respectively, than them for the rest of the year. Like 2012, the Angels may well again prove that Game 1 is indeed as important as Game 162.
By the same token, the grousing has already begun in Los Angeles (of Anaheim). A large section of the fan base wants manager Mike Scioscia fired — which would be a huge, unmitigated mistake — a clearing of the front office, field staff and clubhouse. Which, of course, is completely unrealistic and reactionary.
Rather, the Angels are a victim of injury and random variance — nothing more. In short, it is an absolute fluke that a team with this much front-end talent has performed so poorly, as the numbers of Trout, Pujols and Hamilton will undoubtedly show by season’s end.
That isn’t to say, however, that the Angels don’t have fundamental problems with their roster. The bullpen, in particular, which blew an MLB-leading 22 saves in 2013 is again showing just how porous it is. But, at the same time, it’s the middle relief that’s the problem, not necessarily the back end. Ernesto Frieri, Scott Downs and Sean Burnett (another injury victim) have been solid in the late innings. However, the Angels’ lack of bullpen depth has been exposed by Ryan Madson‘s injury and the starting pitching’s inability to go deep into games.
It should be a wakeup call to the organization just where its problems are that, just this last Sunday, Vargas became the first Angels starter to record an out in the seventh inning.
So, once again, the old adage is proved true: Good pitching beats good hitting every day of the week, and solid pitching is the cornerstone of a successful franchise. The Angels will, without a doubt, eventually feature the prolific offense that was promised this offseason. But will it be enough to overcome a questionable rotation and already-sizable deficits to Oakland and Texas?