The Angels are Floundering

Can the Angels bounce back from their slow start to the 2020 season?

In my division preview for the AL West before the start of the 60-game season, I was cautiously optimistic about the Angels chances of making the playoffs. I even predicted that they would finish with the same record as the Oakland A’s (32-28, .533 Win%) and the A’s are making me look quite silly with their 16-6 start to the season. Joe Maddon’s Angels have not helped me out all that much starting the year off 7-15. Under the new playoff format, FanGraphs had the Angels’ playoff probability at 57.4% and in just 23 games they’ve dropped all the way down to 25.9%. In a regular season, 22 games represents only 14.1% of the season, but in a 60-game season, it’s more than a third of the year. Suffice it to say, the Angels have not looked good so far this season but is there a chance for them to turn it around?

 

The Struggle So Far

 

Over the last couple of years, it has been key players missing time due to injuries that have kept the team from contending for a wild card spot. This season Mike Trout missed a couple of games when his wife Jessica gave birth to their first child. Anthony Rendon started the season on the bench with an oblique injury, but Rendon and Trout have both played in 19 of the Angels’ 23 games. The only Angel with more PA than the pair of stars is David Fletcher, who has built on his breakout 2019 season by posting better numbers at the plate while providing excellent defense all over the field.

Player wRC+ fWAR
Mike Trout 170 0.9
Anthony Rendon 161 1.2
David Fletcher 130 1.0

 

Despite the success of those three position players, there have been some significant problems when it comes to injuries for the Angels. The best defensive shortstop in baseball, Andrelton Simmons, has only played in four games so far. That’s forced David Fletcher to play the majority of his time at shortstop when ideally, he would be playing most of his time as Simmons’ double play partner at second base. Fletcher has a plus glove at short, but the gap between anyone and Andrelton Simmons will be massive.

Arguably the biggest disappointment so far for the Angels has been two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani. Following his recovery from Tommy John surgery, Ohtani was expected to lead the Angels rotation and contribute to the deadliest middle of the lineup in baseball. Ohtani pitched in two games and looked more like a position player pitching than what he was expected to be. In his first outing in Oakland, his velocity was down and he did not record a single out while giving up three hits and walking three hitters. This was not surprising after Ohtani struggled on the mound mightily in intrasquad games before the year. His next start at home against the Astros was better, but not by much. He got through 1.2 innings with three strikeouts, but he walked five hitters. The next day the Angels announced Ohtani would miss 4-6 weeks with an elbow/forearm strain.

This essentially ended Ohtani’s season as a pitcher and we will have to wait once again to potentially see a full season of two-way Ohtani. His struggles as a pitcher were by far the most obvious deviation from the team’s preseason projections. Steamer had Ohtani starting seven games for the Angels and posting 41 innings with a 3.67 ERA and an 11.12 K/9. That performance would accumulate to roughly 1 fWAR and that is before adding in his production at the plate.

Speaking of Ohtani at the plate, he has been able to hit through his elbow strain but has been roughly league average while playing in 18 of the Angels games and posting a 96 wRC+. This element of Ohtani’s game is primed for a turnaround as his BABIP so far is .214. In his two seasons before 2020, it was .350 and .354.  This coincides with an extreme discrepancy between his wOBA and his xwOBA. He has still launched four home runs and has been hitting the ball hard — his 96.2 mph exit velocity on balls in the air is well above the league average 92.9. The ball just has not been dropping in for him this season unless it leaves the field.

After losing Ohtani’s arm in the rotation, LA’s rotation depth took a real blow but they did appear to feel they’d need to supplement the group  offseason because of IL stints. Specifically, the addition of Dylan Bundy has been one of the best transactions of the offseason. Alex Fast detailed Bundy’s transformation into an ace this so I highly recommend checking out his piece if you want to read a deeper dive. Throughout his 2020 campaign, Bundy has posted a 1.57 ERA and a 2.23 FIP through four starts and 28.2 IP. Joining him atop the Angels rotation is Andrew Heaney, who has a 4.74 ERA through 24.2 IP and five starts, but he has a career-low 2.73 FIP in 2020. This is likely due to his uncharacteristically low HR/FB rate (4.2% in 2020 versus a 15.1% career) which might be a sign that Heaney is a regression candidate. After him, there’s Patrick Sandoval and Griffin Canning, who haven’t looked as sharp as they did in parts of 2019. Overall, Angels starters have posted a 5.09 ERA, which is the third-worst in the American League and eighth worst in baseball.

Like a lot of teams in 2020, the Angels bullpen has seen a high volume of innings after their starters have struggled. They rank only behind the Rays and Red Sox in that department, which makes sense considering the Rays’ general strategy with deploying their bullpen, and how the Red Sox hired Chaim Bloom away from Tampa Bay to run the team. Felix Pena and Matt Andriese have seen long work out of the bullpen when starters like Ohtani struggled to make it out of the early innings. Hansel Robles, the breakout star of their 2019 bullpen, has not been lighting it up as he did last year. His peripherals and strikeout-to-walk numbers are looking like he should have seen better numbers, but it really is hard to look at his 10.13 ERA and say that something has been going well. There has not been anyone who has stood out to fill his role in the closer spot, but Ty Buttrey has been solid and should take over high leverage situations for the Angels moving forward.

In such a small sample of games it’s easy to look at the team’s schedule and see how losing three of the four extra inning games they have played sticks out. With the new extra innings rules, it’s also easy to see those three losses flipping to wins, and then suddenly, we are having a different conversation about how well the Angels have played. This can be coupled with the Angels having played the third-most difficult schedule in the AL so far this season. The rest of their schedule should be much easier since their remaining opponents currently have a combined winning percentage of .480, which could help them to make a run towards a postseason spot.

The Angels certainly have the talent to do it but they will need to see some dramatic turnarounds from some of the players mentioned above. The pieces are in place and if Joe Maddon would stop playing Albert Pujols so much, that could be a step in the right direction. It is also important to remember that in such a small sample of games, any team that gets hot can make a run at one of the playoff spots. The Angels could be a deadly force down the line. It’s hard not to believe brighter days are ahead of them.

 

Featured image by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Instagram)

Joseph Garino

Joseph graduated from Marquette University in 2021 with a degree in Analytics and Economics. He's been an Angels fan since the days of Vlad Sr. and is looking to present complex analytical concepts in a digestible manner.

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