While the Dodgers embark on their eighth consecutive postseason run 30 miles away from Angel Stadium, Angels owner Arte Moreno will spend at least part of October shuffling through resumes. Moreno fired general manager Billy Eppler on Sunday after the team finished with a losing record for a fifth consecutive year.
The pandemic-shortened season was built in such a way that three teams with playoff droughts of longer than 10 years earned entry into the postseason. Even the rebuilding Seattle Mariners came close. But the Angels failed to crack the expanded field and missed the playoffs for the sixth year in a row.
The Angels surged in September to keep themselves mathematically involved in the race but the effort came too late. The team was eliminated from contention Friday. They finished 26-34 in manager Joe Maddon's first year.
The Angels had quietly given Eppler an extension through the 2021 season in July. But years of October irrelevance cemented Eppler’s ouster.
“The Angels organization would like to thank Billy for his dedication and work ethic over the last five years," said Angels president John Carpino in a news release. "We wish him and his family all the best."
Eppler, 45, flexed some might during a tenure tarnished by significant pitching injuries, free-agent busts and the overdose death of talented starter Tyler Skaggs. Within the first two months of taking the job, he dealt Erick Aybar and pitching prospects to the Atlanta Braves for elite shortstop Andrelton Simmons and began setting up the franchise’s first full-time analytics staff. When the Angels found themselves on the outskirts of the playoff race with one month to go in 2017, he swung a deal for outfielder Justin Upton. He made Shohei Ohtani comfortable enough with the inner workings of the Angels to convince the two-way player to choose Anaheim for his first stop out of Japan.
More recently, Eppler and his staff convinced Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon sufficient talent was coming up in the farm system to sign both to long-term contracts. And he swapped four minor leaguers for two seasons of Dylan Bundy, the right-hander who led the rotation in wins (six) and ERA (3.29).
But his teams underperformed, going 332-376 since his first season in 2016. The Angels began the abbreviated 2020 season with an American League-worst 12-24 record.
Ineffective pitching staffs doomed the Angels each year. Before giving up five runs in a shutout by the Dodgers on Sunday, Angels pitchers had posted a combined 4.49 ERA since Eppler took over. The figured ranked 20th of 30 teams. The 4.76 ERA compiled by starters was the seventh-highest in that span.
Futility wasn’t limited to the mound. The lineup supplied offense at a below-average rate in each of Eppler’s first four seasons, averaging 97 weighted runs created-plus. A 100 wRC+ means batters produced a league-average number of runs. The Angels’ offense this year took off with Rendon protecting Trout in the lineup and late surges from Upton, Taylor Ward and Jared Walsh. As a group, Angels hitters ranked eighth with 111 wRC+.
But progress at the plate was accompanied by a step back on defense this season. Top prospect Jo Adell made the most notable gaffes but utility man David Fletcher committed six errors in 49 games, shortstop Andrelton Simmons four in 30 games and Rendon three in 52 games. Trout made no errors but his -10 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) ranked worst in baseball.
The Angels entered Sunday ranked 27th in MLB with a collective -29 DRS. In other words, fielders cost the team 29 runs more than average.
Maddon suggested mental lapses caused the bulk of the team’s defensive mishaps. He also believed the three-week training camp that followed the 3 1/2-month layoff caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was too brief.
The Angels' defensive grade worsened in the third inning Sunday when none of the three fielders who converged on Justin Turner’s popup in shallow right field caught the ball.
The Angels made the playoffs and won the division once in six years before Eppler’s arrival. During Eppler’s tenure, the team continued to toil in near-irrelevance, looking up from the bottom of the standings while the Houston Astros and Oakland Athletics topped the division.
One of Eppler’s challenges was to rebuild the team farm system without sacrificing the team’s ability to pose a threat in the American League West. He got part of the way there, drafting the likes of Griffin Canning, Adell and Reid Detmers. The progress of the farm system ultimately helped the Angels land Rendon and extend Trout.
But the Angels made too little progress for Moreno to justify keeping Eppler, who came to the Angels after 12 seasons in the New York Yankees' front office, any longer.
Now Moreno will spend the opening weeks of the offseason interviewing general manager candidates for the fourth time in 13 years. Senior advisor Tony La Russa is expected to play a key role in evaluating candidates as well. Maddon said he isn't sure how much input he will provide during the process.
The belief among baseball insiders is that Moreno seeks an experienced general manager with a background in scouting or player development. The Angels will get their first chance to address the GM search publicly in a news conference with Carpino on Wednesday morning.
"Billy and I really worked great together," Maddon said. "From the moment I met him I thought to myself, 'This is a straight up guy.' ... He is one of the most honest people I've met in this industry. Great, great talent evaluator. I love how he got here, that he started out as a scout, got in his car, drove around. He beat the bushes a bit , cut his teeth in New York and then eventually ended up on here. I have a lot of respect for how he got to this particular moment. I'm certain he's gonna land firmly on his feet."