When the Angels originally assembled for the 2020 season in February, the team’s biggest strength was its offense.
The lineup featured star Mike Trout, not even a month removed from accepting his third MVP trophy. It included a fully healthy Shohei Ohtani for the first time since 2018.
And between them stood Anthony Rendon, fresh off winning the 2019 World Series with the Washington Nationals and signing a $245 million contract to play in Anaheim for seven years.
Fast forward six months, past the shutdown of spring training and the monthslong hiatus caused by the coronavirus outbreak. The three players still make up the core of the Angels’ batting order. And they’re producing vastly different results for a team that ranks among the worst in offensive production.
Trout homered four times in the first four games he played after becoming a dad and has a .928 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. Ohtani is hitting the ball in the air again but is striking out more than ever.
Then there’s Rendon, off to the worst 12-game start of his career. As his hitless streak stretched to 28 plate appearances in Sunday’s 7-3 loss to the Texas Rangers, Rendon’s batting average dropped to .103.
During six years as a fixture in the Nationals lineup, the only time Rendon batted worse than .265 through 12 games was in 2017.
This season, Rendon has four hits in 39 at-bats, including a double and a homer, and he has struck out 12 times. The bright spot in his batting line: 14 walks.
Rendon is the only Angel with at least 50 plate appearances batting below .260 besides Justin Upton, who was moved into a platoon last week.
Manager Joe Maddon doesn’t think Rendon is feeling pressure to live up to his contract, the largest free-agent deal awarded by owner Arte Moreno.
“He’s got that slow heartbeat,” Maddon said, referring to Rendon’s trademark calmness at the plate. “He looks the same to me.”
Rather, Maddon suspects the tepid beginning of Rendon’s Angels career might be due to the off-and-on nature of the 2020 season.
“I’m watching his work and it looks good,” Maddon said. “You talk to Anthony, there's no BS. It's straight up all the time and it would be hard for him to hide his feelings. So he's feeling better. I know the results aren't there yet. …. He's still accepting his walks, which I really love. He's not necessarily expanding. He's only just missing his pitch.”
There is credence to the idea that Rendon needs only to tweak his timing at the plate. Rendon is striking the ball at a launch angle of 26.9 degrees. Generally, a launch angle between 25 and 30 degrees is correlated with improved power numbers — but only if the hitter is able to connect the barrel of his bat with the ball. Rendon has struggled to find that sweet spot.
Maddon said late last week that Angels hitting coaches brought a solution to Rendon’s attention but he did not elaborate. Whatever it was, the suggestion did not help the Angels avoid a series sweep by the Rangers.
Rendon struck out in three of his nine at-bats in Arlington, Texas. He worked multiple deep counts. The six pitches he put in play were handled easily by defenders. Only one — Sunday’s sixth-inning fly ball to center field that advanced base runner Ohtani, who doubled in front of Rendon and eventually scored the Angels’ third run — traveled beyond the infield.
Hours earlier, the Angels redistributed the bats in the lineup to avoid stacking the four left-handed hitters who started Sunday’s series finale. Rendon ended up fifth in the batting order for the first time since 2017.
The move did little to change the Angels’ fortunes. They were hitless in eight at-bats with runners in scoring position. They left nine on base.
The problems extend beyond Rendon. But he’s a key piece of the puzzle Maddon believes the Angels will properly assemble.
“We have not put our whole game together yet,” he said. “And that's a part of why I feel pretty good about it.”