They've got Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, but inconsistencies holding Angels back
Having players like Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout should make the Angels better. For the most part, they do.
Fans watched Ohtani drive in eight of 11 runs against the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday, then shut out the same team and strike out a career-high 13 in eight innings Wednesday.
They watched as Trout hit four game-winning home runs in a five-game series in Seattle.
Angels interim manager Phil Nevin said Trout and Ohtani lead the clubhouse by example.
“Their teammates follow them,” Nevin said. “When they go, the team goes. It’s uplifting.”
Yet, at this juncture of the season, the Angels are 34-38. They are third in the American League West, 11 games out of first place and five games back of a wild-card spot at the start of Thursday.
When the Angels beat the Texas Rangers on May 24, they were 27-17 and a game behind the Houston Astros in the division. They then lost a franchise-record 14 games in a row.
During the skid, Trout went seven for 46 with two home runs and four RBIs. Ohtani was nine for 47 with two home runs and four RBIs.
“There’s ebbs and flows to the season. Guys get hot at different points in time,” Angels general manager Perry Minasian said Monday. “I think we saw it in Seattle when we played clean games for the most part. … And I think as long as that continues, we’ll be able to stay in games and I think our offense is better than it shows.”
But these Angels have an obvious inconsistency tied to the win-loss column. Unless they get back on a solid hot streak again, their rise in the early season will look like another blip in Angels history by October.
“You’re thinking as the whole night goes, you’re gonna get back into it,” Nevin said of a recent loss. “Truth be told, we needed to score a few more runs tonight and we didn’t.”
Unfortunately for the Angels, that has been a recurring theme.
Their lineup, despite some fun highlights and games — like their Wednesday win on the night the team celebrated the 20th anniversary of its 2002 World Series championship — is thin. The Angels went into their off day Thursday ranked 21st in the majors in batting average (.237) and 22nd in on-base percentage (.305), per Fangraphs.
Anthony Rendon, their All-Star third baseman, wasn’t putting up his 2019 numbers — when he hit .319 with a 1.010 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and won the World Series with the Washington Nationals — and, because of injuries, hasn’t delivered on his seven-year, $245-million deal. Out for the season after wrist surgery, Rendon hit .228 with five home runs in 45 games.
David Fletcher, their starting shortstop, has been out since early May after having surgery to repair adductor muscles in both legs and an abdominal muscle.
Taylor Ward, their starting right fielder who had the best OBP (.481) in the majors between April 16 and June 24, returned from his stint on the injured list just last week and has been slowly finding his way back.
The Angels’ power lineup of Ward, Ohtani, Trout and Rendon saw about half a game together since Ward and Rendon (briefly) returned from the injured list this month. The bottom of the lineup hasn't been able to consistently keep up.
Andrew Velazquez, who has had most of the starts at shortstop with Fletcher out, is an above-average fielder but is batting .178 with a .223 OBP. Luis Rengifo, their main second baseman, is hitting .214 with a .267 OBP, and before Wednesday night did not have an RBI in 17 games (56 at-bats). Brandon Marsh, their left fielder who has a penchant for unbelievable catches, has the third-highest strikeout percentage (.338) in baseball, with just 10 hits and four RBIs in June.
Matt Duffy, who has been filling in at third for Rendon, is batting .266. Jared Walsh, who earned his first All-Star selection last season, isn’t where he was at a similar point last year. Max Stassi, their primary catcher, and Kurt Suzuki, the backup, have contributed a combined 22 RBIs this season. Tyler Wade, known for his speed as evidenced by the amount of times he’s asked to pinch-run, has eight hits in 41 at-bats this month.
In June, the Angels have the highest strikeout rate (25.6%) in the majors, per Fangraphs. By comparison, the first-place Astros are among the best (19.6%). The Angels also have among the worst rates of called strikes and whiffs.
Another inconsistency for the Angels: pitching.
Tuesday night, for example, not even Ohtani’s bat (he homered twice) was enough to compete with a visibly exhausted bullpen — except for closer Raisel Iglesias, who has pitched phenomenally through June minus one game — that allowed the Royals to keep pulling ahead even after the Angels twice tied the score.
“It seems like since we’ve been in this rough patch, we’ve found just about every way to lose games, it seems like, which makes it tough,” left-handed reliever Aaron Loup, who gave up one run and three hits Tuesday, said after that loss. “Sooner or later, you have to think we’ll put things together and things will go our way at some point.”
The Angels lost two of three to the 25-43 Royals in part because their pitchers struggled to keep runners off the bases.
Their starting pitching isn’t terrible, but collectively it also hasn't been good enough.
Ohtani has a 2.90 ERA, second lowest among the starters to Patrick Sandoval’s 2.70. Sandoval also has six starts in which he pitched six or more innings with three or fewer earned runs — MLB’s definition of a quality start.
Noah Syndergaard is pitching his first full season after sitting out all of the shortened 2020 season and all but two relief innings in 2021, in recovery from Tommy John surgery. He has had four quality starts of 11 this season. Michael Lorenzen has the same number of wins and losses as Ohtani, but touts a 4.15 ERA.
Reid Detmers, who threw a no-hitter on May 10, was optioned to triple-A Salt Lake — joining Jose Suarez, who was optioned on June 19 — after giving up five runs and five hits in five innings Wednesday.
Their relievers, as a group, are spent, as evidenced by Tuesday’s small sample size of their struggles. It certainly wasn’t their only such situation of not being able to hold their own, but the relievers have been working on fewer days of rest between their starts, and the cracks in the bullpen have become only bigger.
Loup finished his 2021 season with the New York Mets with one of the lowest ERAs (0.95) in baseball, giving up six earned runs in 56 2/3 innings. In 13 games between May 21 and June 21 this season, he was charged with 10 runs earned, 15 hits and six walks. Archie Bradley has an ERA of 4.76.
Stats aside, one just has to listen to Ohtani to know where the Angels stand.
“It was decided Iggy wouldn’t pitch, so from the start I was thinking I wanted to pitch as long as possible,” Ohtani said in Japanese, referring to Iglesias, after Wednesday’s game. ”I imagined it would be a low-scoring game, so I was conscious of not giving up any runs.”
Ohtani also went on to explain that he thought he could pitch into the ninth inning of Wednesday’s game if he were able to induce quick, easy outs in the eighth, and that without Trout, who was having a scheduled rest day, he expected a low-scoring offense.
More will be needed to prove this season’s early success was more than a fluke. Certainly more than Ohtani and Trout can provide.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.