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August 18, 2011

The BP Broadside

While Scioscia Slept

by Steven Goldman

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That popping sound you heard out of Anaheim this week was not the closing fireworks at Disneyland, but the sound of the air escaping from a divisional race. The Angels were just two games behind the Rangers after beating the Blue Jays at Toronto on Friday, but since have dropped five straight, including three against the Rangers at home. In the first three games of the four-game series, the Angels were outscored 19-10, scoring four, three, and three runs, respectively.

Some of the letdown in the Rangers series has been bad timing; the Angels opened the four-game set on the back end of their rotation, so the rookies Garret Richards and Tyler Chatwood (who may moonlight as a character in a Jane Austen novel) started the first two games, a problem compounded by Richards straining his groin and departing after just two-thirds of an inning. Ervin Santana pitched and lost Wednesday, while Jered Weaver will complete the series, but should the Angels salvage the series’ final contest, trimming one game off of what is now a seven-game deficit will hardly have much impact.

This state of affairs, in which the Angels failed to take hold of a winnable race, is attributable to the lack of flexibility on the part of manager Mike Scioscia and a strange passivity on the part of general manager Tony Reagins and owner Artie Moreno. I don’t want to beat on the Jeff Mathis issue too much given that it’s so glaringly obvious, but you can’t escape the fact that what was until recently a close race was shaped by Scioscia’s choice of backstop/suicide weapon. Mathis, Hank Conger, and Bobby Wilson total up to -0.3 WARP this season. The Angels have often been within a couple of games of the Rangers, a space exactly the dimensions of the better catcher that the Angels don’t have—and/or Mike Napoli.

The historian Barbara Tuchman’s book The March of Folly concerns the “pursuit of policy contrary to self-interest.” According to Tuchman’s schema, in order to qualify as “folly or perversity” a policy “must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, and not merely by hindsight” and “a feasible alternative course of action must have been available.” Both conditions are met by the decision to embrace Mathis. More, Tuchman identifies “wooden-headedness, the source of self deception”:

It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts. It is epitomized in a historian’s statement about Phillip II of Spain, the surpassing wooden-head of all sovereigns: “No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.”

Hey, Mike Scioscia, if the King Phillip fits, wear him—it takes a peculiarly stubborn mind to fail to recognize that even the greatest defensive glove cannot hope to make up for such massive offensive deficiencies—but that’s not the only problem. There are other strangely uncorrected flaws in this year’s operation. On Sunday, the Angels took themselves out of the top of the ninth inning in a tie game when a Mark Trumbo grounder with one out and Bobby Abreu on third resulted in a bizarre double-rundown that ended with Abreu out between third and home and Trumbo out between first and second. While this was an unusual play, it is not wholly uncharacteristic of Angels baserunning, which has been noted for a certain sloppiness this year. Our team baserunning report shows them as a middle-of-the-road team when running, with negatives in both the stolenbase and advancing on air outs opportunities.

As of the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline, the Angels were just two games behind the Rangers. They had then the same problems they have now: an offense that has scored just 3.9 runs per game, tied for second-to-last in the league, a shaky young closer who needs assistance, and a starting rotation that has a wonderful top three but is having a hard time coping with the failures of Joel Pineiro and Scott Kazmir to perform given the inconsistency of their rookie replacements.  And, of course, there was the matter of obtaining a catcher who satisfied Scioscia’s perverse defensive priorities while also occasionally putting good wood on the ball. Yet, the Angels did not make a move.

The Angels have often been profligate off-season spenders only to pull up short when it came time to seal the deal. Back in the late 1970s and early 80s, Don Baylor arguing with management to bolster the team was an annual July tradition.  Their failure to do so led to embarrassments such as Jim Fregosi losing playoff games with the likes of Chris Knapp and John Montague. It was not a trading season overly deep in talent, nor is the Angels system drowning in top prospects once you get past Mike Trout, who was no doubt untouchable, and properly so. Despite this, teams with more remote chances than the Angels were able to make acquisitions.

Mike Scioscia has had a long and successful tenure in Anaheim, and has replaced Gene Mauch as the franchise’s iconic manager. Now, it seems as if the old boy may be suffering from hardening of the arteries; any manager who refuses to act when a player’s deficiencies are so apparent is problematic, as is a manager-general manager dynamic in which the latter will not push the former to replace that player by providing him with an unassailable alternative. Having not done that much, Reagins chose not to do anything at all. That the Angels made not even a token gesture on behalf of a club that was so close was a stunning gesture of surrender that has now been fulfilled in their current losing streak. That they meekly ducked out of the room at the same moment their opponent was adding the two most desirable relievers on the market in Mike Adams and Koji Uehara shows that only one side was playing to win.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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