There just weren’t enough Mike Trouts on hand to make the Angels a playoff team in 2015.
Trout has been transcendent this season, as much as ever. You’ve probably heard a lot about how close the AL MVP race is, but BP’s numbers don’t see it that way. Trout put up a .352 True Average this year, and 9.9 WARP. (Josh Donaldson comes in at .325 and 7.6, respectively.) I won’t attempt, here, to add to the literature on the remarkable ability of Trout to make adjustments, change his game in radical ways, and still dominate opponents in multiple facets, but it’s worth noting. The Angels went as far as Trout could carry them this season, and no further.
Part of that was by design. Now-departed GM Jerry Dipoto certainly didn’t know he was building a team that would finish fifth in MLB in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, but 21st in True Average, when he spent yet another winter shopping for young pitching. If he had known Josh Hamilton would need to be jettisoned for nothing and replaced by whatever was lying around, for instance, his decisions to trade Hank Conger and Howie Kendrick for Nick Tropeano and Andrew Heaney would have been much tougher. Since he didn’t know that, though, Dipoto made those deals, with his focus fixed on the future of a franchise that hadn’t thought about the future in far too long.
The Angels had to limp by, thin in all areas, because they had neither the minor- nor the major-league depth to cover holes like the one left by Hamilton’s ugly departure, or those made temporarily by (predictable) injuries to aging players. That certainly hadn’t been Dipoto’s hope, but he didn’t want to give back the small gains he was making in long-term sustainability, and Arte Moreno didn’t seem inclined to make things easier for him.
Dipoto, though, wasn’t the one who decided to bench Chris Iannetta. In the middle of a season in which Iannetta established himself as a very good framer (10.4 runs added), Scioscia benched him in favor of average framer and worse hitter Carlos Perez (1.5 runs added). From mid-May onward, Iannetta hit .211/.321/.407, while Perez hit .250/.306/.341. Perez started 67 games; Iannetta started 59. It’s true that an Iannetta slump prompted the benching, but it’s at least as true that a good manager works good players out of slumps, instead of marginalizing them because of one.
Nor was it Dipoto who made the poor decisions that cost the Angels their shot at the playoffs on Sunday. Tropeano should have started what turned out to be the Angels’ final game. He was on full rest, after having a brilliant start (his best, by far) Tuesday against the A’s. He was in the Angels rotation for barely a quarter of the season, but he actually impressed while he was there, and if the team was going to go anywhere, it was eventually going to do so behind Tropeano. Scioscia chose to give the ball to his ace, Garrett Richards, on three days' rest, and in fairness, Richards was as well prepared for that assignment as just about any pitcher can be, in this day and age. That is to say, he made 18 of his previous 31 starts this season on four days’ rest. That probably sounds like lousy preparation for pitching on three, and it is, but with many pitchers starting just about as often on long rest as on regular rest these days, it constitutes a workhorse’s regimen. The fact is that no pitcher can be expected to perform at his normal levels on three days’ rest in modern baseball. That doesn’t mean no pitcher ever will—and indeed, Richards performed admirably, though not sufficiently well, on Sunday. It’s merely to say that, given the way teams prepare and deploy their starters in 2015, there are vanishingly few instances in which sending an ace on short rest is the right call. This certainly wasn’t one of them.
I’m not sure if there’s a name for the fallacy to which Scioscia fell victim by forgetting that he would need both Richards and Tropeano to pitch well in order to extend his season even as far as the Wild Card game, but there ought to be. Even if the Angels had beaten the Rangers, and even given the Astros’ loss in Phoenix, Scioscia’s club still had a tiebreaker with Houston left to determine who would get a one-game shot at the Yankees in New York. There was no avoiding Tropeano as an integral part of the team going anywhere, but Scioscia still felt it necessary to use Richards first—weakening the duo in the aggregate.
He almost got away with that mistake, too. He might have, even, if he hadn’t compounded that error with another by letting Richards face the Rangers’ lineup a third time on Sunday. Richards had limped through the first inning, throwing 32 pitches and giving back half of the two-run lead Albert Pujols’ home run had given him. He got it together a bit from there, but still, he’d faced exactly 18 batters and made 79 pitches through four innings. That may not have been what Scioscia hoped for from Richards prior to the game, but it was what he got, and it needed to be enough.
It wasn’t, of course, and the Angels paid the price. Scioscia left Richards in, Richards gave up the Adrian Beltre two-run home run that gave Texas a lead, and the injury-thinned bullpen imploded two innings later to put an end to things. Fernando Salas, a perfectly good little middle-innings stopper who had thrown just three pitches Saturday and none on Friday, never saw action on Sunday. Neither did Trevor Gott, perhaps the co-closer for the final week of the season.
Of course, Scioscia might have been saving Salas and Gott for late-inning work. He didn’t have a lot to go on, that way. Joe Smith was available, because in a game like that one, everyone is available, but Scioscia probably badly wanted to avoid using him. (Smith threw 12 pitches Friday night and 20 more Saturday.) Huston Street’s injury left the ninth inning an utter question mark. It was Andrew Heaney’s throw day, but using Heaney would have meant, if the team were so lucky as to reach the Wild Card Game at Yankee Stadium, using Jered Weaver on short rest there. Mat Latos likely wasn’t available, having thrown 34 pitches Saturday, and anyway, Latos has been borderline unusable for the last few months.
The grand twist here is that while Scioscia made the wrong choices, the right ones probably only would have delayed the inevitable, and maybe not by more than an inning or two.
Has it all been worth it? Surely, the Angels feel rotten about missing their chance to extend their season. They were able to push it to the last day, though, and in the process, Dipoto’s willingness to trade a little bit of today for a better tomorrow showed some promise. (Heaney, of course, if the prime example.) The cupboard isn’t as bare as it was a year or two ago. Maybe this season was a needed year of consolidation, and the fact that they so nearly made it to the playoffs (despite sub-.500 first-, second- and third-order winning percentages) was just a happy coincidence. Maybe they should feel good about having come so close, not bad about falling just short.
I’m offering that possibility, but I don’t believe that. I’m sure Angels fans will welcome and hold some optimism for new GM Billy Eppler, and it’s some comfort that the team’s mid-season acquisitions (such as they were) didn’t dent the farm system. Still, what we know for sure is that they lost their GM in an ugly way, and that GM was well respected, and he now works for a division rival. He was chased out by a manager who looks to be getting farther and farther from his strategic senses. They just squandered decent seasons by Pujols and David Freese—seasons that were of real value but showed real cracks in the molding, seasons that might never be matched by either player again. They still owe mounds of money to Pujols, C.J. Wilson, and Jered Weaver next season, none of which looks like very good money, and they also have to keep paying Hamilton to provide modest value to the Rangers. Most troublingly, they’ve gotten four straight Hall of Fame-caliber seasons from Trout, and still haven't won a playoff game, let along playoff series, with him. It should have been one of the easiest possible things to do, building a playoff team around a cost-controlled MVP, but they’ve failed to do it, and now they have the tougher task of building around an expensive MVP.
Yes, Scioscia had only unattractive options for slogging through Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, and though he made the wrong choices, he can’t be faulted for the Angels’ exit on that basis. At the end of another bad year under bad ownership and with a good leader gone over to the opposition, though, Scioscia should face a whole lot of genuine criticism for his mishandling of this team, on the field and off.
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