Angels being Angels

Baseball in the time of COVID
(Writing time: 30 minutes)

So you should know that this week is pure madness for me. On Friday, we are launching another nationwide make-the-world-a-better-place campaign, much like the amazing Tip Your Cap to the Negro Leagues campaign we were a part of last month. Only this one (and I never would have believed this possible) is many times more complicated than Tip Your Cap.

This campaign also (and I wouldn’t have believed this either) might be even richer. I will wait until Friday for the details but let’s just say that we are celebrating another great American centennial and we are doing everything in our power — and I mean every minute of every day — to make this one special and unifying and uplifting and inspiring.

We launched Tip Your Cap with the four living former U.S. Presidents. That was pretty good, right? This one — well, there’s still so much work left to do and so many details to finalize. But I’m hoping it will blow your minds.

I mention all this because, alas, baseball will have to take the backseat this week. I don’t think I’ll be able to get back to these “Baseball in the time of COVID” essays for at least a few days. So before I disappear for a little while, I did want to talk about the agony of Mike Trout’s Angels.

You know, the Angels were pretty close to a model franchise in the 2000s. They went to the playoffs six times from 2002 to 2009, reached three American League Championship Series and won a World Series. And they did this mostly without stars. Yes, their featured player was the incredible and lovable Vlad Guerrero, who won an MVP award and finished third two other times in that span. But the rest of the lineup was generally made up of good, solid players — Chone Figgins, Adam Kennedy, Garret Anderson, Darin Erstad, Howie Kendrick, Torii Hunter, Kendrys Morales, David Eckstein and so on.

And the rotation? It was John Lackey … and other guys. Jarrod Washburn. Ramon Ortiz. Kelvin Escobar. Jered Weaver came on toward the end of the run. Kevin Appier was in there for a little while. K-Rod closed the door.

The philosophy of those Angels seemed to be: Have useful players at every position. it’s not the flashiest plan in the world, but it can be really effective.

Then Vlad Guerrero left and the team immediately became mediocre and panic seemed to creep in.

In 2012, the Angels changed their whole makeup. They signed Albert Pujols to a 13 bajillion dollar deal (I don’t have time to look up the details — I only have 30 minutes to write this) and they also signed C.J. Wilson for a few bajillion dollars too and the next year they signed Josh Hamilton for several bajillion dollars too.

That year, 2012, also happened to be the year that a kid named Mike Trout exploded on the scene.

So you had two things happening at the same time — 1. The Angels, having run out of ideas, tried to take every shortcut imaginable to build a winner and 2. The best player in baseball dropped into their laps.

This has led to some painful contrasts. The Angels had one year, 2014, when things sort of came together. They led the league in runs scored in 2014 as Hamilton and Pujols squeezed out the last bit of offense greatness they had and Trout, at 22, won his first MVP award. But the Angels promptly got swept by a Kansas City team that had useful players at every position, and that was the end of that. Hamilton was out of baseball. Pujols has a grand total of 3.6 WAR over the five-plus seasons since then.

The Angels had almost nothing in the minors, so they had no ability to build a rotation or position depth. So they kept on taking pretty big-money flyers on veterans like Justin Upton and Andrelton Simmons and Zack Cosart and Ian Kinsler and Trevor Cahill and Matt Harvey and so on. Some worked out better than others. They won the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes.

And all the while, Mike Trout pushed his game higher and higher and higher while playing for hopelessly mediocre teams.

This season is obviously a complete anomaly, and there’s no telling how things will shake out in such odd conditions. But it’s interesting that, even over a tiny sample size, the Angels are playing to form. They went big-game hunting again in the off-season, landing Anthony Rendon. Trout has been as good or better than ever — he has seven homers in 13 games.

And the Angels are still 6-11, the worst record in the American League. Sure, it’s only a few games, it doesn’t mean much, but it’s so striking how the Angels repeatedly manage to do Angels things.

Rendon is hitting .143 and is off to the worst start of his career. Pujols is hitting .170 and it’s just so sad to watch. Upton is hitting .122.

And yet the Angels STILL lead the American League in runs scored because Trout.

And yet the Angels STILL have a 6-11 record because their pitching staff is a mess.

What’s the point? There is no point, really, other than to say that it’s hard to watch the Angels waste the incredibleness of Mike Trout. There have been other hard-luck players through the years — most famously Ernie Banks. But the player I think of is Barry Sanders. I don’t think there has ever been a better pure runner than Barry Sanders, and he never reached a Super Bowl, never even came close to a Super Bowl, and it was agonizing watching the Lions cough and wheeze and repeatedly fail to figure out how to build a championship team around him.

If anything, it’s even more painful with Trout because Sanders did have at least some vulnerabilities as a running back — he was not great in short-yardage, he was not a great pass receiver, etc. — while Trout has no obvious vulnerabilities. He’s the best player in baseball, year after year after year, and yet every year the Angels spin their tires in the mud. It doesn’t matter how many new cars they buy, they still don’t know how to get out of that mud.