The Angels Have Two of the League’s Best Players. Why Do They Still Suck?

You'd think a team with Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth could make the playoffs

angels stink
The Angels have one of the largest payrolls in the league, but haven't made the playoffs since 2014.
Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Yesterday, with the Los Angeles Angels down to their final out in a chaotic, back-and-forth game against the first-place Boston Red Sox, Shohei Ohtani wrapped a two-run blast around the Pesky Pole. The Angels took a 6-5 lead, and went on to close out the Sox in the bottom of the ninth.

It was a rare result — not Ohtani’s theatrics (or the effort of his teammate Mike Trout to get on base just before him), but that the Angels actually walked away with a victory. They’re currently fourth in the AL West, slotted in the bottom third of most experts’ power rankings, and expected to miss the playoffs. FanGraphs puts their postseason hopes at about 21.6%, similar to a team like the Cincinnati Reds or the Cleveland Indians.

But the Angels aren’t the Reds or the Indians, two “retooling” teams that frequently trade away star players, don’t bother taking meetings with big-time free agents and currently rank in the bottom half of the league for payroll. (The Indians, in fact, rank dead last.) The Angels play in one of the country’s biggest markets and will pay out $183 million this year, a top-five payroll in MLB. On top of Ohtani and Trout, they also have third baseman Anthony Rendon, who has placed in the top 10 for MVP voting four years in a row.

What gives, then? Why can’t the Angels consistently win ballgames? Well, if you’re Mike Trout, you’ve probably been asking yourself that question for the last decade. The 29-year old already has three MVPs and more accumulated WAR than Derek Jeter, Paul Molitor and Johnny Bench. He’ll likely pass Joe DiMaggio, Nolan Ryan and possibly even Ken Griffey Jr. this year, on his way to another top-three MVP finish. His Baseball Reference page is covered in “black ink” (a term baseball nerds like to throw around, describing the boldface used to signify a player led the league in a certain category), and you wouldn’t find a player, manager or executive alive who doesn’t think he’s the best baseball player on the planet.

But during his tenure with the Angels, Trout has just played in one playoff series — an ALDS loss to the Kansas City Royals. And that was seven years ago. Ohtani has now inherited the franchise’s winless ways. While not the best player in the game, the “Japanese Babe Ruth” is its most exciting. Now in his fourth year in the bigs, Ohtani has finally put his injuries to rest and managed to stay on the field. Yesterday it was a clutch, booming home run. Last week he struck out 10 Houston Astros over seven innings. The two-way talent that was promised has firmly, finally arrived.

But until the Angels round out their ballclub, Ohtani and Trout (and Rendon, somewhat — he isn’t playing well to start this year) seem destined for the Instagram highlight reel, while the team as a unit continues to beef up the loss column. The Angels currently have an abysmal run differential of -47, which ranks 29th out of 30 teams. A bad run differential means one of two things: you don’t score enough runs, or you let up too many. The Angels rank 12th in the league for runs scored, at 4.44 a game, which is decent. The problem is their pitching. They’ve allowed 10 or more runs six times already this year and seem to give up somewhere around seven on a nightly basis.

That puts tremendous pressure on the Angels hitters, and especially for guys like Trout or Ohtani, who pitchers will prefer to pitch around when possible. The Angels’ “earned run against” this year is last in MLB, at 5.18. And that’s not even close to the 29th-ranked team, the Colorado Rockies, who sit at 4.93. This is a collective group effort, from the starting pitchers to the bullpen, to give up lots of runs. The lone pitcher who has performed admirably for the Angels this year is Ohtani (surprise, surprise). After five outings on the hill, his ERA sits at a lights-out 2.10.

Ultimately, this is a worthy reminder that baseball is the ultimate team sport. Yes, Trout is Mickey Mantle reincarnate, but in order to win seven World Series rings, Mantle needed the help of Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford and Phil Rizzuto. And even with Ohtani doing the most any man could to help a team win (he’s leading MLB in home runs, and is now the unquestioned ace of the Angel’s pitching staff), there are days where the bullpen is going to give up three runs in the eighth inning, and he won’t be able to do anything about it. The Angels will make it back to October eventually, but for the foreseeable future, the game’s two most exciting players will be stuck in the summer.

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