Hey, Joe, where you goin’ with your head in your hands?

Joe Maddon

The Angels’ lack of true depth wasn’t Maddon’s fault, but . . .

Let’s see. The Phillies dumped manager Joe Girardi last Friday morning. They went on a prompt five-game winning streak under interim Rob Thomson that began with three straight against the Angels. The Angels went from there to a 1-0 loss against the resurgent (we think) Red Sox and padded their losing streak to twelve.

It meant the Angels becoming the first team in Show history to go from ten games above .500 at 27-17 to a twelve-game losing streak. It also meant manager Joe Maddon, in the final year of a three-year deal, didn’t live long enough to finish the third year beyond which the Angels hadn’t even begun talking extension or new deal.

That’s what two straight sub-.500 season finishes plus the incumbent morass does even to a three-time Manager of the Year. The Angels executed Maddon Tuesday. Third base coach Phil Nevin, formerly a twelve-year corner infielder who spent one season as an Angel before becoming a longtime coach, was handed the job on an interim basis.

“Maddon appeared to have few answers” to the Angels’ sudden twelve-game cratering after such a staggering season’s start, writes The Athletic‘s Andy McCullough.

He praised the effort of his group, though his praise grew fainter in the wake of so many defeats. Maddon never found the footing he held in prior stops in Tampa Bay and Chicago. He was hailed as a pioneer with the Rays and adored for ending a curse with the Cubs. With the Angels, though, he was just another ineffective skipper unable to get a team with Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani into the postseason. It wasn’t really his fault; the team lacked pitching depth and has been hurt by injuries. Even so, he wasn’t able to stop the skid, so the team stopped relying on him. It might not make a difference. It still shouldn’t come as a shock.

Once serving long-term as Mike Scioscia’s bench coach with the Angels, Maddon says he’d like to manage again. He won’t lack for those taking a deep look at the Angels and concluding he’s become the sacrificial lamb for a continuing failure above and beyond even still-freshman general manager Perry Minasian. Another Athletic writer, Marc Carig, has isolated the point:

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: what about the owner’s role in all of this? Arte Moreno has spent a ton of money on the big league roster in an effort to make his team a contender. That’s awesome. It’s what all of the owners should be doing. But Moreno has yet to find the right formula for building a winning culture . . . Front office turnover and, now, the firing of manager Joe Maddon shows that Moreno doesn’t seem to be any closer to building a sustainable winner. All managers know that being fired is part of the deal. This remains true even though skippers no longer occupy the same lofty perches that they once did within organizations. In this case, the Angels dismissed a manager with a World Series championship on his résumé in addition to a lengthy history with the organization. But all that experience wasn’t going to negate a dearth of arms and a banged up roster. Those issues could have only been overcome with depth, and that kind of thing falls outside of a modern manager’s purview.

There may also have been an increasing sense that Maddon was prone humanly enough to egregious mistakes but bent over in prayer at once hoping his players would bail him out. He got away with it the day he walked Corey Seager of the Rangers with the bases loaded and the Angels down; his Angels overcame a wider deficit to win at the eleventh hour. He still looked foolish for doing so.

More than all that: Maddon may have written his own execution order before last winter’s owners’ lockout ended, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney: The Angels’ administration had an idea on how to keep Trout healthier, and Maddon—whether inadvertently or carelessly—killed the idea in the proverbial crib.

The Angels wanted to talk Trout into moving from his longtime center field roost to one of the less-demanding corner outfield positions. They planned to talk to him about it once the lockout ended. The idea made sense. Trout’s past three seasons have been injury marred or injury-ended, and though he’s been a better than plus defender in center field (55 defensive runs above his league average) in his twelve-season career, those injuries have taken their toll. He’s also played 124 games in left field during his career and he’s been worth seven defensive run above league average for them.

The bad news, Olney writes: “Maddon changed the trajectory—telling reporters about it before anyone in the organization said anything to Trout. When Trout balked at the suggestion—he learned about it on Twitter, he said—that possibility was scrapped for 2022 out of respect for Trout, a future Hall of Famer.” If Trout heard it from the team first, the story might be different.

Did the Angels—who already declined to talk contract extension with Maddon—decide the manager simply couldn’t be trusted any longer to know how to mind his players’ health? Did they decide he couldn’t be trusted to keep certain key decisions from leaking before they’d had the chance to present them to the affected parties? Did they decide both? Will it mean Maddon may not get another chance to manage again too soon?

The injuries weren’t Maddon’s doing, of course. Neither was the lack of pitching depth, the Angels’ most constant and wounding flaw for just about as long as Trout’s been an Angel. But if the organisation came to see Maddon as even a tiny degree untrustworthy coming into the season, seeing him looking lost for ways to help the team snap that losing streak probably sealed the un-deal.

Nevin was the Yankees’ third base coach until after last fall’s American League wild card game. He took an inferno of heat for sending Aaron Judge on his way home, trying to score a tying run all the way from first on a ball that banged off the top of Boston’s Green Monster. Nevin misjudged a strong throw in to Red Sox cutoff man Xander Bogaerts, who fired a strike home so perfectly the diving Judge was out by two feet.

The Yankees ended up going home for the winter very early. Nevin ended up with a pink slip and a not too slow hiring to do the same job for the Angels. Now’s he’s the manager. Minasian says Nevin will hold the bridge for the rest of the season.

Tuesday night, Nevin watched his new Angels charges take a game to the tenth inning after blowing lead in the seventh inning or later for the sixth time during their now thirteen-game losing streak, a franchise record.

Trout continued coming out of his horrid slump and opened the night’s proceedings with a first-inning, two-run homer, but then had to leave with left groin tightness after he doubled in the third. The morning after, Trout said he felt something like a cramp leaving the batter’s box on the double but “a little achy” when he pulled up to second.

He came out for pinch runner Jo Adell, who came home on Max Stassi’s ground rule double to snap an early three-all tie, then doubled Luis Rengifo home to make it 5-3, Angels in the fifth. But the Red Sox made it 5-4 with a sixth-inning RBI single and tied it with an RBI infield hit—Trevor Story’s grounder bounding off Angel reliever Ryan Tepera’s glove—in the seventh. Making the sixth time in a now thirteen-game losing streak that the Angels let a lead disappear in the seventh or after.

Christian Vásquez sent what proved the winning run home when he drove tenth-inning-opening free cookie-on-second runner Story home with a single through the hole at second, and the Angels had nothing to say in the bottom of the tenth against Red Sox reliever Matt Strahm.

Trout and Shohei Ohtani said the morning after it was up to the players to re-horse themselves. Nevin said after the 6-5 loss that whatever else went wrong for the Angels during the franchise-record losing streak, morale wasn’t part of it. “I’m not worried about morale at all,” the new skipper told reporters. “You saw the effort from everyone. We had good at-bats. I thought there was a lot of great things. It was just a game where we ended up on the wrong side.”

From 27-17 after beating the Rangers on 24 May to 27-30 as of Wednesday morning, the Angels can’t afford to continue staying on the wrong side. It’s helped cost them one skipper this season already.

The Edgy Angels?

Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout

I’m to a point now where I can speak up a little bit. That’s a new thing for me. I just go out there and play. But I think this team needs it . . . There’s a time and a place. If something needs to be straightened out, I’m going to take care of it. That’s a big step for me. I think that step needs to be taken for this team to win.—Mike Trout.

Ask manager Joe Maddon, as The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal has, how long he wants to keep managing, and he’ll smile when he says it even if he’s not kidding. “As long as Mick Jagger performs,” the skipper replies. Well, now.

Maddon’s Angels aren’t exactly the Rolling Stones of baseball, even if the team was created three years before the original Stones lineup cut their first record in England. The Angels have had disasters in their midsts, too, but nobody to the best of anyone’s knowledge has been killed during an Angels game. Yet.

There were times over the years when you might have thought the Angels might have wanted to kill a manager or two, if not each other, but no edition of the Angels was ever as willing to fight each other as the 1972-74 Athletics.

For several years, now, two themes have attached to the Angels: 1) They find everything they need except quality pitching. 2) It might be easier to pass the proverbial camel through the proverbial eye of the proverbial needle than to get the Angels back to the postseason before Mike Trout earns the last dollar on his contract. (In 2030, if you’re scoring at home.)

This is a team that’s had the single greatest player of his and many generations (Baseball Reference lists him as the number five center fielder of all time), a guy who plays a solid center field and whose five top comps as a batter through age 29 are, in descending order, Duke Snider, Willie Mays, Vladimir Guerrero (Sr.), Barry Bonds, and Frank Robinson.

And he hasn’t seen even a sliver of a postseason since his Rookie of the Year 2012, through no fault of his own. Trout exercised maybe baseball’s greatest sense of loyalty when he decided to forego his first entry into the free agency market to sign that $330.1 million contract extension just a sliver over two years ago. Questioning the Angels’ loyalty to him—as in, a team their and baseball’s best all-around player could be proud of—was wholly appropriate.

But Rosenthal now gives the Angels two cheers. Not just because the Angels in this abbreviated spring training look healthy and even happy, but because second-year general manager Perry Minasian has impressed the living daylights out of just about everybody in an Angel uniform, from the manager to Trout to all the way down the roster.

“It starts from the front office, the desire to win, the desire to be better every day,” says one of Minasian’s signature signings, former Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard, a guy who’s been to the World Series and to two postseasons total. “I see a lot of what I saw in 2015, just the overall grit and badass persona, playing with a chip on our shoulder. It’s been a while since the Angels made the playoffs. This is my first year here. The overall tone is they’re kind of all sick of this s—.”

If anyone has credentials to discuss badass personae, it’s the guy who thought nothing of opening Game Three of the 2015 World Series by dropping Kansas City shortstop Alcides Escobar—who’d gotten a little too comfortable at the plate in the first two games—right onto his seat with the first pitch, before striking him out emphatically. Perhaps coincidentally, it was the only Series game those Mets won in a set during which their then-porous defense blew three other games they could have won.

That was then, this is now. Syndergaard isn’t the only Angels pitcher saying they’re sick of all that you-know-what. “I see a bunch of guys that are hungry, that know the pressure is on us,” says young starting pitcher Patrick Sandoval. “Everyone says the Angels’ rotation is a question mark every single year. The guys like me, Shohei [Ohtani] and [Jaime] Barría, we’ve heard it for three years now. We’re kind of sick of it.”

Minasian also did what was once thought unthinkable, never mind undoable in the recent Angels past. He overhauled the bullpen, $92.75 worth of overhaul, keeping closer Raisel Iglesias (2.83 fielding-independent pitching rate last year) on a four-year deal, and guaranteeing former Met/Ray/Padre/Phillie/Blue Jay Aaron Loup (2.45 FIP last year) plus former White Sox/Cub/Jay Ryan Tepera (2.56 FIP) two years each.

The Angels also think that a healthy Trout and Anthony Rendon married to Ohtani’s bat in the lineup makes them a little more formidable at the plate. They may not be wrong. Especially playing under the new rule that allows Ohtani, the defending American League Most Valuable Player, to stay in a game as the designated hitter when his starting pitching assignment ends for the day. Just as he did in last year’s All-Star Game.

Trout is even doing something a little more overtly now that he did only by example his first ten seasons: leading. What he began when he made himself the team’s public face in the shock of Tyler Skaggs’s death in 2019 he’s continuing more verbally than he ever has in the past.

He spoke often of what Skaggs meant as a person as well as a pitcher. (This was well enough before we learned sadly enough that Skaggs was badly hooked on painkillers, a hooking that may have gone back to his Tommy John surgery and may have been abetted by his own agent urging him to pitch through pain regardless.)

Maybe the most staggering and surreal recent memory for Angel fans was their first home game after Skaggs’s unexpected death. When Trout opened the evening’s proceedings against the Mariners with a mammoth two-run homer in the bottom of the first, launching a combined no-hitter (by Taylor Cole and Felix Pena) and a 13-0 blowout.

“When I first came up, I kind of just went out there and played my game, let my game speak for itself,” Trout admitted to Rosenthal.

I’m to a point now where I can speak up a little bit. That’s a new thing for me. I just go out there and play. But I think this team needs it. I’ve had a lot of talks with the front office and players. There’s a time and a place. If something needs to be straightened out, I’m going to take care of it. That’s a big step for me. I think that step needs to be taken for this team to win.

Trout’s coming-out party as a conscious leader came before this lockout-abbreviated spring training began. When commissioner Rob Manfred announced that first set of canceled games, Trout was distinctly unamused. The guy who did his talking with his bat, his glove, and his personal fan-friendliness fired back.

“I want to play, I love our game, but I know we need to get this [collective bargaining agreement] right,” he tweeted on 2 March. “Instead of bargaining in good faith-MLB locked us out. Instead of negotiating a fair deal-Rob canceled games. Players stand together. For our game, for our fans, and for every player who comes after us.”

Maybe it’s the Angels about to play their first full season since Albert Pujols’s departure last year, but Maddon thinks it’s just a question of Trout having the chance to lead. “He wants to lead,” the manager says. “To me, that means, on a daily basis, when you walk in the building to put everybody else before you. He’s definitely got that in him. He’s very empathetic. He wants to win. He’s willing to share his knowledge. He’s got all the ingredients. He just needed the opportunity.”

And he doesn’t mind pulling others up with him. When Ohtani hogged the headlines last year, after the calf tear put paid to Trout’s season prematurely, Trout enjoyed Shohtime as much as anybody else.

“Shohei’s season was nothing short of electric,” he said when Ohtani won the MVP. “At times, I felt like I was back in Little League. To watch a player throw eight innings, hit a home run, steal a base, and then go play right field was incredible. What impresses me the most about him, though, is the way he carries himself both on and off the field. With so much on his plate daily, he still manages to do it with a smile.”

Imagine that. The Smiling Angels. Whom FanGraphs projects to a seventh-best 82 wins among American League teams. Not so fast, Rosenthal warns:

Projections are largely pointless except as a discussion point, especially in a season when injuries might be more prevalent after a shortened spring training. But the Angels face so many “ifs,” it’s difficult to imagine them being better than the six teams ahead of them — the Blue Jays, Yankees, Astros, Red Sox, White Sox, and Rays. They also might not be better than the Twins and Mariners, the two teams immediately behind them.

I have more than the usual skin in this game. Somehow, I managed to score tickets for what was first the Angels’ mere home opener but, thanks to the owners’ lockout and Commissioner Nero’s first cancellations, is Opening Day, period, at Angel Stadium. Ohtani is already announced as their starting pitcher. My 28-year-old son and myself will be seated in our standard perch down the right field line.

We’ll look for two things at minimum: 1) Whether there will remain Angel fans willing to hammer the visiting Astros with inflatable trash can bangings and other signs, shouts, and sneers over Astrogate. 2) Whether these Smiling Angels, these Edgy Angels, these Fed Up With All That You-Know-What Angels, show just how fed up they are at the plate and in the field through those edgy new smiles.

Being an Angel fan has been many things in the decades since they were born in the American League’s first expansion. Dull hasn’t been one of them, though being dulled–if not sent to their nineteenth nervous breakdowns—has been something else entirely. And living on that 2002 World Series triumph got tiresome well before they wrapped their silks around a big fish named Trout.

What Syndergaard wanted most

Noah Syndergaard

Met fans won’t forget Noah Syndergaard dropping Alcides Escobar to open Game Three of the 2015 World Series. Now the talented but oft-injured Syndergaard will be an Angel because the Mets’ administration slept at the switch after making his qualifying offer.

Go ahead and cling to the surface look if that’s your preference. Cling to the Mets showing Noah Syndergaard a qualifying offer and Syndergaard electing instead to let the Angels seduce him for a couple of million dollars more for next year, if it makes you happy. Cling to the narrative that Syndergaard’s heart with the Mets could be bought, if you must.

But now you must ask yourself concurrently just why it was that Syndergaard’s Mets heart was abandoned while the Angels swept in and swept him off their feet. Your answer is no further than New York Post writer Joel Sherman, who says the Angels had a plan for the power-pitching righthander coming back from Tommy John surgery—and the Mets apparently lacked one.

Oh, sure, the Mets plan to win if they can help it. But that’s it. When they tendered Syndergaard his qualifying offer, that was it, too. They had no general manager at that moment. They had no manager. They still don’t. They’ve got a pitching coach, Jeremy Hefner.

But nobody in the Mets’ organisation talked much of anything yet about how they were going to shepherd a starting pitching staff going forward. They didn’t talk about how they were going to manage Syndergaard’s work load during his first full season back after Tommy John surgery, recovery, and rehab.

Enter Angels general manager Perry Minasian. He knew Syndergaard wanted a deal and the physicals done before today’s qualifying-offer deadline, just in case the physicals didn’t wash, leaving Syndergaard a Mets fallback after all. He also knew what Syndergaard wanted beyond a solid-enough, prove-it-year’s deal.

Syndergaard wanted a plan. Minasian high tailed it to New York to present him one. “[F]or the best organizations these days preparing pitchers physically, for the season and for each game, is a collective effort across multiple departments,” Sherman writes.

There were efforts in the first year under [Steve] Cohen’s ownership to bulk up these areas, but [the Mets] still pale in comparison to clubs such as the Dodgers, Giants and Blue Jays, among many others.

Minasian . . . came to New York armed with details on, among other things, how his club would have him pitch to individual players on each team in the AL West. He spoke of the success the Angels enjoyed last year with a six-man rotation, which helped get Shohei Ohtani through a season of hitting and pitching healthy. Minasian said the plan would stay the same and showed Syndergaard how pitching in a six-man rotation would give more time for recovery and lower his overall inning total when all he had in 2020-21 in the majors was two one-inning stints to close out the past season. Minasian brought data to show what the Angels liked about his delivery and pitch mix and how to make them even more effective.

In other words, Minasian caught the Mets sound asleep at the Syndergaard switch. While the Mets just slid a qualifying offer under the righthander’s nose with nothing substantial behind it to show him anything resembling love or respect, the Angels’ GM—who goes back with Syndergaard to the Blue Jays, having been part of their drafting team when they first picked him—brought all three. Love, respect, and substance.

Minasian also brought it with the most aggressive and committed push among several contenders for Syndergaard’s prove-it season, including the world champion Braves, the Red Sox, and the Jays.

Sherman notes that the Angels weren’t exactly thrilled about having to lose a draft pick for signing Syndergaard, but they were less thrilled than that about the prices in the free agency starters’ store—and starting with a Syndergaard whom Minasian knew well enough would give them decent odds in the upside department before pondering another starter or two on that market

The Angels’ seduction, Sherman writes, mattered as greatly as the Mets’ apparent lack of it: “Syndergaard is going to pitch at 29 this year. He recognizes how vital it is that he performs well to set himself up to re-enter the market next year at 30 to try to score a lucrative, long-term pact. And here were the Mets not even talking to him throughout this process. Here they were without an infrastructure in place. Here they were unable to provide a detailed plan to him beyond the big picture that Cohen wants to win now.”

The Mets hired former Angels GM Billy Eppler—Minasian’s immediate predecessor—as Syndergaard’s deal with the Angels came forth. This can be called crossing one end of the street without bothering to see who’s coming down the block from the other end. This can also be called too little, too late. This can be called, further, that’s still so Mets.

Leaving Mets fans with memories of a stout, tenacious pitcher who could be lights out when healthy and who gave them one whale of a performance in the 2015 World Series: Syndergaard dropping plate-crowding, plate-overcomfortable Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar to open Game Three, the only game in the Series that the Mets’ then-porous defense couldn’t cost them.

God knows the Angels themselves need a starting pitching overhaul—again. If a year’s worth of Syndergaard at minimum helps it begin, the deal will have been worth it. If Minasian’s plan for him works well enough, the Angels might think of extending Syndergaard or Syndergaard will have a solid market when he hits free agency next winter.

If losing Syndergaard now means a swift enough kick to the Mets’ posterior on behalf of shaking them further out of their funk before and after any possible lockout, it might be worth it, too. Eppler’s hiring to the contrary, with these Mets that’s a glandular if.