I’ve written an MLB betting guide for several years and the Los Angeles Angels blurb always seems to start in similar fashion: It’s criminal that Michael Nelson Trout has only played in three playoff games.
The best player of our generation, and one of the best of all-time, has a total of 15 postseason plate appearances. Trout made his debut in 2011 and has three MVP Awards, a Rookie of the Year, is on pace to hit more than 600 home runs and has played on only one team that has won at least 90 games. Maybe the saddest part is that, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Angels have been among the MLB leaders in Opening Day payroll during Trout’s 11-year run (top 10 every year), with these payroll rankings: 4-4-6-6-9-7-7-6-8-6-7. They’re in the top 10 again this year with four players making at least $21 million. Something has to give at some point, right? RIGHT?
Trout only played in 36 games last season and the Angels finished 77-85. He still managed to accumulate 2.3 fWAR, which was good for fourth among position players, and he was on track for maybe his best season ever. He posted a .451 wOBA and a 190 wRC+ in 146 plate appearances before missing the rest of the season from May 18. Trout only had one hit over his last seven games, so his torrid early season pace was looking like the stuff of legend.
It’s not a bad lineup around Trout by any means. Shohei Ohtani is the reigning MVP and does things we have never seen — a guy who can hit 46 home runs but also be a really good starting pitcher. Even Babe Ruth never did what Ohtani is doing. Most importantly, Ohtani stayed healthy and played 158 games with 639 plate appearances to go with 23 starts and a 3.18 ERA with a 3.52 FIP. MLB even created a rule solely because of Ohtani, allowing him to stay in the game as the DH after he’s done pitching. What a remarkable talent.
Jared Walsh followed a good 2020 with a solid 2021 as he banged out 29 homers and nearly drove in 100 runs. The Angels desperately needed Walsh to step up because Anthony Rendon missed most of the season and was tracking toward the worst year of his career before injuries mercifully ended his season July 4. Rendon had posted a wRC + of at least 140 in each of the previous four seasons but finished 2021 with a 95, meaning he was 5% below average offensively.
I’d like to think Walsh can stay where he is or get better and Rendon can get back on track, even in his age-32 season. The Angels are certainly hoping so in Year 3 of Rendon’s $245 million deal. The problem for the Angels is Ohtani, Trout, Rendon and Walsh all have to stay healthy to overcome a bunch of bad hitters. Of the top 12 in plate appearances last season, only three players posted a wRC + above the MLB average. Many were far below average, including David Fletcher, who posted a 70 wRC + while leading the team in plate appearances with 665.
The Angels look like they’ll turn over the corner outfield spots to top prospects Brandon Marsh and Jo Adell. Adell was awful in 38 games in 2020 and better but still below average in 35 games in 2021. Marsh had his problems in 70 games as well. Both guys project to strike out a lot, so they’ll have to hit for power and find other ways to get on base to offset all of the swings and misses. Marsh walked a lot in the minors but doesn’t hit for much power. Adell will hit for power but doesn’t walk much, as he hit 23 homers in 73 Triple-A games but struck out 99 times against 22 walks.
As a collective outfield, even with Trout’s absurd 36-game numbers, the Angels got an 86 wRC + and a .296 wOBA. Only the Royals, Mariners and Rangers were lower in the wOBA department and only the Rangers, Royals and Rockies were lower in wRC + . With Trout back, Marsh and Adell may very well be the keys to the Angels offense.
Fletcher actually posted three pretty high-value seasons prior to last year. His offensive profile is decent and he’s a strong defender. Catcher Max Stassi is a solid hitter and should get the bulk of the work. Matt Duffy was the only free-agent acquisition and he’s a viable major leaguer. It’s a top-heavy offense, but if the complementary pieces contribute, the Angels have a pretty good chance at exceeding 800 runs for the first time since 2009.
The pitching staff will need every single one of those runs. The Angels finished last season with a 4.69 ERA, which ranked 22nd. Their FIP of 4.25 actually ranked 16th. They were one of the league’s unluckiest teams when it came to stranding runners with a LOB% of 69.6%. Maybe “unlucky” is the wrong word, because this was the worst defensive team in baseball by the FanGraphs Def metric, which measures Defensive Runs Above Average.
Stassi is a terrific defensive catcher and excellent pitch framer, but backup Kurt Suzuki took some of the value out of that position. Fletcher is solid at second, but his pivot partner Jose Iglesias was one of the worst defensive shortstops in baseball last season. He’s gone now, though, as Fletcher moves back to short and Duffy takes over at second. With Adell and Marsh up, Justin Upton will be relegated to DH, taking the team’s worst defensive outfielder off of the field.
All in all, the Angels should be better defensively, which should help the pitching staff. Ohtani is the unquestioned ace with the aforementioned 3.18 ERA and 3.52 FIP. He was limited to 130.1 innings, so the hope is he can stay healthy. He had Tommy John surgery back in 2018, so he should be able to increase his output at this point.
Speaking of Tommy John, the Angels put a big financial commitment out to Noah Syndergaard, giving him a one-year, $21 million deal. Syndergaard missed the 2020 season and threw all of two innings last year. This could be a boom-or-bust situation, as Syndergaard has a career 3.32 ERA with a 2.93 FIP but has basically missed the last two seasons. He was a top-20 starter from 2015-19, but who knows what he has in him now.
Patrick Sandoval struck out more than a batter per inning in 87 innings with a 3.62 ERA and a 4.03 FIP last year. A recurring problem for the Angels, though, is they have guys who will only make 15-20 starts, be good in some and bad in others and then have to deal with everything that comes with it. Can Sandoval handle the increased strain of being more of a workhorse?
Other than Ohtani, no Angels pitcher threw more than 100 innings last year. They had nine different pitchers make at least 10 starts. They used 17 different starting pitchers. They haven’t had enough guys that can consistently be a part of the five-man rotation, either as a result of injury or performance, so they’ve gone with a six-man staff.
This season doesn’t appear to be any different. The Angels have plenty of reasons to protect Ohtani and Syndergaard. A workload bump for Sandoval would be interesting to follow. Otherwise, we’re likely to see Michael Lorenzen back as a starter for the first time since 2015 and as a multi-inning pitcher for the first time since 2018. We’ll see Jose Suarez and Jaime Barria, a couple of mid-20s hurlers that have not performed well. Suarez has a 5.70 ERA and a 5.41 FIP in 181.2 innings and Barria has a 4.49 ERA and a 4.99 FIP in 301 innings. Griffin Canning will factor in as well, if he can stay healthy.
Reid Detmers is the Angels’ top pitching prospect and threw 20.2 innings over five starts last year with a 7.40 ERA. It was his first pro season and he’s just about ready to contribute but also has just 82.2 innings of pro ball under his belt.
The more pitchers you need to perform well, the harder it is to have success. This was a relief unit that ranked in the bottom 10 in ERA last season. Ryan Tepera, Aaron Loup and Archie Bradley all have track records and represent upgrades over their predecessors. Loup had an ERA under 1.00 and Tepera had excellent numbers for both Chicago teams with a 2.79 ERA and a 2.73 FIP last year.
The Angels have made some subtle upgrades and have trimmed some of the fat. That’s about all you can ask out of a team that has allocated a ton of its available capital to position players.
Player to Watch
SP Patrick Sandoval: The 25-year-old Sandoval has a really high ceiling. In the launch angle era, I’m a big believer in pitchers that induce ground balls at a high rate and can get swings and misses. Sandoval does both. Along with a solid 25.9% K% and 51.1% GB%, Sandoval limited hard contact. He was in the 97th percentile in average exit velocity and 74th in Hard Hit%. His Whiff% was in the 92nd percentile. His curveball and slider both have high spin rates and he throws a ton of changeups to get righties out. Opposing batters only hit .139 with a .209 SLG on the changeup last season with a high swing-and-miss rate. Sandoval will benefit from improved defense around the horn as long as Walsh and Rendon can get back on track. Of the guys in this rotation, Sandoval is the one I’ll look to be on the most often and I think he’ll be affordably priced, at least for a while.
How far can two superstars carry a team? It would certainly help if Rendon and Syndergaard can return to previous form, though one is likelier than the other. A win total in the mid-80s represents the promise of a top-heavy roster but may not account for the downside of a pitching staff that looks average at best. Oakland’s losses are the Angels’ gains, but it’s still hard to see the Angels competing for the division crown. The sixth playoff spot may give them hope, though it also wouldn’t be a huge shocker to see the AL East take all three wild cards. This roster is better than last year’s and the Angels have a great chance at ending a six-year streak of finishing with a losing record. I don’t think their ceiling is much higher than 85 or 86 wins, but they also have a higher floor because of their stars.
Win Total Lean: Over 83.5