Pitching and defense wins championships. We hear this all the time during the playoffs. From 2003-2009, the Angels seemed to use this saying as a guideline for putting together a string of playoff teams using great defense and phenomenal pitching to reign supreme in the AL West, winning division titles in 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, and 2009. Appearances in the post season were the norm and they even ended the regular season with the best record in the American League in 2008 with 100-62.
Of course the ultimate example of their winning formula was in 2002, when the Angels went from squeaking into the playoffs as the wild card, to winning the World Series against the San Francisco Giants. The formula that got them there was the simple: stellar pitching backed by outstanding defense augmented by the ability to eke out wins with their gritty, small-ball style of baseball, stealing bases, making defenses uncomfortable, and forcing errors along the way. It was heart and passion, the will to win against all odds, the belief in their ability to come back against any opponent, never giving up despite the perceived advantages other teams had.
In subsequent years, the Angels might have had regular season success, but ultimately fell short of the primary goal—another World Series win—with this emphasis on pitching, defense, and the scrappy style of playing they had become distinguished by. And though they had their AL West titles and made it into the post season 5 of the 7 years from 2003-2009, some disillusionment crept in and questioning of the status quo ensued.
Of the five playoff appearances, the Angels only made it past the first round twice, in 2005 and 2009, losing both times to the eventual winners, the Chicago White Sox (though it was a controversial win for the Sox when the tide turned based on a terrible call by Doug Eddings in game 2) in the 2005 Championship Series and in 2009 to the New York Yankees. What was most frustrating during these playoff runs was losing to the Boston Red Sox three times, first in 2004, then back-to-back years in 2007 and 2008 in the Division Series.
The general consensus became that the Angels needed more home run hitters to bring the Angels back to the World Series since the team didn’t hit as many home runs as other teams. The common determination was that the Angels were lacking the power necessary to win in the post season, and the team’s offseason goals transformed from building a team around pitching and defense and building talent in the farm system to strengthen the team from within, to going out to find the hitters and bring them in, even if meant giving up talent from the minors.
To put in perspective why people looked at the Angels lineup and automatically decided that more power was needed, in 2003, the year after the Angels won their World Series title, Garret Anderson (who’s one of my all-time favorite Angels) lead the team in home runs with 29, that year the person on the Texas Rangers who hit 29 home runs was Hank Blalock, but he came in third for the team; Alex Rodriguez hit 47 and Rafael Palmeiro had 38, the top three Rangers combined to hit 114 home runs. The top Angels that year hit for a combined total of 80 home runs. This includes four players since Tim Salmon (another one of my favorite Angels) came in second with 19 home runs and both Scott Spiezio and Troy Glaus tied for third with 16.
In 2010 the Rangers figured out everything they needed to win. They gauged the state of the organization and determined that they needed to get better pitching and make fewer errors in order to achieve their goal of improving to go to the World Series. The work they put into those areas showed as they were the AL West Champions, and went to the World Series in back-to-back years.
Meanwhile the Angels made the determination to highlight increasing power production, the Angels elected to go after hitters and added Vernon Wells in 2011, hoping he would put up numbers similar to what he did while playing for the Toronto Blue Jays. He did hit 25 home runs that year, but his overall performance wasn’t what the Angels were hoping to get when they took on his enormous contract, he wasn’t even the team leader in home runs; a home grown rookie who came up through the farm system was, maybe you’ve heard of him, his name is Mark Trumbo.
2012 brought another huge contract when the biggest name on the free agent market, Albert Pujols, signed a contract with the Angels; it was also shocking since they weren’t even on the radar as a possible destination at the beginning of the offseason. He started out slow, but he did end up hitting 30 home runs, though again, Mark Trumbo surpassed that number and had the team lead with 32. The big signing before this season began was Josh Hamilton, whose home run potential and ability is infamous, but he wasn’t the Angels leader this year, that distinction went to, again… You guessed it: Mark Trumbo.
Examining the different aspects that each team has chosen to emphasize, I’ve concluded that the Angels currently find themselves in the position the Rangers used to be in, and have become what the Rangers used to be in the division. Big names, sluggers who are supposed to hit a lot of home runs, but pitching has been sacrificed for it and the defense has suffered. The home runs are supposed to make up for the deficit caused by inferior pitching, but hasn’t been able to be consistent enough with runners in scoring position to be able to overcome that obstacle. Since embracing this approach, the Angels have not been to the post season and have watched other teams succeed.
Maybe the expectations with which everyone began were too high. A team that features Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Mike Trout, and Mark Trumbo in the same lineup was expected to overcome the deficiencies in starting pitching that it was common knowledge was the team’s Achilles heel, but I wonder why nobody looked at the model the Rangers used for the first part of the decade and saw the similarities of too much focus on hitting, and not enough on the other aspects of the game. But I suppose it took a couple of seasons like these to actually do the comparison and see how it lines up.
I find myself asking: what happened to the heart, passion, and drive to win the team used to have? Did it leave with Torii Hunter? Why did the Angels decide to become what the Texas Rangers were in the division, hitting well, but not being able to back that up on the field? Why did hitting become the most important variable in the equation? I long for the days when stellar pitching and defense carried the team, looking back on the past season, a season where the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim struggled to make it to a record of 78-84 the days of at least making it to the playoffs are remembered more fondly than when we were in the midst of it and took for granted that the Angels were going to win.