Fallen Angels: Remembering the Collapse of ’95
Luis Sojo… Luis Bleeping Sojo… Sixteen years to the day, the precocious Mariner utility man is still Anaheim’s physical manifestation of all that was wrong with waning days of a summer long since past. Watching the Red Sox and Braves blow seemingly insurmountable Wild Card leads on the final day of the 2011 season I was reminded of the fabled Angels collapse in 1995. I am, once again, reminded of Luis Sojo. No, Sojo did not lose the American League West for the Angels. That was a collective effort. No, he did not strike out 12 California swingers, nor allow one run on three hits in the season’s final do-or-die tie-breaker. That was the Big Unit, Randy Johnson. Sojo was, you’ll remember, the two-hole hitting shortstop for Seattle in season’s final game, the man who slapped a flat Mark Langston slider just inside of the first base bag and into -then under- the bullpen seats starting what resembled a snowball fight as the Angels in the outfield threw the ball all over the infield. Sojo’s seventh inning single-turned-grand-slam broke open what had been a 1-0 pitcher’s duel between Johnson and Langston, and gave the Mariners an insurmountable 5-0 lead and the AL West crown. You can relive the carnage yourself after the jump.
Baseball fans cast blame. It’s what we do. We need scapegoats. We need Fred Merkle. We need Ralph Branca. Bucky Dent. Bill Buckner. Steve Bartman. Luis Sojo. We need reasons to outwardly project our angst on another entity so as to not fester, boil over then rot ourselves. Baseball inevitably gives us ulcers. Casting blame is our only antacid. So, then, who is to blame for the Angels’ Fall of ’95?
On August 24th, 1995, the Angels (led by then-manager Marcel Lachemann) had a 67-44 record, an 11 1/2 game lead over the Mariners (the Texas Rangers were actually 8 1/2 back at this point), and according to the MLB Playoff Odds calculator at coolstandings.com a 99.9 percent chance of making the playoffs. As you might expect, that is the highest percentage at any point in any season for any team that did not ultimately qualify for the playoffs. This season’s collapsing companions, the 2011 Boston Red Sox and 2011 Atlanta Braves, peaked at 99.6 and 99.2 percent, respectively, by comparison.
How can a team with a 99.9 percent chance of making the playoffs with barely a month left in the season not qualify ? There’s plenty of blame to cast. Let’s see if any of it sticks.
- Damien Easley – The Angels were a good offensive team in ’95. They averaged 5.52 runs per game- second in the American League. Their .800 OPS was good for third. Of the eight regulars with at least 400 plate appearances (I’m counting Gary Disarcina’s 394 PAs here, as well), seven had an Offensive Wins Above Replacement rating of over 2.0, a solid number for a starting position player. This group included a 23-year-old Garret Anderson (2.1 OWAR), two players enjoying the twilight of their careers (Chili Davis, age 35, 3.8 OWAR and Tony Phillips, 36, 4.4), and four players in their prime: Tim Salmon (26, 7.4), Jim Edmonds (25, 4.4), J.T. Snow (27, 2.2) and Disarcina (27, 2.5). The eighth regular, Damien Easley, was also entering his prime at age 25. With a .216/.288/.300 stat line he was also inexplicably given at bats (405 PAs). Easley’s -0.5 OWAR is the lowest on the team and a glaring hole in an otherwise strong lineup. Was Lachemann running him out to the field every day because of his glove? Perhaps, as Easley’s 0.5 DWAR suggests he was slightly above average, but not enough to justify his atrocious hitting for an entire season’s worth of ABs. Maybe it was for added speed on the bases, often a secondary function of light-hitting middle infielders? Easley’s 5 stolen bases for the season tell us otherwise, as does the fact that the Angels were near the bottom of the AL is SBs. This was a powerful team that did not need to run to score. It needed people to get on base, something Easley rarely did. Remember, we’re just looking for one more win here and this team makes the playoffs. One more month of Rex Hudler (0.8 OWAR) and one fewer month of Easley at second base spread out over 162 games makes up that difference. Hud was old, but a gamer. Since both men hit right-handed and in light of Hudler’s age (34) at a demanding position, Lachemann should have made this an even platoon. He did start Hudler in the final game of the season against Seattle. He should have started him all year long.
- Lack of a True Ace- Starting pitching is to playoff teams as Debbie Harry is to Blondie. That is to say, absolutely necessary. Especially at the top of the rotation, where the Angels had two top-of-the-line lefties in Chuck Finley and Mark Langston. Finley and Langston both had OPS Against numbers better than the league average, both men had a WAR rating of over 2.0 (Finley 2.6 and Langston 2.0), and both were proverbial work horses going over 200 Innings Pitched. The same cannot be said for starters three through five. Lachemann ushered a revolving door of mediocrity putting a mishmash of Shawn Boskie (0.0 WAR), Brian Anderson (-0.1), Jim Abbot (1.1), Mike Harkey (0.7) and Mike Bielecki (-0.6) on the mound. Not bad, as zero is the league average, but not good either, or at least not good enough for one more win. It should be noted here, that even though Finley and Langston had all-star caliber seasons, part of the job description of an ace is to be able to stop a losing streak. From August 25th to September 23rd California had TWO losing streaks of nine games. Langston lost 11-2 to Baltimore to kick off the first slide with Finley losing 12-4 to Yankees four days later. Langston lost the eighth game of the streak to the Red Sox on September 2nd and Finley lost the ninth to Boston the following night. Two weeks later- in the middle of their second nine-game slide in a month- Langston and Finley each lost twice more, further failing in their roles as stoppers. To his credit, when called on two weeks later to pitch in the one-game playoff against Seattle, Langston answered the bell and was matching Randy Johnson pitch for pitch before falling apart in the seventh. But Johnson beat him. Because that’s what true aces do.
- Mariner’s Surge- While the Angels were collapsing amid two nine-game losing streaks in one month’s time, the Mariners in the West and the Yankees in the Wild Card were both surging, each winning two-thirds of their games from August 24th to October 1st. Seattle went 16-5 down the stretch and actually pulled three games ahead of California before the Angels righted the ship, winning six of their last seven to tie and force the infamous Luis Sojo game. The Yankees proved to be the hottest team in MLB, though, finishing 13-3 and passing both teams in the Wild Card hunt. Thus the loser out West was going home. (Spoiler alert: It was the Angels.)
- Shortened Season- Forgotten in the memory (nightmare?) of the Fall of ’95 is the fact that the 1995 season was actually 18 games shorter than normal. Baseball was coming off the 1994 players strike in which the World Series was cancelled. The negotiations carried long into the winter and on into spring before players and owners reached an agreement on April 2, 1995. The result was a late start and a shortened season. The eighteen games were removed from the front of the schedule, not the back-end. Even though the Angels played their best baseball in July that year (20-7), we can assume that eighteen more games in April and May could have allowed them to add more wins to their register while the Mariners were piling up early season losses. Because commissioner Bud Selig wanted the playoffs to start on time he declined to make up the games in October. Obviously if the 18 games were tacked on at the end, the Angels would have been in trouble. Eighteen games is just enough time for TWO MORE nine-game losing streaks.
- Bad Luck- According to California’s 1995 Pythagorean W-L projections, the Angels should have finished 82-63 rather than their actual 78-67 record. Pythagorean Win Loss projections factor in a team’s runs scored vs. their runs allowed projected out over a season. If a team finished with an actual record above their projection, then it can be assumed that there was some luck involved in some of their wins. If they finish below their projection, then they are considered unlucky. The Angels finished four games below their projection, while the Mariners (80-65 projected, 79-66 actual) only finished one game below. If they played the game on paper then the Angels finish two games ahead of Seattle… They don’t play games on paper.
- Flip of the Coin- Tiebreakers have to be played somewhere. As the season was winding and it became increasingly evident that a tie atop the standings was a possibility, the Angels lost the coin flip to determine where game 145 would be played. As a result they had to travel to The Kingdome in Seattle. Of the 14 ballparks in the American League the Kingdome ranked 11th among the best places for California to hit. For Angel pitchers it ranked in the middle of the pack. Facing Randy Johnson in 1995 was difficult enough. Nobody wanted to do it in Seattle at the end of the year. But there is an overlooked anomaly here- the visiting bullpen in the Kingdome. In the seventh inning of the tiebreaker Langston pitched to Luis Sojo with the bases loaded. Sojo slapped a slider into right at such an odd angle and with such unforeseen english that the ball caromed into the bullpen and under the relievers’ bench, ultimately settling under a sea of scurrying Angel feet (seen here at the 40 second mark). The single turned into a Little League grand slam, with balls and players turning the end of the regular season into something only Benny Hill could be proud of. Sojo came all the way around to score, along with three other Mariners and turned a 1-0 pitchers duel into a 5-0 home cushion for the best pitcher in the AL. Johnson finished the game giving up only three Halo hits while striking out 12. Seattle won 9-1 and the collapse was complete. Had the Angels won the toss, the game would have been played in Anaheim, on grass instead of turf and that ball- that bleeping Luis Sojo squibber- would not have found the bullpen. Granted, Johnson would have still been on the hill, so runs still would have been at a premium. To quote former All-Star Joaquin Andujar, “Youneverknow.”
To this day, even with the heavily scrutinized failures of this season’s Braves and Red Sox, the Fall of the 1995 California Angels remains the most improbable case study of a contender running out of gas down the stretch. Evidence suggests that any or all of the above examples can be reasons for their sudden, precipitous decline. But that gives us too many scapegoats. I choose to blame only one.
I blame Luis Bleeping Sojo.