In Defense of Mike Scioscia

ANAHEIM, CA - MAY 14: Manager Mike Scioscia of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim looks on during a game against the Houston Astros at Angel Stadium on May 14, 2018 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - MAY 14: Manager Mike Scioscia of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim looks on during a game against the Houston Astros at Angel Stadium on May 14, 2018 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /

This might be Mike Scioscia‘s best season as the manager of the Los Angeles Angels in a very long time. It might also be his last, and the vultures are circling.

The Angels began this week at 24-16, to one of the best starts 40-game starts in franchise history, and just one game behind the defending World Series champion Houston Astros for first place in the American League West. Yet despite the early success, fan sites and sports talk radio chatter has been all about how badly he’s handled the bullpen situation.

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There’s no denying it, there are real concern about the bullpen. Scioscia has made more trips to the mound than any other manager in Major League Baseball. Many of those trips have been of the bad kind — despite having one of the best records in the league, the Angels also have the most blown save opportunities in the league (including one which wasted a strong effort by rookie Jaime Barria last night), and the one guy who seemed to be able to consistently give Scioscia scoreless late innings, Keynan Middleton, is likely done for the season.

Is this Scioscia’s fault that the bullpen has been so bad? Has he mishandled the pen?

Mike Scioscia likes players with roles, and he came into the season with them. Blake Parker was the designated closer coming into the season, but gave up runs in six of his first 13 appearances and fumbled away the closer’s title. The supposed set-up man, Cam Bedrosian, has a hideous 1.5 WHIP (baserunners per inning) and has been so bad, Scioscia doesn’t even allow him to start innings anymore. Veteran Jim Johnson has been inconsistent. Rookie Noe Ramirez was effective early, but has been hit hard in two of his last three outings. Scioscia seems to really like Justin Anderson and his high heat, but the rookie has yet to have even a single 1-2-3 inning in his 10 appearances. After a very strong start, Blake Wood gave up runs in three straight outings before going onto the 10-day disabled list. Long-time Angel José Álvarez had been effective early as the sole lefty in the pen, but the rest of the pen’s ineffectiveness has been so dire, he’s been asked to face more righty batters, and they’ve hit him hard.

Over the last decade and a half, Scioscia has always been able to count on a designated closer, whether it be Troy Percival, Frankie Rodriguez, or Huston Street. He’s always tried to find a designated set-up guy, like a Scot Shields, Rodriguez, or Joe Smith. When he doesn’t have that, it’s been a tendency of Scioscia’s to go with the hot hand in the bullpen, which meant that Ramirez and Johnson and Álvarez have all been asked to pitch more the moment they’ve shown some sign of effectiveness, trying to find anyone who can get him to the next inning.

The relievers have not responded. Opponents have posted a .752 OPS against the Angel bullpen, by far the biggest number allowed of any team with a winning record — the Seattle Mariners, for example, are a distant second at .707. The bullpen in Anaheim has allowed the most hits, the most total bases, and second most home runs of any bullpen in the American League. This isn’t the failing of one pitcher or another, this has been a collective failure of the assembled talent. Scioscia has mashed all the buttons, and nothing’s being triggered.

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It would be easier to blame Scioscia if he weren’t doing other things right, but he most definitely has. The starting rotation has started to come around in a powerful way: In May, the rotation has posted a 2.08 ERA over 86.3 innings, second best number in baseball this month. A staff built upon questionable health and two unknown quantities now owns the fourth best overall ERA in the American League, and that’s in no small part due to Scioscia’s careful handling of his starters. Not only that, he’s created a protective, low-stress environment around the unique treasure that is Shohei Ohtani, and Ohtani has responded with one of the most brilliant career starts in baseball history. The team is 25-17, just one game out of first place. If Scioscia is going to be blamed for the bullpen, then he must be credited with everything else.

Is there hope on the horizon? Blake Parker seems to be turning it around with six straight scoreless outings (6 IP, 4 hits, 9 strikeouts), and his command seems to have returned as he’s found some consistency with his release point. Wood should be back by the end of the week, if the Angel medical staff is to be believed (always an iffy proposition). If either of those two veterans can lend some stability to the pen, that would allow Álvarez to return to the lefty-only role he thrives in and give the rest of the overworked pen a breather. And as always, if there’s one problem area that teams can solve on the fly, it’s the bullpen. There are always possible trade targets around the league that may shake loose as teams fall out of contention, if the Angels are willing to pay the price

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It’s been a while since the Angels have been in contention, and Mike Scioscia has not been blameless in this stretch. However, this season has seen the Angels’ manager be as creative and resourceful as he’s ever been. If he can somehow coax even a league-average performance out of his relieve corps going forward, the Angels could very well be playing important games in September again.