June could not come at a better time for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Despite posting the second-best ERA of any starting rotation in May while scoring over 4.5 runs per game, the Angels went just 14-15 in a hectic May that featured an awful 3-7 homestand and finished with a gurgle in Detroit.
While they stumbled, the Angels not only fell further and further behind the front-running Houston Astros, they were leapfrogged in the standings by the Seattle Mariners. While there’s still plenty of time to make up for lost ground, the early part of the season is done. June marks the beginning of the dog days of summer. To keep pace with the leaders, a lot of good things have to happen for the Angels. Cue the click-baity Internet List of Five:
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1. Don’t Hurt Yourselves
Obvious point is obvious, but it’s obvious for a reason. Matt Shoemaker, Keynan Middleton, and Blake Wood all went under the knife in May as beleaguered bullpen — the most used bullpen in either league — got thinner and thinner. Because of those injuries, and because guys like Cam Bedrosian have been unmitigated disasters, the guys who HAVE been effective are now being run into the ground. For example, Noé Ramirez is on pace to throw almost a hundred innings. Ramirez has never thrown 75 innings in a full season as a reliever. That’s not great. That’s what’ll put Ramirez on the disabled list at some point. The Angels don’t have the depth to survive pitching injuries — and that doesn’t even include the disaster that would occur if a starting pitcher goes down. That leads to the second point:
2. Don’t Wait To Make Trades
The Angels can’t afford to wait for the trade deadline to start making deals. The pen needs help immediately, and the long they wait, the more overused the bullpen will be, and the more games the Angels will lose. Angel GM Billy Eppler has assembled a group of versatile, multi-dimensional everyday players this winter, but stayed very pat when it came to relievers. The big question will be whether or not the Angels are going to be willing deal any of their minor league talent. For the first time in half a decade, the Angels’ minor league system is productive again. If the Angels start falling out of contention because the bullpen keeps blowing leads — six games lost in the late innings against just four saves in May — will Eppler be tempted to trade some of that talent away in order to capitalize on what was (and still is) a promising contending season? Regardless of how he does it, Eppler is going to have to find some relief help. An effective bullpen is simply not optional in baseball in 2018.
3. Justin Upton has to hit
Everyone has to hit, of course, but there are things we know we know, and those things won’t change. Ian Kinsler and Albert Pujols are older players who declined at the plate last year (In Pujols’ case, precipitously) and both had rough a rough month of May. Zack Cozart had a career year in 2017, but nobody with a career OPS around .700 defies gravity for long.
The one bat in the middle of the lineup that the Angels can — and should — expect to hit belongs to Justin Upton. Through the first 16 games of May, Upton was churning at a .317/.380/.683 clip with 7 homers. Then, on May 18, Upton took a pitch from Chris Archer to his left hand and left the game. X-rays cleared him to play, but since then, Upton has hit just .128/.277/.154 with no homers and just one double, and has struck out in nearly half (19 of 39) his at-bats. That’s obviously not going to get the job done, not when Pujols is struggling and Kole Calhoun is in the middle of the worst offensive season of all time. (That’s not an exaggeration.) Some guy named Mike Trout is on base all the time, and someone has to drive him in consistently, day in and day out. That someone is going to have to be Justin Upton, if only because no one else can.
4. Maximum Shohei
After a 10-day layoff, Shohei Ohtani took the mound in Detroit, and after starting the game with his fastball down in the low 90s, finished off the fifth inning with heat that ticked over 101 MPH. He pitched less and hit more, and while his .254/.371/.458 line for May didn’t melt people’s minds like his April 1.065 OPS did, it was plenty good for the third best offensive showing by anyone besides Trout and Andrelton Simmons for the month.
It’s safe to say at this point that his bat is real, his arm is very, very real, and the only question now is how the Angels can safely deploy him. The 10-day layoff was, according to manager Mike Scioscia, precautionary, to manage his workload. It doesn’t feel like he’s being overworked, particularly since we’re all hungry for some hot Shohei action every single game, but the rookie is on pace for over 300 plate appearances and over 140 innings pitched, levels that haven’t been reached simultaneously since Babe Ruth in 1919. Aside from being a freak of historical proportions, Ohtani has also proven to be so valuable that the Angels are going to be leaning heavily on him for both offense and pitching.
So far, the Angels have been giving the rookie days off before and after his starts, and sprinkled in some extra days between his starts as designated hitter. The starting rotation has been effective enough that giving Ohtani extra days between starts doesn’t seem to be problematic (assuming the other starters abide by Rule #1 — Don’t Hurt Yourself). While his 2.16 ERA in four starts in May just begs to be expanded upon, the Angel offense has sputtered badly. Right now, Ohtani is more useful to the team with a bat in his hands. The great, grand luxury of having someone as utterly unique as Ohtani is that the Angels can actually choose how to use him more, because no matter what they need, he seems to be able to deliver for them.
5. Mike Trout
The Angels begin and end with Mike Trout. The Best Player In Baseball is having his best year in baseball, and a dictionary’s worth of superlatives won’t do him justice. The problem is that our very own Willie Mays is surrounded by our very own Kole Calhoun, a rapidly fading Pujols, a AAA bullpen… you get it. In supervillain parlance, he’s surrounded by idiots. The Angels are the league’s most intriguing team to watch because of Ohtani’s presence and Pujols’ march through history, but it’s Trout’s superhuman efforts that are dragging this very average team into contention.
Unless he breaks a bone somewhere, he’ll deliver close to 160 games of Hall-of-Fame level production with such metronomic regularity that it’s hard not to take him for granted. For the Angels, this means that no matter how bad things get, they’ll be so bad that they’ll have to set everything on fire. Trout is the anchor, the foundation. By himself, he’s worth a dozen wins, which means the other 24 guys have to figure out to grab the other 82 or so wins they’ll need to get into the playoffs. Both the weather and the playoff races start to heat up in June. Trout will be Trout; the question is whether or not the other guys can stand the heat.